From AJR, April 1999 issue
Over The Edge?
Is writing with attitude and edge a laudable device to make news reports more compelling? Or does it pose a serious threat to journalism's core values--and credibility?
By Lori Robertson
Lori Robertson (firstname.lastname@example.org), a former AJR managing editor, is a senior contributing writer for the magazine.
UTTER THE WORDS "ATTITUDE AND EDGE" to a journalist, any journalist, and try to anticipate the reaction. Good luck. Those buzzwords touch off everything from not-at-my-paper stances to remarks of "yeah, I like seeing more of a writer's voice" to apocalyptic cries about cynicism trashing the once revered standards of the profession. And don't forget the comments in the dull-newspapers-desperately-need-some-life-these-days category.
The responses reflect the long list of definitions "edge" elicits. For starters, try rich, smart, snappy, jazzy, hip, cool, pointed, snarky, bitchy and snide. And even if two people agree the label suggests snappy or concur it signifies snide, that certainly doesn't mean they have a shared view of whether that's good or bad. Good--and journalistically acceptable--writing to some degree is in the eye of the beholder. Or, as an edgier story might assert, one reader's microbrew is another reader's vitriol.
What news organizations are struggling with today is no different from what they've struggled with for years: the oxymoronic goal of making a subjective art--writing--as close to objective as possible. Oh, and along the way, make it interesting, analytic and maybe even entertaining. In a world of increasing numbers of information outlets--many of them attitude-laden--the mainstream media are grappling to make their voices heard. Throw in a generational change, an age of increasing distrust of government and institutions in general, and you've got a public almost waiting, and expecting, to be spun. A charge of a more cynical press? Try a more cynical nation. Consider, also, the harsh climate of media criticism, from inside and outside the industry's walls, and it's clear why the forces of change are at odds--the urge to experiment, to grab readers, to be provocative, duels with the need to act responsibly and then some, to show we're the ones who are credible here. Members of the press try to balance those goals by tiptoeing a fine line between incisive and inflammatory.
It's difficult to document a clear rise in "attitude and edge" copy, but talk of its prevalence, and certainly the use of those words in discussing journalism, is increasing. And again, the implications are a matter of opinion. The January/February issue of The Washington Monthly laments, "Whatever Happened to...Just The Facts?" while a January 18 Newsweek article on media figures full of attitude proclaims, "Just the facts won't do anymore." "I'm seeing a lot of stories which are billed as news stories...[that go] into expressing opinion," says David Kushma, editorial page editor of Memphis' Commercial Appeal. "I think it's a disservice to the readers and a failure of the editorial function." "I love it...when I can tell by the story who wrote it," says Lisa DePaulo, a contributing editor for George magazine and a queen-of-edge candidate herself. "I love when every article has a different attitude." "It's funny how things are ending back around where we can't distinguish commentary from news stories," says Russell Frank, who teaches at Penn State's College of Communications. "To a surprising degree, things on the front page of the paper are reading more like columns than news stories."
Editors and writers do agree there's a line to be drawn, but where to draw it isn't clear.
"You don't want to suck the voice out of...writing," says Washington Post Managing Editor Steve Coll. At the same time, he adds, you don't want so much attitude "that readers lose their trust in you."
Tom Curley, president and publisher of USA Today, says tone has to be considered "on a case-by-case basis." His paper, he adds, has instituted "a more stringent approach and said, `We don't want to go there in the news columns.'... And if we are going to go in that direction, we sure want to label it."
Venue and medium often, but not always, dictate the acceptable level of edge. That snarky impeachment coverage you find in the lifestyle and entertainment sections probably won't find its way to page one. "We try to write [news stories] engagingly and sometimes with wit and originality but not with a sense that the writer is trying to sell something or manipulate the reader," says John Carroll, editor of the Baltimore Sun. About four years ago, his paper revamped its features department and decided to give writers more latitude. "We've allowed more license to experiment and write in more personal voices in our features section," Carroll says. "We've been more restrictive in our news pages." And what happens when features make A1? "They are often written differently" than if they were housed in the features section, he says.
Carolina Garcia, managing editor of the San Antonio Express-News, agrees what's cool for features isn't OK in the news pages. "There's a distinction we need to make...on when it's appropriate to do."
Carroll cites sportswriting as another area where writers are given more freedom (see "Extreme Sportswriting?"). But the hip and cynical sports coverage Curley sees on the rise isn't something he embraces. He says a "Jim Murray without the insight" style is pervasive today. The late Los Angeles Times columnist "could be cutting and cynical, but many of us looked at him as...brilliant," Curley says. "Often what I see [are] attempts at the phrase that [fall] short and collectively come across as cynical or negative."
