How Deep Can You Go with Longform Journalism?
Ted Conover on the Ethical Lines We Should (and Shouldn't) Cross
Questions of ethics are at the heart of much journalism. In the old days people debated whether journalism was objective; whatever was not deemed objective was slanted, and when I started writing, slanted meant bad. These days, though, perhaps in recognition that all media have a bias of some sort and that true objectivity is elusive or impossible, people speak more productively of whether a piece of writing is fair. Conversations about fairness tend to address the question of interest: whose interest does this article/ book/film serve? Is it balanced or one- sided? Empathetic or narcissistic? A candid exploration or a doctrinaire assertion? When it comes to immersive writing, or really any long-form project where the author didn’t simply interview people but spent time in their world over an extended period, a special set of ethical questions can arise upon publication. People will ask themselves, as they read, did this writer treat the subject(s) fairly?
Readers often appreciate, in other words, that a writer has some power over her subject. The writer gets to decide what to include, what to leave out—how to cast the story. Simply put, the writer gets to tell the story in her own words.
Where it gets tricky is that, even in the most deferential case—a writer trying to “channel” or champion the subject—the writer’s take is likely to vary in certain ways from the subject’s. The writer has worked hard to create a fair portrait, and probably done a better job of making the story accessible to the public than the subject could—that’s why she’s a writer, after all. But then the subject reads it and is unhappy.
Sometimes the subjects of our articles are unhappy over very small things, things the writer might never have predicted would be a problem. Maybe the writer described the subject’s dog as “well-fed,” and the pet’s roundness turns out to be a sore spot with the subject. I once got a massage from an American masseuse at a resort I was writing about in Fiji, and quoted her as saying that Fiji had no indigenous massage tradition. That prompted an indignant letter to the editor, informing me I was mistaken. That sort of thing can happen with all kinds of writing.
Sometimes the issues are a little bigger. A writer I’m friends with had an assignment to profile a teenage athlete. He spent a lot of time with him, but called me, upset, four or five months into the project. The young man, he said, starting to feel more comfortable with him around, had begun to use racial epithets. What should he do? Would he be whitewashing his subject if he did not include this tendency in the piece?
First check with your editor, I told him: that person might have an opinion. But, I continued, if I were your editor, I’d probably tell you to be up-front with the guy about your personal reaction, and urge him to modulate his comments; explain that you weren’t going to “out” him for this, but that it made him look like a hick and could hurt his career. Make it sound like practical advice; don’t be sanctimonious about it. As for justifying not outing him, I said I didn’t think my job was to police the thinking or attitudes of everybody I write about. If this person were a teacher or a mayor or community leader, these racist attitudes would be germane to my article and I would write about them. But for a profile of a young athlete, I’d be less certain. Whatever you do, I said, don’t keep your true feelings a secret, because by doing that we start to dig ourselves a hole.
Where immersion writers find their worst trouble, I believe, is over questions of honesty and betrayal, of dissembly and deception. Why would a writer deceive a subject? Mainly, I think, in order to get them to talk, to share without fear of being criticized. Subjects can be nervous; the writer wants them to open up. But deceiving our source, even when that person is not a good person, is a bad idea. The worst-case scenario of a writer deceiving a subject was the subject of Janet Malcolm’s now-classic The Journalist and the Murderer, originally a two-part article in the New Yorker. Malcolm described the research behind the bestselling book Fatal Vision, about a Green Beret doctor, Jeffrey R. MacDonald, accused of murdering his pregnant wife and two daughters in 1970. MacDonald believed that the author, Joe McGinniss, was firmly on his side; at trial, he even allowed the writer to sit at the table with his legal team. McGinniss professed solidarity with the accused at every step.
During the trial, though, McGinniss claimed later, he became convinced of MacDonald’s guilt. He proceeded to write a book that depicts MacDonald as a stone-cold psychopath. MacDonald, in prison, had no idea what McGinniss had done until he agreed to be interviewed about the book by the television show, “60 Minutes.” With the cameras rolling, correspondent Mike Wallace read aloud to MacDonald from a proof copy; his reaction, in Malcolm’s words, was one of “shock and utter discomposure.”
