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American Journalism Review
Telling Unsettling Stories  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Letters
From AJR,   August/September 2006

Telling Unsettling Stories   


There's good reason to examine coverage of tragedy and death, especially when it involves children ("Return of the Sob Sisters," June/July). Instead of hewing to a "sob sisters" angle, Stephanie Shapiro could have reveled in the craft of telling unsettling stories without emotional trickery. For 12 years, the Casey Medals for Meritorious Journalism contest has recognized journalists whose work has changed laws, outed inept public officials and bettered children's lives. Many of the stories are uplifting. That would have been a place to start.

We were also disappointed by uncontextualized "examples of the genre." The brief excerpt of a story done by Stephanie Simon of the Los Angeles Times, for example, was lifted from a lengthy article about a family using a perinatal hospice, where women are discouraged from aborting malformed babies they know will not survive. Simon has skillfully covered one of society's most vexing topics--abortion--as a faith and values reporter. She has thought deeply about hard-edge vs. narrative approaches to such a story. It's unfortunate that Shapiro featured her work but didn't interview her.

Patrice Pascual
Interim Director
Casey Journalism Center on Children and Families
College Park, Maryland

Wow, the same AJR that warns newspapers to change or die, that celebrates the transformation of the front page, and that has been inveighing for years against boring writing suddenly shifts gears to take a disdainful look at long-form journalism. The article disparages as "sob sister" fare some elegant, beautifully written stories, because they dealt with life and death in a way that touched readers emotionally.

Some "experts"--a few journalism profs, a couple of grad students (at least one of whom turned to public relations work for a defense contractor because of terminal disenchantment) and a New York Times columnist who makes a living being disagreeable--say newspapers are pandering to readers just like television does, and are minimizing coverage of "major events and trends."

I am closely familiar with only one of the articles cited, the Denver Post's haunting story of two loving parents who made a wrenching decision to let their ill son die (full disclosure: The Post's editor is an old friend). Perhaps a close-up look at real people who are faced with such a terrible choice in the age of Terri Schiavo was not issue-oriented enough for AJR or the critics. But the readers loved it, and anyone who actually read it has a much better understanding of the death-with-dignity debate. I thought engaging readers, dealing with hard issues, and telling real stories about real people was a way for newspapers to justify their existence in the tough new media world. In fact, I thought I had read that in AJR.

Jack Murphy
Gaithersburg, Maryland

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