Katherine Boo urges fellow storytellers to “be serious about being accurate, not trying to make people care.”
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[…]
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.”
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.
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?
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
Journalists are storytellers. And while they need a creative and imaginative mind like many exceptional authors, these writers require something more: an immense respect for their characters. Their characters are not princesses in need of rescue or villains that must be subdued. They are real people. Real people with real stories[…]
By Sanjana Reddy
Journalists are storytellers. And while they need a creative and imaginative mind like many exceptional authors, these writers require something more: an immense respect for their characters. Their characters are not princesses in need of rescue or villains that must be subdued. They are real people. Real people with real stories, real struggles and real emotions. By hardening ourselves to the world, journalists can complete this difficult task. But when you are the character and it’s your own story that needs to be shared, how do the hardened storytellers adapt?
I listened to several panelists at the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference speak about their personal narratives and how they found the courage to share some of the most intimate stories with the world.
“The trick is to report my story like any other story,” writer and panelist Michael Graff said.
He, along with New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino, sustain a career as experienced personal essay writers. They must learn to be comfortable with receiving both positive and negative responses from readers of their pieces, and about their lives.
“Other people’s opinions of me are generally not my business,” Tolentino said. “And that can be the freeing thing you need to be able to feel confident.”
Yet, at times, these opinions are needed. Sarah Hepola, the author of “Blackout,” describes her initial fears of being judged about her memoir on struggles with alcoholism. “I don’t want to understate this, I was terrified the whole time,” Hepola said. “And really the scariest thing is when nobody does anything. Nobody cares.”
Although this notion may persuade beginning writers to elaborate upon their original emotional experiences in a book to please audiences, columnist Jeffrey Weiss advises against it.
“I’m not putting on a red nose and squeaking it,” Weiss said on maintaining his personal voice. “I’m trying to be myself.”
Weiss has been living with brain cancer since his diagnosis in December and is expected to live about two more years. In the limited time the 62-year-old has left, he said he is determined to give tips to others with incurable illnesses who need it and write “in a way that has an aroma of flavors that readers can appreciate.”
Every one of these authors and journalists have progressed further into personal revelations through their writing than many have in the past and have had their work received and recognized by a wide audience of readers. Yet, I still wondered how they found the courage to disclose these untold stories to the people they know and care about. This, in my opinion, seemed like a more frightening prospect than simply facing a crowd of strangers whose judgements can be ignored.
I directed my question to a few panelists at the last session of the conference. From Hepola, I finally received an answer that made the most sense to me. I understood that these people had accepted themselves in the deepest ways possible and thus it allowed them to write their very genuine stories in a fashion that garnered the attention and respect of millions.
“I think it’s a great human experience in being seen fully,” Hepola said. “But if you can’t be seen fully by the people that are closest to you, it may not be time to do that publicly.”
Featured Image: Sarah Hepola, Mike Graff and Jia Tolentino discuss the repercussions of publishing personal narratives. Photo courtesy of Junebug Clark
Last weekend at the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference, writers from all over the country came together to share their stories with those of us fortunate enough to be able to listen in. An incredible experience, these wordsmiths shared not only their tales, but words of wisdom, too. The following is a collection[…]
By Nina Melishkevich
Last weekend at the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference, writers from all over the country came together to share their stories with those of us fortunate enough to be able to listen in. Participating in an incredible experience, these wordsmiths shared not only their tales, but words of wisdom, too.
The following is a collection of the best quotes to come out of the conference, whether they be about how to become a better journalist or a better person.
“If everyone else is zigging, I can find a way to zag.” -Jeffrey Weiss
Journalist Jeffrey Weiss is not known for being secluded, so it’s no surprise he’s not afraid of stepping outside the general norm. A spirited, warm-hearted soul, he has no time for feeling depressed following his third cancer diagnosis, and it seems nothing will stop him from putting his story out there.
“I’d much rather have dinner with a storyteller than a writer.” -Charles Johnson
While not a direct quote from Charles Johnson himself, but rather from a student of his, this was too magnificent not to include. It is a clever way of showing the difference in personality between those who are able to recount tales and those who simply are good at writing.
