AJR  Features
From AJR,   April/May 2012

The Voice of God Is Dead   

It's past time for news outlets to lose the rigid, formulaic approach to newswriting. But figuring out the boundaries can be tricky. Wed., April 4, 2012.

By Jena Heath
Jena Heath (jenaheath@gmail.com) spent 17 years as a newspaper reporter and editor. In 2008, she joined the faculty at St. Edward's University in Austin, where she is an assistant professor of English Writing and Rhetoric-Journalism and faculty adviser to the student newspaper     

Long ago, a legendary professor terrorized my classmates and me until we could write a news story as it was meant to be written-supremely detached in tone and shaped into something called the inverted pyramid.

Melvin Mencher stood just at 5 feet, spoke in a nasal bark and not infrequently offered us tickets to the symphony and scoldings when we drank too much or failed to eat enough leafy greens. From 1988 to 1989, when I was at his mercy as a student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, impressing Mencher was my single goal. Students petitioned for admission to his classes. If he took you, the standard was high. Three AP style errors, for instance, and he showed you the door- for good.

"Cope!" he would shout, exasperated beyond his limit, when we complained.

Cope with deadlines, he railed, cope with stress but, most of all, cope with the challenge of getting over ourselves. Didn't we understand that our calling was to reveal wrongdoing and tell other people's stories without muddying the waters with our own opinions or, worse, personal experiences? Writing in the third person, standing back from the material, maintaining objectivity, all were key. If we couldn't discipline ourselves to do this, we weren't news reporters, he said, gleefully humiliating us until we ironed any trace of our own voices out of our stories.

Mencher retired in 1990 after 28 years at Columbia, and I headed to Alabama to get started as a reporter at the Anniston Star. There, and over the next 17 years at four more newspapers, I honed the skills Mencher, now 85 and still my mentor, taught me. I showed my commitment and concern for the communities I worked in through the work I published. I opted not to vote in the 2000 presidential race because I was covering it for the Austin American-Statesman and Cox Newspapers, and I tried to remain politically agnostic throughout my time covering the Bush White House. Later, I avoided volunteer work or causes that might lead readers to question my objectivity. I wrote the occasional review or column about subjects not on my beat, but as a news reporter, then an editor, I worked hard to keep my own counsel- in life and in print.

Life isn't in print anymore, however, and so these days, as I stand before my own students at St. Edward's University in Austin, I find myself wondering if what I'm teaching about writing and, by extension, reporting, makes sense anymore. My students, all undergraduates, have grown up online. Most do not read a newspaper (real or virtual) without the threat of a quiz each week. To be sure, some of this is time of life. I wasn't much of a newspaper reader as an undergraduate. Too many of my students, though, tell me that their parents don't subscribe to a newspaper. With each new semester, I ask myself how young people who haven't grown up with newspapers and who reflexively post Facebook updates and tweet their every thought can possibly embrace the omniscient journalistic voice. Should I pass the writing style I learned more than two decades ago on to them or encourage them to develop their own voices, to write news in a less inhibited, more personal way?

So far, the answer has been to stick with tradition, at least for the beginners. Reporting and writing well is hard enough, I figure, and mastering a formula- the inverted pyramid, say- is as important for journalists as proper posture and alignment are for ballet dancers. Learning skills designed to keep your opinions from edging into your work is also part of the job- but I know the job is changing. Increasingly I wonder if the Internet has rendered the traditional voice of detachment obsolete and, if it has, does this mean objectivity (or neutrality, take your pick) is dead? Should it be?

I put my puzzle before journalists, teachers and media watchers and found that a diverse chorus is arguing for a new understanding of what objectivity means in a digital world. Among the most full-throated proponents for change are mid-career journalists who have made the transition from print to online and find they like the new freedom the Internet gives them. They maintain that the objective news voice, a 19th century creation suited for stories distributed by the then-new Associated Press, is at best an anachronism and, at worst, a cover used to disguise opinion. What they advance, instead, is a call for journalists to be transparent about their motivations, methods and mistakes. They want more flexibility when it comes to the way they write. A decade ago, the conversation was about whether too much edgy writing was creeping into the news pages (see "Over the Edge?" April 1999). Today, writing with voice is practically the norm, at least online. This far into the digital age, with the rules changing dramatically, isn't it time newswriting changed, too? I wonder. The balancing act- a potentially treacherous one for reporters being relentlessly scrutinized by all sides- is deciding how much voice is too much. Tone, after all, can convey point of view, which journalists aren't supposed to have, much less reveal. Precisely how reporters should navigate these uncertain waters is something no one seems to have figured out.

