Exploring the ethics of nonfiction writing

By Jennifer Zhan

In journalism, sometimes the hardest question isn’t what to write, it’s whether to even write it.

Defining the amount of ethical responsibility journalists have to their sources is no easy task, so it’s no surprise the topic was a popular one at this year’s Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference, where writers from across the country gathered July 21-23 to share their experiences and insight. 

Audience members brought up the issue at Q&As throughout the conference. Although the questions posed dealt with different situations, they asked the same thing: What do we owe the people we write about, and to what extent?

The ethics of a source withdrawing consent

The discussion of ethics was present from the first day of the conference. Opening keynote speaker Katherine Boo was asked what personal guidelines she followed when interviewing people for her nonfiction book, “Behind the Beautiful Forevers.”

Moderator Chris Vognar listens as Boo gives her thoughts on the way journalists should treat their sources.

It was one of the last questions of the night.

“You’re writing about people who are dispossessed,” the audience member said. “How much of a say do they have in how they’re represented in your copy? For instance, do they get to see what’s being quoted? Do they get to see how you’re treating them in that work? They’re not public figures.”

He paused, then clarified, “It’s not an accusation, it’s a question of craft.”

“No, no,” Katherine Boo responded seriously. “I think it’s the essential question.”

Boo’s book follows the story of a family living in a slum called Annawadi in Mumbai. Three years of living alongside people who had nothing provided the research for the narrative nonfiction work, but not everything Boo documented made the cut.

“If a private subject doesn’t want their life to be in your work, even if they decide that at the last minute, I feel they still have the right to pull out,” Boo said. “I feel like I don’t want to do a book that features people who don’t want to [be in it]. People have to be involved in that, they have to know about it.”

Although it may not be convenient, she doesn’t see any way around it ethically. If you can’t go back and stand in front of the people you’ve written about post-publication, she said you’re doing it wrong.

“I can’t write about someone’s head lice without them saying it’s okay,” Boo said. “But that’s part of the fact-checking process. You need to make sure that people understand that.”

Still, “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” doesn’t read like its subjects have carefully reviewed it to remove character flaws. Its pages hold stories of corruption, resentment, desire, shame and crime.

“And they don’t have to like every single thing that you write about, but I think they have to recognize that what you’re writing about is true,” Boo said. “In my book, Abdul recognized that what I wrote about Mirchi was true, Mirchi said what I wrote about Abdul was true. You have to have it be recognizable to people who are close to you.”

Boo said that the people featured in the book took many risks to participate, including physical risks from police who were angry about the publication. That was part of the reason she decided to share the profits with the Annawadi community.

“It just seemed right to me,” Boo said. “But again, you certainly can’t go into a project saying, ‘Oh, I’m going to pay you guys later.’ It would just destroy everything.”

She believes sources must go into the interview process with the understanding that it is unpaid. However, after a work is printed and nothing can be done, she considers it ethical to give money back.

Other journalists disagree with that viewpoint. But to Boo, that’s okay.

“I let other people decide what they want to decide,” Boo said. “It’s your choice, you know, you have to live with yourself.”

The ethics of what is due to others when writing personal essays

Charlotte editor Michael Graff thinks he’s a boring person. When he goes out, he generally prefers to sit aside and listen.

But he said he’s able to write personal essays because he surrounds himself with interesting people who make him laugh, and can then write about himself “through them.”

Although the central figure of a personal narrative is the writer, in many instances, other people play important roles.

In a panel on the last day of the conference, writers took questions on deciding how much concern to give to outsiders who were instrumental in personal narratives, or even those who were less influential but still present.

Tolentino, with Graff and moderator Sarah Hepola, explains how she ensures that she’s comfortable with the content she publishes.

It’s something New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino often thinks about when writing about her own life.

“I give myself a quick check of, ‘Would this register as bulls— to someone that was roughly adjacent to this?’” Tolentino said. “And if it would, then I’m doing something I shouldn’t be doing.”

At the panel, both Graff and Tolentino agreed that when telling your own story, there shouldn’t be worry about the response from those who weren’t involved. Tolentino went as far as saying that other people’s opinions are “generally not [her] business.”