“90% of great writing is rewriting.” -Charles Johnson
Another great quote from Charles Johnson, it says how your first draft should never be your last, as it is illogical to assume the initial version of a story is the best work.
“That relationship was incredibly obvious. You could not indulge in the illusion that you were okay in the world on your own.” -Sebastian Junger
Here, Sebastian Junger talks about his time in wartime Bosnia where he had no choice in whether or not he liked his fellow companions, even though their existence helped keep him alive. This quote is a reminder of how the human race was not made to persevere on its own.
“Strong presumptions and ideological priors are just going to make me miss what’s happening in front of my face.” -Katherine Boo
Katherine Boo discusses something many people (not just journalists) fear: entering an unknown situation. Instead of focusing on the negatives, Boo suggests to ignore assumptions about how a situation will turn out and instead focus on comprehending new things to take out of the circumstance.
“But, in the end- I find this in reporting- people want to tell the truth…it’s a clarifying thing in this human experience, and they wanted to tell the story.” -Scott Farwell
Scott Farwell sums up an important part of human nature with these words. In today’s world where journalists are often under fire, this quote is more important than ever. It proposes that people would much rather write a story with veracity simply because it’s the moral thing to do. It’s not hard to see how this statement can resonate well with journalists all over the world.
“It hurt me, and I think that people that get hurt learn ways to protect their heart, and alcohol was a way to protect my heart and my ego.” -Sarah Hepola
Sarah Hepola shares with us personal insight of what she learned growing up, and how she dealt with what she discovered. Although Sarah’s panel was more humorous and lighthearted than some of the other speakers’, she was still able to sober the discussion with how alcohol both helped her and destroyed her, which is perhaps not a traditional way of dealing with growing up, but a way many others have turned to, as well.
“To have a writer in the family is to have an assassin nearby.” -Dianne Solis
A quote that wasn’t created by Dianne Solis herself, this one was first spoken by an unnamed source. The line was quoted in the segment from Alia Malek, an author and a journalist, who was speaking about the dangers of being a journalist in Syria.
“My aunt was very adamant that I not practice journalism while I was (in Syria), and there were moments when she suspected it, and she would say to me, ‘Do you know what they will do to us?”’ -Alia Malek
Alia Malek speaks on her time in Syria, and how journalists there face dangerous tasks. An emotional quote, this draws emphasis on just how much caution journalists must have in Syria, not only for their own sake, but for their families, too.
“I’m not going to pretend that I’m not confident in my ability to write. I can write pretty good, and so I think that some of the things I’ve written about in my life, that I bring a value to readers that others have not been able to bring. And so the fact that I’m better at it than many, that this is something that I’ve done way before, that, oh, by the way, it’ll make me feel better, is part of what moved me into it.” -Jeffrey Weiss
Jeffrey Weiss represents a mindset that we, as writers, should have confidence in our own writing abilities. He used faith in himself and his writing to continue his work as a journalist, even after his diagnosis with cancer.
Featured Image: “I have always believed that journalism, if done properly, is at least an incremental benefit to the world,” shares Jeffrey Weiss. Photo courtesy of Junebug Clark
Uncovering the truth is part of a journalist’s job description, but I never realized that the quest could involve the possibility of death. Dependent on pills, men and drugs, one of the few constants in Carol Blevins’ life was the desire to belong. Her lifestyle, tainted by drugs and sex[…]
By Tanya Raghu
Uncovering the truth is part of a journalist’s job description, but I never realized that the quest could involve the possibility of death.
Dependent on pills, men and drugs, one of the few constants in Carol Blevins’ life was the desire to belong.
Her lifestyle, tainted by drugs and sex, led to instability that she felt could only be subdued by the presence of a man, leading the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, ABT, to become her haven.
She soon realized her position within the gang could yield other benefits, leading her to sign on as a confidential informant for the Department of Homeland Security. But she wanted more and approached Dallas Morning News writer Scott Farwell to tell the story of her double life.
Recounting her life beginning with her childhood, her position within the Aryan Brotherhood and her mental state after disassociation with the group, she is the central character in the multimedia project, a seven-part podcast and online narrative created by the Dallas News Investigative Team, “My Aryan Princess”.