The tendency to go too far in the news section is the big worry for many journalists. Former CBS and NBC correspondent Marvin Kalb, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University, says edgy copy logically rolls over into slant. A writer may know he or she isn't supposed to inject opinion, but using sharp words can convey a bias, he says. "Attitude and edge tend to stack the deck editorially."
Jan Schaffer, executive director of the Pew Center for Civic Journalism, shares his concerns. "When writing with attitude gives me an attitude, I think it goes too far," she says. Schaffer, who also has concerns about some acerbic material in the Washington Post's Style section, says sarcastic humor is a problem because it appeals only to readers who share the writer's viewpoint. "There are some people who are going to chuckle and think that's kind of cute," she says, while others will be "appalled."
So, how does one write wit rightly? The guarantor of smart, fair writing, say Coll and many others, is solid, careful reporting. Successful edgy writing emerges from "the material itself," Coll says. "It is grounded in detail.... If you work with that kind of material...you can become playful with your voice in a way that will become credible...not just jazzy."
"If I'm an editor and you've got the evidence," echoes AJR senior editor Carl Sessions Stepp, who has served as a writing and editing coach at many newspapers, "you can write almost anything."
THOSE WHO THINK OF themselves as writers relish having a license to play laureate, the go-ahead to sit down in front of a blank screen and envision a page that's wide-open, expanded running room for meshing and mingling words that excite, provoke and convey. To use their own voices, to luxuriate in rich adjectives and clever clauses, may not be fully objective, but it often makes for great writing. Still, there are boundaries out there somewhere.
"I've heard editors in newsrooms talking about wanting more edge and attitude," Stepp says. "I think editors mean more lively writing.... But I think some writers hear the message that we can write anything we want to, and so they go further than the editors probably had in mind."
At the Sun, Carroll says a strong editor is a necessary complement to a writer's freedom. An editor "both has to encourage [good writing] and prevent disaster," he says. Stepp says the increase in edgy copy results in part from a decrease in time editors spend actually editing. Now, meetings and management duties take away from the time needed for fine-tuning copy.
Steve Lopez, senior writer-at-large for Time Inc. and longtime local columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, says attitude in a paper's news story is a problem, but concern about excessive commentary can't overshadow the need to explore ways to present information vividly. "The next big problem," he says, "is that not everybody can do this.... Newspapers have made the mistake of encouraging people to do this who are not able." The result, says Lopez, is "sassy...shorthand reporting."
If it's voice the writer wants to include, that would have to be the writer's own voice, not an imitation. Trying to write with edge when you're not real edgy yourself, says Sandra Mims Rowe, editor of Portland's Oregonian, "is like trying to write with humor and you're not funny."
"I see a lot of stuff that is sort of trying to be hip that doesn't work," says Jon Franklin, science writer and special assignments editor at Raleigh's News & Observer and a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for narrative journalism. Sometimes a simile can only be stretched so far. While Franklin couldn't really say if there's been a marked increase in edge, he says journalistic writing is certainly in "a time of flux" and experimentation.
Chip Scanlan, director of writing programs at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, says market pressure to make stories stand out from the plentitude of news options is neither a new phenomenon nor necessarily a bad thing. "We talk about pack reporting," he says. "I think we do a lot of pack writing.... There's an awful lot of sameness." In writing seminars, Scanlan says he doesn't use the words "attitude" or "edge," but rather "focus," which he encourages. "I'm going to bother reading your story if it has focus," Scanlan says. "I think there's a difference between point and point of view."
There's also a difference between edge and plain old bad writing. "If the person doing the writing and reporting is lazy, isn't a good thinker, is governed by clichˇs...or has their prose mangled by an editor," says USA Today political columnist Walter Shapiro, "the result is not an indictment of writing with an edge...[but] an indictment of not being a very good writer."
TESTING THE LIMITS OF journalistic writing has been taking place for quite a few decades, maybe even forever. The late 1960s witnessed the growth of the Tom Wolfe-inspired New Journalism, which took a novelist's approach to storytelling. Many of those interviewed for this story point to that literary movement as having evolved into the "edge" of today.
But where Wolfe and the likes of Norman Mailer and Joan Didion invoked more characterization--often telling the reader what another person was thinking--attitude today interjects the thoughts of the writer into the piece.