The Voice of God style doesn't ring true now (if it ever did) for one simple reason, says Ross Ramsey, executive editor of the online Texas Tribune: The press is no longer society's monolithic information gatekeeper.

"There's a little bit more of, well, Ross Ramsey's writing this, it's not being written by a journalism machine. That universal voice- 'You can't tell who's writing this'- that's gone," says Ramsey, a former newspaperman who covered politics for the Houston Chronicle and the now-defunct Dallas Times Herald. "I think it's a healthy thing, because good writing's good writing. That omnipotent tone is boring. It's not how you talk. It's not how you converse. You can be conversational without being ideological or without being biased."

Howard Kurtz, Washington bureau chief for The Daily Beast and Newsweek, says journalism's voice is changing, not its essential nature. "I follow a lot of journalists online, and I don't see them abandoning neutrality, except for the ones who are already partisans," says Kurtz, formerly the media writer for the Washington Post. "What I see is shedding the conventions of formal language and structure so that we hear them talk like actual people as opposed to voices of unquestioned authority."

In their book "Blur: How to Know What's True in the Age of Information Overload," Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel write that journalism's objective voice of authority has grown louder or softer with each new technological advance in communication. They warn news consumers about the dirty little secret many reporters know to be true, that the traditional journalistic voice often masks a point of view.

"Journalists sometimes use the neutral or independent voice of journalism as a cloak to make implicit or indirect points- to steer the audience to a conclusion," they write. "They may do this in the quotes they select, the sources they seek out, and the adjectives they employ. Knowing the telltale signs of such abuses, and how to deconstruct them, is important."

They exhort journalists to redefine what they mean by objectivity by embracing what they call the "journalism of verification." Transparency, skepticism and an almost scientific method of fact-gathering and checking will produce the deeply reported and detailed stories that readers can trust, they argue. Inevitably, such stories are also vividly written.

At the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, education and city hall beat reporters cover the news and also write columns for weekly zoned editions " sort of the inside skinny, the "Hey, did you know," about their beats, says Maria Carrillo, the paper's managing editor. In January 2011, reporter Harry Minium wrote about the relationship he formed with Regina V.K. Williams, Norfolk's outgoing city manager, a woman he'd aggressively covered and also liked and respected. Here is part of what he wrote:

"I asked Regina, in our final interview, to explain how she so easily put aside the rough-and-tumble world of politics in our personal relationship. As usual, she gave a long and thoughtful response. 'I don't know many relationships that are single-dimensional,' she said. 'I try to be able to move back and forth between those levels. I try to see the person that's there. Even though I can get angry with you as a journalist, that's your job. When I don't think you get it right, I can tell you that you didn't get it right. But that's not Harry the husband, the father, the person that's there. I need to recognize that. At times I need to tell you off, but when I'm done with it, it's over.' "

Such coverage brings transparency to how reporters work. It gives readers insight into how the news is gathered and a sense of who we are, as people and professionals.

Beat reporters in Carrillo's newsroom are also taking creative approaches to news stories. Aaron Applegate's May 7, 2011, front page story about Virginia Beach's new wedding permit is a good example.

DEARLY BELOVED:" the story begins. "We are gathered on the beach today, in the presence of sunburned tourists from Ohio and four-wheeled bicycle carriages, to join this man and woman in matrimony, an honorable estate not to be entered into lightly- and certainly not without obtaining the new $200 beach wedding permit from the city of Virginia Beach."

Carrillo lets the type of story dictate the writing style. In this case, a more lighthearted approach worked. Using a similar approach for a hotly divisive political story wouldn't, she says.

"I think there's room for everything," Carrillo says. "I wouldn't throw out the old approach. I think there are times when that works just fine. And I think there are other times when we can certainly be more creative."