In the beginning stages of the story, Farwell knew the version of her truth could be tainted by her volatile and unpredictable nature and her memories clouded by drugs and medication.
“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 a middle of a delusion, when she was with family,” Farwell said.
Though Blevins was so deeply intertwined with the gang, she “snitched”, the biggest transgression in the ABT.
The ABT has a long history of unlawfulness and violence, causing safety concerns.
In the story, Farwell is invisible, however, his name is not.
“I don’t think we heard very much about people coming after Scott or us about this story. Scott was always one to bat down those concerns if you asked him about him, he felt like he could take care of himself,” DMN Editor Mike Wilson said.
ABT members could interpret the story as a further insult by Blevins. After working with the government, she even gave the public an account of how she deceived them and showed the world the inner workings of the ABT hierarchy.
“My bigger concern was whether the story would get her killed because there was a green light, a hit out on her, or so it was said,” Wilson said.
Farwell is a strong believer that a journalist’s duty is to tell the story in the way it deserves. The rest is out of their hands.
“Fundamentally you understand and believe in what your job is,” Farwell said. “My job is to be a witness and to be a truth teller and to be a storyteller in the world. And it enriches my life, it’s a huge part of who I am.”
The story openly states her real name, details and specific descriptions, exposing her to the wide reach of the notorious Brotherhood, but she knew the risk she was taking all along.
“I spent a lot of time, actually, trying to fulfill what I feel like is an obligation to protect my sources to the degree we can,” Farwell said.
Blevins always longed to start over, hoping her tips to Homeland Security would be enough to help her escape. When it wasn’t, she looked for a way to cleanse and clarify: telling the truth.
“For me, I don’t think that you can tell a story on the Aryan Brothers if you are scared of them. They can smell it so I try not to sweat too much,” Farwell said.
On a larger scale, violence between powerful groups turns into war.
Countries are swept into turmoil along with bitterness and sadness. Writer Sebastian Junger immerses himself in the experience to capture the effects of war in its raw form.
While normally the only side of war shown is its cruelness and evil, Junger saw a different phenomena develop within the culture he observed.
“If you’re in a situation like that, one of the things you experience, along with a lot of fear and a lot of other stuff, is, at least I did, this incredible sense of wellbeing,” Junger said. “This feels right. I’m with my brothers.”
Junger felt this sense of wellbeing widespread among civilians and especially while observing troops in a combat environment.
“One of the guys said to me, ‘It’s strange; the guys in the platoon straight up hate each other but we’d die for each other,’” Junger said.
For years, he reported in unstable areas across the world and for the making of his 2010 book, War, where he was stationed in Afghanistan with active troops for 15 months.
“As deprived as [the outpost] was physically, it was full of that human connection, that commitment to one another that has kept us alive, has kept the species going for 500,000 years or whenever you want to start the clock on the human race,” Junger said.
He continued to report, navigating dangerous, unruly and chaotic areas and reflected on the experiences. Junger had a surprising revelation: “things were better when they were bad.”
When times were desperate and people depended on each other for survival, people forgot their differences.
“That dependence, that relationship, has been at the core of human existence for hundreds and thousands of years,” Junger said.
Junger arrived at this conclusion after being on the frontlines of war and violence, able to see human nature and its tendencies when faced with adversity. Junger explores this in his book Tribe and described its connection to developed societies.
“I started looking at modern society, why is it that as wealth and monetary value go up in society, the suicide rate goes up, the depression rate goes up?” Junger said.
Many look to him as a hero, a title captured by his willingness to sacrifice his safety to show the world the truth. Connecting his experiences, he discovered a trend, people start to see the best in each other when they only have one another.
Both journalists explored the dark side of human nature, despite the obvious risk. The inner workings of these worlds, whether war or gangs, are often unknown to the public. Their work has been for the greater good, fulfilling the true purpose of journalism: to provide information with objectivity, allowing the people to make their own decision.
Featured Image: Jeff Whittington, an executive producer at KERA, moderates a panel featuring the writers and editors of “The Aryan Princess”, a Dallas Morning News multimedia story. Photo courtesy of Junebug Clark