A lawsuit ensued, and huge sales. McGinniss’s reputation, I think it’s fair to say, never recovered.
That’s an extreme example. Most questions of betrayal in writing never come close to that epic scale. More commonly, subjects will tell the writer something personal that does not reflect well on them. Maybe it’s an off-color joke, maybe it’s a racist or anti-Semitic remark. What is the immersive writer to do? Taking exception, the writer could feel, might hurt rapport. On the other hand, isn’t the writer bound to tell the truth above all else? And, in terms of literary value, aren’t readers better served by a warts-and-all portrayal than one that pulls its punches?
Experience suggests to me a few ways to avoid these tough dilemmas. The first is, never pretend to agree with something that you don’t agree with. At the very least, don’t pretend for long. Silence is sometimes okay; the only way journalists are able to interview those with political views they disagree with is to keep their own politics off the table. Where it gets tricky is over time, in the long term: you can’t just keep listening without responding (unless you are engaged in undercover reporting); if the person asks your opinion, you may need to tell him. Hedge if necessary, but don’t pretend to agree. If you do, your subject may come to think you are a very different person from the person you are, and when your piece gets published, there may be an awful reckoning.
What puts immersion writers in a unique category is the long time frame. Over time, the interviewer/interviewee relationship typically becomes less formal. The two sides grow more familiar with each other, and it can become easy for the subject to forget that the writer is there to take notes, to observe, to notice. A subject, after a few days or weeks of acquaintance, might make an offhand remark of the sort one would make to a friend, forgetting that in fact, he is speaking to a writer. It’s up to the writer to remind him. There are various ways one can do this: pull out the notebook and say, Is that on the record? Or repeat aloud the thing just said and then ask, Is that something I can quote? Not every researcher is going to want to take these steps, because it is easier just to let a person talk, and not be monitoring every conversation for things the person might later regret saying. And in fact, that place of greater candor and honesty is what most interviewers seek: we want evidence of the real person speaking, not the self who’s been preparing for an interview. But it’s not fair to let a person put his guard down and not remind him what’s going on. And if you don’t do it, and you later quote him saying something he’ll regret, he may respond with anger and even deny that he said it.
It has taken many immersive experiences, and my own share of missteps, to figure this out. I haven’t always done the right thing, through inattention, inexperience, or just faith that I, being a good person, was justified in having a few extra cards in my hand. But time, and years of teaching, have taught me that I’ll feel better about the process, and my subjects will, if I keep them from blathering heedlessly.
My most recent experience was one of the best. I wrote about a large animal veterinarian in Iowa, for Harper’s, visiting three times over the course of a year for about a week each time, and emailing and checking in via phone many times more. But I almost didn’t make it past the first visit. Soon after I arrived at his clinic on a Monday morning, he asked me to come out back with him where we could speak alone. He basically said this: Listen, I’ve got a lot at stake here. I don’t know you, and if I let you tag along on all my calls, how do I know you aren’t going to make me look bad? I’m proud of what I do and the choices I make, but what if you don’t feel the same? Will I be able to read your article before it goes to print?
I told him no, that the magazine wouldn’t allow him to read it in advance, though they would call him up and fact-check everything I had written—so at the very least, he’d be protected against falsehoods. But I also knew that wouldn’t protect him against what he was worried about. I responded, more or less, like this: You are right to be worried, I said. You are making yourself vulnerable and another writer could treat you unfairly. But I promise I will not. I admire how you’re making a go of it in a harsh economic environment; I don’t begin with ill will. Because I’m a journalist I tend to be skeptical, but how about this: At the end of each day, before we part ways, I’ll tell you if I saw anything that made me uneasy. I won’t keep any reservations to myself. There will be no surprises. I’ll listen to what you say and pay close attention. And that should let you see what’s on my mind early on, while it’s still easy to pull the plug. And should you decide to do that, I won’t have any hard feelings.