Charlotte Observer Metro Editor Cindy Montgomery says a meaningful connection with a newspaper's audience can be established when readers get to tell their own stories. In such cases, the newspaper functions essentially as a vehicle for linking readers to one another, not as an omniscient recounter of events. She offers as an example a 2006 series on teens and drinking. Reporters and editors conducted and then shaped interviews with a variety of people affected by teen drinking. The series began on a Sunday with "the messenger" " North Carolina state trooper Brian Huffstickler " describing his visit to a couple whose daughter had died in an alcohol-related crash. Here is part of what Huffstickler had to say in the lead:

"It's very, very difficult to tell a father his daughter is dead. It's very, very difficult to tell a mother her son is dead. If you do enough of them, you see the difference. If it's a female, I'll focus on the father. That's what I did. I told him she was killed in a car wreck. He broke down and cried and lost most of his strength. We don't use the word deceased. We try not to use the words they didn't make it or they didn't survive. They were killed in a car crash. Dead as a result of a car crash. There is less denial in hearing those words. They see we aren't wavering. We don't like to say the driver was drunk. We try to keep it basic and factual."

The series went on for five more days with stories from "the daughter," "the abstainer," "the survivor," "the friends," "the counselor"-all sources who spoke in the first person, recounting their own experiences with teen drinking. Montgomery says what she calls the "in their own words" approach was so well-received that the newspaper now uses it routinely.

"I think in some ways we're more open to trying different ways of telling stories," says Montgomery, who has been at the paper since 1990. "It's become a less frequent but more sophisticated conversation about how we can tell this story in a way that will really grip readers and hold their attention."

For Thomas French, a Pulitzer Prize winner when he worked for the St. Petersburg (now Tampa Bay) Times, it all comes down to relentless reporting. French is now in his third year teaching at his alma mater, the Indiana University School of Journalism.

"My students want to expand their toolbox by understanding how to abandon that detached voice and find a way inside their subjects' lives by really reporting the hell out of it," he says. "Those students love it, and the best of them are finding jobs. They're finding a way to do some of that work beyond the university. I think there's a real hunger for that kind of storytelling, whether it's online or in print or in a song or in the news. We want to understand what it's like to be someone else. A lot of good reporting takes us inside those kind of realms."

For readers, listeners and viewers, and for journalists themselves, identifying bias can be tough, and sorting out the new rules is fraught with risk. NPR, for example, squarely in the crosshairs of congressional conservatives determined to cut its funding, can't seem to stop falling on its sword over objectivity, and its critics still aren't satisfied. When Juan Williams lost his news analyst job for remarks he made on Fox News Channel about his fear of Muslims, the decision ignited a torrent of protest, support and confusion over what, exactly, a news analyst can say and not say. After Tucker Carlson's Daily Caller reported that Lisa Simeone had acted as spokeswoman for an Occupy Wall Street group,NPR dropped the show she hosted. That show? "World of Opera."

And there's David Weigel, now a writer at Slate. A talented young political writer with plenty of voice, he is a cautionary tale for my students. After the leak of frank, at times profane, criticisms about the conservatives he was hired to blog about for the Washington Post, posted on an off-the-record listserv restricted to invited journalists,he found himself without a job. Were his posts out of line? And what about Simeone?

Former Sacramento Bee Editor Melanie Sill asks this question when objectivity becomes an issue: Is disclosure of personal views making the reporter ineffective at his or her job? In Weigel's case, the answer was yes, Sill believes.

"On the other hand, this woman hosts an opera show for an NPR affiliate. She was involved in Occupy. Let's think about this: Does the opera show have any impact on Occupy Wall Street? It just gets to the point of absurdity, I think," Sill says.

Weigel has spent most of his career in the online trenches. After the Post blowup, he was initially concerned that he would lose access to sources in the conservative movement. For the most part, he says, that didn't happen. He mended fences in private conversations with people who were offended by his remarks and, more important, he worked harder to become a better reporter.

"I continued trying to do the best I could explaining how something or other in the conservative movement worked, wrote accurate stories, and after that there wasn't much to complain about," he says.

In the wake of the Weigel uproar, CUNY journalism professor Jeff Jarvis wrote a blog post titled "The myth of the opinionless man," in which he called the notion of journalistic objectivity "an institutional myth, a fiction maintained by news organizations, political organizations, governments, businesses, churches, and armies." Along with New York University's Jay Rosen, Jarvis has long called for journalists to abandon the detached voice and be honest about where they're coming from. Jarvis argues for what he calls "relevant transparency, that is to say things that your public should know so that they can judge you well." He adds this about the traditional, detached voice of objectivity: "It's not as if it's worked very well. Not many people think we are neutral or unbiased or that we get it right."

He has a point, judging from the results of a September 22, 2011, survey of attitudes about the press by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. Eighty percent said they believe news stories are often influenced by the powerful, and 77 percent said they think news organizations tend to favor one side. That's a leap from 1985, the year of Pew's first survey on news attitudes. That year, 53 percent of those surveyed said news organizations were often influenced by powerful people and organizations and tended to favor one side.

