When I’m writing a story, my only objective is to seek the truth, uncover it, and retell it as best I can. If I throw a few grenades along the way, so be it. I don’t worry much about the collateral damage.
Then the story is published. In the clear light of morning, when it’s too late, I begin to ask the deeper questions. Like: Why did I write this? Was being accurate worth the harm I’ve caused? Was it OK to betray my subjects’ trust if it was done in the service of a story?
The more I ask of myself, the more I am filled with self-loathing. I remember the oft-quoted passage from The Journalist and the Murderer, by Janet Malcolm:
“Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. …
“He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction learns—when the article or book appears—his hard lesson. Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and ‘the public’s right to know'; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.”
Sometimes I hate myself for being a journalist, but I doubt I’ll ever change. I’ll keep writing these kinds of stories, because I can’t not write them, and I’ll keep feeling sick in my gut on the mornings when they’re published.
The latest example is my story ‘The worst time: Green Pastures grandma struggles to raise 13 kids.’ I was really conflicted the whole time I was writing this. It wasn’t my job to judge the family, but neither could I cover up every last thing I saw on the evening I spent with them. I tried to balance the bad stuff with things that would engender sympathy for the family, but I don’t know how well I succeeded. In the end, I feel like an executioner.
A confidence man, preying on other people’s despair.