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Blank Slate

Is there anything that is truly “objective” in our world?  Can a news organization really be “fair and balanced”?  These may seem like noble ideals for reporting on the world around us, but if the standards are often a bit out of reach for most mortals it’s probably better to try for a more human approach.  That’s what I’m going to suggest works best for internet based reporting of any kind.

There are two main kinds of writing on the internet.  The most classic example of Citizen Journalism is what could be called “writing to inform”, which is to say telling the world about a topic that many people would like to know more about.  The second is commentary that could be called “writing to convince”.  I’ve written guides as to what makes each of these work if you follow the links.  What needs to be elaborated more for both is the perspective of a Blank Slate, the writer who is simply reporting what they see or hear.

Many people will tell you that Citizen Journalists must adhere to the same standards as professional journalists, the most important of which is Objectivity.  The basic operating principle is that you must provide your reader with all of the information on a topic, not just one side.  In practice, this has come to be a formulaic process where exactly two sides are written up for every topic no matter how otherwise obvious or mundane it appears to be.  Every left has a right, every scientist has a faith-based counter, every up has a down.

Why shouldn’t everyone use this standard?  The main reason why some people will tell you not to bother is that it gets boring.  The internet thrives on spicy details and inflammatory writing that incites.  That may seem like reason enough to abandon the standard, but the real reason I think that Objectivity is not worth attempting is that it’s almost never achieved.  If you claim you are being “objective” without actually hitting the mark, aren’t you just buying your own BS?  It seems to me that “objectivity” is a judgment in itself, a mark that your readers can give you but you cannot give yourself.

Most reporting in pro media isn’t really all that objective.  If, for example, there is a traffic accident, you don’t have much to report other than the details of the incident.  You can only tell the world what you saw, and any attempts at creating controversy by bringing in another side are not actually “objective” – they insert the reporter deeper into the story than they should be.

If you write just what you see and hear, keeping in mind the details that make a story useful, you are more of a Blank Slate than any kind of “objective” reporter.  Yes, this will necessarily be from your perspective – but if you are honest about where you are coming from it shouldn’t matter.  If you clearly state your perspective, which is usually why you care about the topic in the first place, it should be enough.  If there’s any value to the internet it’s that perspectives not usually heard from are added to a larger mix of news.

This standard may seem ridiculous when it comes to “writing to convince”.  If you want to bring people over to your side, isn’t your opinion what really matters?  No, not at all.  You developed the opinion you have for a reason – why not trust your readers to reach the same conclusion once you lay everything out as you saw it?  The saying is “Show, don’t tell,” and it makes the point all the more obvious when done properly.  If your opponents are loons, let them say their own piece in a way that any reasonable person would see it just the way you do.  Give the world what you know, but do it in a way that invites people to be on your side.  Always trust that your audience will write the story in their head, assuming you have the craft of writing down well.

The principle of being a “Blank Slate” might also seem boring, of course, but it doesn’t have to be.  Presenting just what you see and hear should make the reader want to know even more about the topic.  Focus on what was interesting about the story or, if you can, where the situation took a terrific left-turn away from reality and shot off into Bizarro World.  That’s what many situations which genuinely need Citizen Journalism have at the heart of them in the first place.

Writing as a Blank Slate is a good approach to take because it is, first of all, completely honest.  Telling it as you saw it and where you are coming from means that you have nothing to apologize for, even if the obvious conclusions seem a bit slanted or skewed.  Sometimes there just isn’t anything that makes any sense from where you are standing than how you feel about a topic.  If nothing else, your readers probably aren’t all that different from you.  If they are, it’ll make a good discussion in your comments or other interactive parts of your blog – but that’s what ultimately makes for good writing on the internet.

8 thoughts on “Blank Slate

  1. Honesty is always the highest calling. I agree that objective journalism is a big reach for everyone, including journalists. Just be honest and try to say what is important as blank as possible and the reader can decide how ‘objective’ it is.

    Excellent call!

  2. I don’t think that ‘blank slate’ is the right term here, but I can’t come up with anything better. What you have is the right approach, but it’s not really ‘blank’.

  3. I get the feeling that you’re leading into something again. When you’ve been writing about writing you were very careful to give specific examples up until this point, so I’m waiting to hear more.

  4. Jim: You might be right. I’m open to suggestions.

    Janine: Yes, I am assembling these into one collection that can serve as a guide. I’m serious about promoting quality in writing, and I think that a useful “how-to” has yet to be written. I hope to be the one to put it together first. Your help is very important to making it useful!

  5. I also think that more specifics are called for. If you’re going to make this into a general manual, it would help a lot. I’m with you so far, but your example of a traffic accident lends itself to many ways of being written up – some are good, some not so much.

  6. I’m going to give a lot of thought to how I tie all this together. Thank you all for your suggestions, it really does help a lot. None of this would be at all interesting or valuable without you!

  7. Writing for the web has some advantages in this regard, such as linking to supporting documents. To me, a lot of mainstream media reporting comes across as stenography. Reporting that something happened without explaining why it matters is the long-hand version of box scores.

  8. Pingback: Impact Journalism « Barataria – the work of Erik Hare

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