It was in those days--1969 to be exact--that the Washington Post Style section was born. The mandate then was for Style to be a daily magazine. It still is. If you want to find some good examples of attitude and edge, this would be the place to look.
Style has traditionally been safely sequestered from other parts of the paper, but Coll says he and Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. want to import some Style flavor into other sections, particularly A-section features. "I wouldn't start my sense of what that is with words like edge or attitude," Coll says, "but...fine writing, good storytelling, an approach to stories that creates a powerful emotional experience for readers."
In recent months, Coll says, staffers have talked about what the paper can do "to renew our commitment to interesting writing." A source of reference for the discussion has been past writing in the Post itself. Coll cites a 1977 story by William Greider on the execution of Gary Gilmore that was "amazingly full of voice," particularly for the front page. An excerpt:
Early this morning at the mountain prison, attended by scribes and camera crews, the state of Utah delivered Gary Mark Gilmore back to his maker.
Gilmore was judged defective as a human being in October. Last summer he murdered two Utah citizens, a service station attendant named Max Jensen and a motel clerk named Bennie Bushnell. While in prison awaiting execution, Gilmore twice tried to kill himself and insisted that the legal authorities proceed to do it for him without further delay.
This morning the government of Utah complied, despite a last-minute legal flurry from civil liberties lawyers. It was done as tastefully as possible under the circumstances. Gilmore was taken to a cinder block shed, strapped in a chair and shot.
As easy as pouring blood into water.
Is this something Coll would put on the paper's front today? "We might," he says, adding, "There were a few sentences...you might ask a few questions about if you were an editor."
The Post's David Von Drehle, editor of Style until earlier this year and now a writer on the national desk, cites that Greider piece as replete with attitude and edge you wouldn't see on the front page today. But, he says the "distinctions between what Style does" and the rest of the paper have "diminished, probably."
While Von Drehle thinks writers are being freed to an extent, he also sees many newspapers trying too hard to please too many, resulting in that "dull" label. In cities where there's only one major daily, he says, some papers have begun to look at themselves "almost like public utilities," serving people of various beliefs and tastes. "The easiest thing to do is to write a boring story," Von Drehle says, "and then you're not going to offend anybody." The hardest writing is vivid writing, he says, like Maureen Dowd, now a New York Times columnist, brought to the Times' news pages in the '80s and early '90s.
Dowd's name comes up frequently in discussions about edge. Her political coverage, including standout stories on George Bush, was a divergence from straight news--she introduced personality, pop culture references and dead-on details. Despite some criticism for editorializing, her work by and large garners respect. The key, say many interviewed for this story, was Dowd's solid reporting.
"I don't think [her news stories] did rest on attitude or edge.... They rested on a special talent for extremely acute and telling observational reporting," says Michael Kelly, editor of The National Journal, former New York Times reporter and longtime Dowd friend. "People mistook it for attitude.... There is a big difference, and I think people who know writing can see it." Dowd did not return calls seeking comment.
Max Frankel, the Times' executive editor when Dowd was a reporter, wrote in response to AJR's questions: "The best--and Maureen Dowd was among the best before she became a columnist--know how to distinguish between solid reporting and conscientious analysis on the one hand and personal opinion on the other. It is their rash imitators that often confuse the two."
In Frankel's book, "The Times of My Life--and My Life with The Times," published in March, he talks of his decision to approve a Dowd lead in 1994 about President Clinton's trip to Oxford, England. "President Clinton returned today for a sentimental journey to the university where he didn't inhale, didn't get drafted and didn't get a degree," Dowd wrote. Frankel recalls his rationale: "I hesitated but finally approved. I knew that sentence on our page one would arouse a pious burst of criticism that we were `editorializing' in the news columns. But that was no editorial; it was an apt spoof of an otherwise inconsequential presidential photo op, an occasion of only biographical interest."
Frankel supports the trend toward analysis in newspapers but says it differs from editorials, which usually issue a "verdict." Charles Peters, editor in chief of The Washington Monthly, says his publication began including analysis and solutions around 1969. That "good movement," he says, "began to get perverted" in the '80s and has "gotten increasingly perverted ever since." Peters says delving into politicians' motives has gone too far and the facts are getting left behind.
USA Today's Shapiro takes a more supportive view of the way journalism has evolved. "In a decade which has added the word `spin' to the language," he says, "the attitude that people are too cynical, too nasty...I think is a mistaken point of view." In the age of "official news," leaks and government events full of spin, spin and more spin, Shapiro says if reporters "merely take these things as they're handed out," they become "mouthpiece[s]" of the establishment. The facts may not be the truth.
