First-person narratives in journalism

Image: Personal Essays

How personal essays conquered journalism

After I read this story, I had to give some thought to the idea that “we lose something important in the rush toward first-person takes” (Eve Fairbanks).

First, the story linked above is “To Siri, With Love: How One Boy With Autism Became B.F.F.’s With Apple’s Siri,” published in The New York Times on Oct. 17. I saw links to the story everywhere. I didn’t feel like reading it until I saw a discussion about it earlier today: 

Then I wanted to see the context, so I read it. The mother of the 13-year-old gives many examples of replies that Siri (Apple’s “intelligent personal assistant” that responds to spoken questions) gives to the boy. I learned a number of new things as I read the essay (most definitely a personal essay), and so I felt my knowledge and empathy had been expanded. I consider that a very good thing.

The more we learn about others, the more empathy and compassion we have. This is in the public interest, because our empathy and compassion for others who are not like us, or who live in different circumstances, reduces our fear and discomfort. It makes us less judgmental. It decreases hatred. In the immortal words of Yoda (who was doubtless channeling the Buddha when he said this): “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

If that’s not in the public interest, I don’t know what is.

And serving the public interest is Mission No. 1 of journalism.

So, about that essay (not a personal one) by Eve Fairbanks in The Washington Post (Oct. 10): She characterized these as “stories along the formula ‘I Am an X, and Y Happened to Me!'” Under that precise definition, maybe the Siri/autistic boy essay does not qualify. Maybe that’s splitting hairs. Let’s lump it in there, for the sake of argument, because one mother’s story about her own child sure qualifies as first-person personal in my book.

If you start telling all the journalists that because personal essays are “actually faster and easier to produce than reporting,” they contribute to the cheapening of real, serious Journalism with a capital J, you’re ignoring that value — serving the public interest. Just to be clear, I DO NOT MEAN “what the public is interested in” (the classic definition of soft news, as compared to hard news, which is “important”). I mean serving the Public Interest in terms of serving the Common Good and making all of us Better People who are less ignorant and thus better qualified to Self Govern.

Interestingly (and I say that without irony), Fairbanks wrote wrote a post very much in the personal-essay vein in August. It’s nowhere near as effective as Judith Newman’s essay about Siri and her son, because it’s — well, it’s not personal enough. I’ll let you decide if I’m wrong. I did not learn — in ways that expanded my capacity for empathy and compassion — when I read Fairbanks’s essay. When I read Newman’s, I did.

When I did a Google search for first person journalism, I saw a lot of interesting links. Here are three.

In a Gawker essay, Hamilton Nolan says of the first-person essay:

At their very best, they offer some amount of insight learned through experience. Mostly, they offer run of the mill voyeurism tinged with the desperation of attention addiction. For those who own the publications, they’re great — they bring in the clickety-clicks. But for the writers themselves, they are a short-lived and ultimately demeaning game. They are a path that ends in hackdom. (Nolan)

Does this apply to Newman’s essay about Siri and her son? I say no. Most certainly, no.

Steve Buttry addressed the value of first-person essays in a post about journalist Jeff Edelstein’s account of falling asleep at the wheel with his son in the car.

I hope other journalists with powerful personal stories to tell don’t let our reticence about first-person journalism keep them from telling the stories. And when they tell them, I hope our editors have the good sense to publish them. (Buttry)

In February, 2013 Pulitzer Prize finalist Kelley Benham gave a talk about writing in the first person, at the Indiana University j-school.

Writing a story in the first person was a challenge, but Benham acknowledged that she had insider access that would have taken years for another reporter to find. Still, she interviewed people just as she would have for any other story. (Megan Jula/Indiana U.)

In Benham’s case, the story she told was about her experience of having a very premature baby (23 weeks, six days).

… starting the reporting process was daunting. There were 7,000 pages of [the baby’s] medical records to dig through, and more than 200 people involved during her hospital stay. (Megan Jula/Indiana U.)

So let’s not lump all the first-person true stories together. Sure, there ARE cheesy “This happened to me!” stories. I think that’s not even new. There are also mind-blowingly wonderful first-person accounts that expand our small worlds and enlarge our understanding.

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