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American Journalism Review
The Advantage of Authenticity  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   June/July 2012

The Advantage of Authenticity   

And how “writing with a smile” can help in a shrill, polarized media and political environment. Thurs., June 28, 2012.

By Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp ( began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.


During a roast this week of the retired Pulitzer-winning columnist William Raspberry, moderator Juan Williams got off a good line.

Raspberry, he said, "always wrote with a smile."

Perhaps that helps explain, Williams and other speakers added, why people of the left, center and right alike could see Raspberry as a wise, goodhearted friend. He had the knack of having both strong convictions and an eagerness to listen and learn from everyone else. And his humor kept things civil.

At his best, Raspberry (a longtime colleague and friend, I should say, of my wife Laura) seemed more interested in finding common ground and workable solutions than in showing off or scoring debate points. More than one person in the audience commented that people in journalism and, of course, in politics could use more of that attitude.

 It also might help news institutions as well as individuals.

The new HBO series "The Newsroom" has gotten a tough critical reception, but I found myself attracted to it. Sure, it's talky and cutesy, but that's show biz. Much more than some critics, I liked the idealism, which underlies a lot of great journalism. And I don't mind the progressive tone, which, as long as it stops short of partisan zealotry, seems proper.

What bothered me was the show's seeming disengagement from the real world or any real audience. It was as if the journalists were living in a bubble, playing a kind of depersonalized video game version of the news.

Too often, I fear, today's media institutions come across more as game players than companions in real life undertakings. Instead of showing confidence in their chosen roles, they can seem like uncertain identity-seekers in a pick-a-personality whirl.

CNN seems an apt example. Beset by the calculated shrillness of Fox and the posturing of MSNBC, CNN sometimes seems almost pathetic in its wan efforts to be edgy, too. As David Carr recently wrote in the New York Times, why not just dependably cover the news and build audience with your professionalism?

Part of this, again, has to do with that Raspberry-esque quality of being able to have a strong sense of self and an openness to difference in a competitive world.

Former ABC News President David Westin, in a new memoir called "Exit Interview," makes a related point, in a chapter subtitled "Is Balance Overrated?"

Westin suggests that the news media can get trapped between too much opinion and a kind of artificial balance that overinflates such fringe views as birthers or Holocaust deniers (my examples, not his). Too often both ways strike the audience as phony and unhelpful.

"It's too easy in this new environment to lose sight of truth as the ultimate goal," Westin writes. "Not every coin has two sides, and when there's only a single side that is true, reporters owe it to the people to tell them that―even when some may not want to hear it."

This is where it helps to write with that smile and to respectfully engage your audience. People listen and respond better when they feel a person, or an institution, is looking for authentic answers rather than playing point-scoring games.



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