ANALYSIS, INTERPRETATION, edge--these often are considered spins of their own. A weekly puts a spin on the news to make it fresh. Magazines spin and interpret perhaps more than newspapers, and the glossy medium is usually granted more freedom in the attitude and edge department. Giving readers what really happened is a laudable goal, though giving them what the reporter thought really happened is often the result. How much of one person's insight is the truth?
Penn State's Russell Frank found varied descriptions of Monica Lewinsky in stories about the February 6 airing of her deposition for the Senate. One reporter said Lewinsky had "a youthful, wide-eyed earnestness"; another called her "mature, composed and ready for a career in the law." But while two people may see an event differently, Frank says, a reader who encounters starkly different accounts can safely call the coverage highly subjective.
Frank says he reads too much political reporting that resembles theater criticism. This approach, he says, "does allow for the sort of wise-guy kind of writing."
That commentary-leading-the-news style may be acceptable to some when printed in a magazine, but Michael Kelly finds the attitude in some of the newsweeklies to be a bit much. "What I see a huge increase in is in adopting the tone that is traditionally at home in opinion columns in what purports to be more or less straight news coverage," he says. "I would point primarily to Time and Newsweek--all of their political writing has a lot of attitude to it."
Time magazine has loosened its constraints on writers in recent years. "We don't separate writing from reporting the way we used to," says Managing Editor Walter Isaacson. But there's still a line to be drawn, he says. When it's just attitude "not based on reporting or thinking," he says, "you try to rein it in."
Is there less of a line today separating commentary from news stories? "Not less of a line than when Henry Luce ran the magazine," Isaacson says. In the Luce era, a reader would find a heavy dose of Luce's political point of view. "I don't think we're back in those days again," Isaacson says. "I think we want writers to provide more analysis and thinking without interjecting simplistic opinions." Newsweek editors could not be reached.
Perhaps the political magazine that takes edge to the limit is the monthly George, dicey and feisty, with its "Not Just Politics As Usual" slogan. In the February issue, there's a piece by Lisa DePaulo on Eleanor Mondale, daughter of politico Walter, in which DePaulo uses such monikers as "the independent drama queen Ken Starr" and "the terminally tortured Betty Currie." DePaulo says George doesn't ask her for more edge--"maybe they don't have to"--but having a point of view, to her, is important. "If you have the facts and you want to have some fun with it...I think you should do that," she says.
George Executive Editor Richard Blow says DePaulo's Mondale piece called for a lighter touch, and much reporting backed it up. He draws distinctions between attitude and voice. "Atittude has the connotation of sarcasm, flipness, sometimes a little bit of a cheap shot approach," Blow says, "whereas voice is a little smarter and more informed, more original."
But a comfortable level of edge varies from journalist to journalist and reader to reader. Jon Katz, who writes a column about the online world for the Freedom Forum's Web site, has a high tolerance. He says newspapers are "far from the point of people worrying about vividness in writing style." They should "lighten up a bit" to compete with cable, magazines and the Web. As for the risk of offending readers, Katz is firmly in the it-couldn't-get-much-worse camp. "The public would hardly be more alienated from the media than they are now," he says.
The Web has been edgy from its birth. Katz cites Salon as a venue where attitude is flourishing. "The Web is a place that has sort of reinvigorated writing," he says. Some of the Net's outspokenness is "beginning to seep through" to other forms of media. "The Web is forcing newspapers in general to get more casual, more vernacular," to know about pop culture, Katz says.
It's when the flair overwhelms the substance that some find worrisome. "I love to see good writing, good storytelling in newspapers," says Penn State's Frank. "But what I see happening that kind of disturbs me is the glorification of the writer as storyteller." San Antonio's Garcia adds, "Writing with style and simplicity and elegance has been replaced with a certain pushiness...that isn't always welcomed by our readers."
Others see movement in the opposite direction. "I think, if anything, there are more of us who are more careful about speculation and opinion and random observations about people," says the Oregonian's Rowe, who launched a credibility initiative while president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1997. As the press' credibility has become an edgy item of conversation itself, the media are more aware of their responsibilities, she says.
And while many may be decrying the subjectivity of an ethically challenged media, Raleigh's Franklin calls for a more neutral view. "I'm not a fan of letting reporters let it all hang out," he says. "But that said, changing times are very chaotic, and I certainly wouldn't judge the best of what's going to come out of this by the worst that's going to come out of it."