Thursday, September 09, 2010

How much 'voice' is too much - two interesting perspectives

One of the things I struggle with - and I think I can say I'm not alone among journalists, academics or journalist-academics (jacademics?) - is how to insert enough of a wedge between the old idea of "objectivity" (disclosure - I don't subscribe to that; I prefer fairness because no one can be really objective) and the idea of putting some voice, some fun, into the news product.

The immediate challenge, of course, is to teach how to do it so that the resulting product does not read like some gross disgorgement of self-indulgence, while at the same time acknowledging that as much as it may be a moving target and to some extent a strawman for other grievances, there remains the shadowy figure of "going too far."

A good example is that debate played out in the past week between the New York Times' new public editor, Arthur Brisbane, and Jonathan Weber, editor in chief of the Bay Citizen, which provides content for some of the Times' West Coast editions. (The column in question was one that Weber did on San Francisco city workers' pensions - hey, anyone who can get a rise out of the audience on pension matters has my respect! Interestingly, Brisbane also cites a NYT article by Ron Lieber on public pensions in Colorado as problematic, though I thought Lieber did a nice job of blending voice and fact until the final five grafs, where he starts coloring outside the lines a bit).

I'd recommend you read both columns. (FWIW, my thought is that Matt Bai's column that Brisbane referred to went a little wide of the turn.)

On another matter, read the San Francisco Weekly's outtake on NPR's new blog network, Argo. Very insightful on how NPR is trying to take "blogging" a bit beyond its current form and into the "hard" news realm. Kind of a reverse of the above, given bloggers' "pajama-wearing" image that ignores the vast range of sophistication and expertise out there.

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At 9/9/10, 10:08 PM, Blogger Brian Cubbison said...

The "he said, she said, we'll have to leave it there" kind of objectivity doesn't leave the readers better informed. We assume the alternative is to write the same story and plug in some superficial analysis like "in a turning point for the Obama presidency," which Dave Barry used to mock. Or plug in some snark and attitude.

The real alternative can be found at, the urban-legend-busting site. The folks there do the research, declare something true or false, then stand behind it. No need to quote an opposing viewpoint for the sake of objectivity. They seek the truth and put their name behind it. has become the most trusted name in journalism.

At 9/10/10, 2:29 AM, Blogger Doug said...

Trust me. I am NOT arguing for the shopworn he said, she said. And I constantly stress "writing with authority" in class - which means, to the dismay of my students, doing more than a handful of interviews.

There clearly is voice in all those examples - but there also are parts that I think go a bit too far. Again, back to the pension article. All of it except for those final few grafs are good, to my mind. The writer has a clear voice, but it does not get in the way of my enjoying and absorbing it. But in those last grafs, it shifts more to advocacy, and that gets in my way.

Now, there will be different levels of getting in a person's way, but in a general sense, that's probably a good guide - if it appears it might get in the way, it's worth thinking about. (Sort of the old saw to writers: Drop those parts readers will skip. A bit glib, yes, but also worth stopping to think about when considering your writing.)

At 9/10/10, 9:55 AM, Blogger Brian Cubbison said...

Yes, I think you're onto something, and I like the term "writing from authority." In practice, I worry that too many reporters will write the way they always do, then remember to slap on some superficial analysis or attitude. A real, sustainable voice is something different. It also has a lot to do with context, as in, what works on a Gawker site might flop when a New York Times blog makes fun of J.C. Penney shoppers.


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