The vet agreed, and that, essentially, is what we did. I asked him about feeding cattle antibiotics they don’t need and the pain caused by dehorning and castration. One of his methods of castration, I observed, did seem to cause the bulls a lot of pain. He explained why he did it that way. I quoted those conversations in the article; we had several of them. I also consulted veterinary experts in bovine pain, including one at the vet’s alma mater. They both thought he could do things differently, but they helped me to understand why he probably did it the way he did. Harper’s let me examine the matter in detail. And when the article was published, and the vet read that section for the first time, he was satisfied. It wasn’t quite how he would have put it, he said, but he could see that I worked hard on it, and I talked to the right people. And, what you usually hope for but don’t always achieve with long-form pieces: we’re still friends.
Allow me to point out that that last assertion, “we’re still friends,” is not true, in the usual sense of the term. That veterinarian, whom I like a lot, is not like my other friends. I won’t send him a holiday card or call him on his birthday. I don’t expect he’ll ask to sleep on my couch the next time he visits New York City. When he invited me to sleep in his guest room on my visits to Iowa, I declined and stayed in a motel. I wanted to maintain some professional distance, so that if he didn’t feel my article was fair, he wouldn’t feel betrayed by a friend. Rather, I meant I kept him as a professional friend.
I employed the same restraint during my months as a correction officer. A handful of times, fellow officers invited me over to watch a game or have a beer on a day off. I always declined, even though I would have loved knowing more about their home lives: it just seemed too invasive. The secretive nature of the research made it even more so. How would I have felt, I thought, if I learned I had invited an undeclared journalist into my home, where he drank my beer, met my spouse, used my bathroom, and, let’s say, held my toddler? Pretty bad—even if no part of that made it into his book.
To me this is a question of boundaries. It’s just better this way, seems fairer. Maybe I miss out on collecting some wonderful detail, but . . . you can’t have everything. To me, the idea of becoming an actual friend of a subject is the same thing as moving all the way to the right on that scale of participant-observation. It’s losing all distance; it’s going native. It’s much, much better not to go there.
I don’t mean to suggest, by these two examples, that I have always struck the right balance with my relationships, and most writers I know who engage in this work worry about the right balance all the time. That’s because, as difficult as it can be to gain initial access, once you have it can be surprisingly easy to become too close. The first time you experience a subject starting to treat you like a friend, you might mistake the warmth as a gift from heaven: Now he wants to tell me everything! I’m golden! But resist those overtures. It’s important if you want to minimize the chance of bitter feelings down the road.
Another reason not to get too close is that, should you discover something needs to be said that will displease your subject, you need to feel free to say it. Joan Didion, in the preface to Slouching towards Bethlehem, famously wrote, “Writers are always selling somebody out.” That’s because, as far as I can tell, good writing sometimes requires it. The writer’s first duty is to the integrity of the writing, not to the relationship with the source. You may not consider yourself a bad person or a mean writer, but speaking the truth may require you to burn a bridge. For your own self-preservation, as well as concern for the other person, be wary of investing too much of yourself in that relationship.
I should point out two exceptions to these scenarios. First, writers are not always the manipulators and subjects our pawns. Subjects who are media-savvy and want good publicity may try to manipulate the writer and orchestrate a certain impression. They may feign friendship to secure a favorable result. A journalist friend of mine who spent a lot of time with a Brooklyn band in the course of preparing a profile felt a real connection to them, and liked the idea that, once his article was published and the work-related phase of the relationship was over, they might become part of his circle of actual friends. But once the (favorable) profile appeared, he never heard from them again. At least he proceeded the right way, saving the cultivation of actual friendship for after publication.
The other exception is when you write about people who, due to the very nature of their situation, you are unlikely to criticize. Such as children. Alex Kotlowitz, in the epilogue to There Are No Children Here, reveals that in addition to paying some of their small living expenses (such as for jeans and sneakers) during his research, after it he helped both boys get into private school and helped pay their tuition. Following the book’s publication, Kotlowitz became Pharaoh’s de facto guardian and the boy lived with his family until his graduation from high school. I can’t imagine anyone saying Kotlowitz did the wrong thing.
From Immersion: A Writer’s Guide to Going Deep, by Ted Conover. Available from the University of Chicago Press. Copyright Ted Conover © 2016.