“But I always feel if I’m writing something and it’s going to either wound or register as deep bulls— to someone who knows, then I shouldn’t be writing it,” Tolentino said.  

According to Graff, that’s why it’s important for writers to be confident in the truth of their content, using whatever method that might require.

“We all have checks,” Graff said. “My check is to treat my story like any other story, and just report the hell out of it like I would anything else.”

The ethics of when a source might be at risk

The final ethics scenario that was brought up was the case of reporting on a subject who might be at risk when their story is made public. What should be done to ensure the person understands the full consequences of their consent to be interviewed? What should be left out?

Reporters and editors from the Dallas Morning News sat down at the last panel of the conference to talk about how they made those decisions with Scott Farwell’s multimedia work, ‘My Aryan Princess.’

Farwell talks with moderator Jeff Whittington about staying professional with Blevins to ensure she understood there could be consequences from her participation in the story that would become ‘My Aryan Princess.’

Farwell’s reporting had him arriving home at 4 a.m., taking rides with drug dealers, and at times, facing personal threats. But while he may have put himself in dangerous situations to tell the story, after it was published, his subject was the one whose life was potentially at risk.

The investigative piece’s title refers to Carol Blevins, a confidential informant whose intel on the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas led to the arrests of over 1,000 criminals in the North Texas area. The gang issued a greenlight, or an order to kill on sight, on Blevins for her betrayal.

As the story developed, editors and writers at the Dallas Morning News began discussing the ethics of publicizing her story.

“She had made a decision to come back into the North Texas area after having been given an opportunity to disappear to Colorado so she put herself at risk,” DMN editor Mike Wilson said. “In some sense I was concerned about our putting her at further risk by telling the story. I also considered the possibility that telling the story would protect her, that it would give attention to her situation and give her enemies a disincentive to come after her.”

Ultimately, however, it was concluded that as an adult it was Blevins’s responsibility to monitor her own safety and decide whether to participate.

Farwell presented Blevins with the information to make that decision.

“That’s a serial conversation that you have,” Farwell said. “Not just, ‘I’m doing a job and my role here is to tell the truth.’ All the way along, not just [defining] the relationship, but also, ‘Why are you doing this? Are you sure you want to take this risk? What about this scenario and that scenario?’ That’s an important part of it.”

This process is called Mirandizing, and Farwell said there are probably 50 or so conversations on record where he “pressure tested” Blevins’s assumptions and assertions, bringing up hypothetical situations that might occur after the story’s publication. The procedure gave Farwell confidence in Blevins’s awareness and acceptance of the possible consequences.

But there were other circumstances to consider as well. Blevins is heavily dependent on drugs. Farwell knew from reviewing her medical records that she also had several mental health issues.

“The fundamental question is how did we trust her, how did I know this woman who had delusions was someone who we could offer her story as a narrative truth?” Farwell said. “The answer to that is I spent a lot of time with her. I interviewed her hundreds and hundreds of times over months and months and months when she was sober, when she was high, when she was in jail, when she was in the middle of a delusion, when she was with family.”

DMN editor Leona Allen said that going into the story, there were many conversations about whether Blevins was able to provide informed consent to exposing herself as a witness.

“There were times where she was completely sober, there were times when the sources Farwell was talking to about her handlers gave her a lot of credit for helping them bring down this organization,” Allen said. “At the end of the day, that won out, the story won out, the greater good won out.”

Farwell felt he was justified in writing the story partly because he is a “true believer,” someone he said believes that journalism empowers people.

“There are not very many pieces of journalism that you get to see inside these relationships between confidential informants and federal agents, their handlers,” Farwell said. “I think that there’s public value to that. I guess there is some measure of risk that is attendant here, but I believe in telling the truth. I believe that at the end of the day, this is a great public good.”

As Katherine Boo put it, how we treat sources as writers is “the essential question.” The kinds of ethical conversations heard at LitCon won’t be going away any time soon. As long as we continue to write, we must question and discuss how to be fair to the people whose stories we tell.

Featured Image: Scott Farwell states his belief that journalism empowers people. Photo courtesy of Junebug Clark