And while the latest survey found that most people's views of the press are shaped, first and foremost, by cable television news, the Internet, including social networking tools, is increasingly a news source. A quarter of adults (27 percent) said they regularly or sometimes get news or news headlines through Facebook, Twitter or other social networking sites. For people younger than 30, it was 38 percent; for those over 65, 12 percent- a share the survey calls notable.

Those who believe journalistic objectivity is irrelevant, take note: The survey found that most Americans want their news straight, with no political point of view. Seventy-four percent said they prefer Internet sources that do not have a political point of view. Of course, the survey also found that news consumers believe their news sources, the ones they have come to rely on, deliver the news accurately.

So whose bias is in question? Weigel makes this observation about complaints, particularly from conservative commentators, that journalists aren't being objective.

"I wouldn't say we should retire the term or anything," he says, "but it's most often used, in a political context, as a way to try to shame somebody out of writing something that you don't like."

What distinguishes journalism from so much of what readers find online is independence, says Neil Brown, editor of the Tampa Bay Times. What journalists need to do best, he says, is "show our math, let readers decide."

"We have to be more sophisticated and open and provide the nuance that goes with journalism," Brown says. "It's a very gray world out there."

Veteran Los Angeles Times politics reporter Mark Z. Barabak is doing just that. He's writing the news down the middle, offering analysis and, these days, adding Twitter to the mix.

An article he wrote in October about Republican presidential candidates neglecting to talk about Nevada's deep housing and unemployment woes is evidence, he says, that what readers want isn't more opinion, but "news sources that are objective and present both sides of an argument."

"This state is flat on its back, in horrible shape and no one is talking about it," Barabak says. "I wrote the story and got tremendous response. If the e-mails, the retweets, etc., are any indication, there still is an appetite and there still is a hunger for that kind of reporting."

Roy Peter Clark, senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, has taught writing to journalists for 30 years. He cautions against "dichotomist thinking" that pits traditional ways of writing and reporting against the new, shiny freedom of blogging and social networking. If anything, he argues, journalists trying to explain the complexities of today's world need lots of tools, including the old ones.

"All of us, in our lives and in our work, need the neutral reporter to help us figure out, for example, is this medicine safe to take? Is this a fair investment or some kind of Ponzi scheme? Is the owner of that team telling us the truth about the economic resources available to build a stadium?" he says. "These are things that, in our day to day lives, we need to know in the interests of, let's call it community living, but also self-government. Without a foundation of factual reporting and straight writing, then we can't really make any sense of it."

I agree, but I no longer believe that neutrality has to be conveyed through a detached, third-person voice. I'd like to see a harder push for a more engaging form of newswriting, online and in print, for however long it lasts. It's time to ditch the Voice of God once and for all, to write in a more lively, colloquial way even if that means taking chances with voice (yes, even on page one). If we are transparent about our biases and report the hell out of the story, from all angles, we will be accurate and fair, which is, after all, what we really mean by neutral, isn't it? As an example, I offer Tom Robbins' January 15 cover story in the New York Times Magazine. Robbins discloses his connection to his subject, convicted Brinks armored truck robber Judith Clark, before taking us on a vivid account of the terrible crime she is serving a life sentence for, her role in it and her years behind bars. He tells us that he knew Clark, through a mutual friend, in the 1970s, that he wanted nothing to do with her after her arrest and that he was initially skeptical about her jailhouse transformation. At the end, Robbins tells us how his view of Clark changed as he learned more about her through his reporting. I am still debating what I think about Clark. Why? Because his article is so well reported that he makes it hard to draw an easy conclusion. Why, I asked myself when I finished reading it, can't newspapers find a way to adapt this style to more of what they write?

It's a hard time to take risks, I know. Ironically, with all the freedom the Internet offers, we're also in a moment so fraught, so polarized, that any whiff of a point of view makes even the most careful reporter's work a target for hostile readers and pundits cruising for a fight. But I'm raising my daughter far from the media centers of Washington, D.C., and New York City. I read the news like a civilian, and I find that it is too often opaque and incomprehensible. Despite all the change the Internet has engendered, too much newswriting still reads like The Onion. I'd laugh about it all if I weren't reminded each semester of the chance we're losing to grab young people and get them engaged in the world, and what losing them means for us all.