Telling Our Own Stories, Becoming Better Journalists
As reporters, we're trained to tell the stories of others, to gain an understanding of experiences we may know little about and to not get too emotionally attached to our sources. More often than not, our own stories are left for personal blogs, journal entries and the spoken word.
Some journalists have found, however, that the best way to bring light to important issues is to write mini memoirs -- not in the form of a book, but on the pages of their newspapers and Web sites. Writing their own stories, they say, strengthens their reporting by helping them look harder for details, be more sensitive to the people they interview and develop a deeper appreciation for the work they do.
Their own stories are at times painful accounts of issues that speak to larger truths -- sexual violence, racism, illness, war and hope. One such account is that of Joanna Connors, who wrote a five-part series recently about her experiences as a victim of rape called "Beyond Rape: A Survivor's Story." When researching her own rape, she looked up court records, interviewed family members of the offender and listened to others' stories to better tell her own.
"The thing that rape victims have in common, and I kind of knew but hadn't expected, is the loss of control that we feel," Connors said during a phone interview. "And that lingers in different ways. I thought, 'Well, how can I regain control of this story?' And I realized I could do it by doing what I do."
Susan Goldberg, editor of The Plain Dealer, encouraged Connors to write her own story after hearing that she was planning (and still plans) to write a book about the rape. The story presented Connors and her editors with some challenges: How would they best present this story in the paper, and how would they tell it in a way that gets at the heart of the matter but doesn't overly disturb readers, particularly those who are victims of sexual abuse?
"This is a first-person story that was on a very tough subject," Goldberg said. "We needed to walk the line between being discreet and sensitive. We needed to be both raw and graceful at the same time. I think it was a real writing challenge."
Balancing her moving experiences with hard facts was important, Goldberg said, to the presentation of the story. Sidebars to the story included tips from Cleveland's Rape Crisis Center and the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network about how to protect oneself and seek help.
"We made an awful lot of actionable info available to people, so it wasn't just a story that upset people," Goldberg said. "We really tried to inform, enlighten and educate." The Plain Dealer is also holding a panel discussion about the issue of rape on May 21. Connors, other rape survivors and representatives from Cleveland's Rape Crisis Center and law enforcement are planning to attend.
Given the delicate subject matter of Connors' piece, The Plain Dealer decided to contain the story to its own section rather than running it as a five-part series on the front page of the paper.
"I am really glad we didn't do that because this was both more powerful as a presentation, but it also wasn't in people's faces," said Goldberg, who wrote a letter for the front page of the Sunday paper, letting people know what to expect. "We told people where it was and what it was."
Comments to the articles were originally turned off for fear of what readers might say. They were turned on after Connors received hundreds of e-mails, almost all of which she said were positive.
Goldberg says that when reporters write their own stories, it helps if they consider how the story relates to the greater community. Connors' story, for example, addresses issues of sexual violence, race, gender and the court system in both its written form and in the video that accompanied her story.
"I know lots of people have written about illnesses, and I think that does good, but what's the community good?" Goldberg said in a phone interview. "We have to ask ourselves in a story like this, 'How do we do this in a way that's palatable?' What we tried to do was just be really up-front with readers. I wanted to tell people, 'This is a powerful story, but it's hard to read. If you don't want to read it, that's fine, but here's how you can access it if you do want to.' "
Connors said that reporting her own story was a learning experience, one that taught her to be more sensitive to the subjects she interviews.
"I know asking people to share intimate things with 400,000 newspaper readers is a lot to ask," she noted. "I really realized it with this story when I started thinking, 'This is going to be on the front page of the newspaper.' Even though I was the writer, at a certain point, you don't control your own story anymore -- editors control it."
Connors said part of her inspiration for "Beyond Rape" came from Washington Post reporter George Lardner, who in 1992 wrote a Pulitzer Prize winning story, "The Stalking of Kristen," about the murder of his daughter by a former boyfriend, who stalked her.
Telling Our Stories So Others Can Tell Theirs
Some journalists say one of the appeals to sharing their stories is that it opens doors for others to share their own experiences. Connors said that since "Beyond Rape" ran, she has received hundreds of e-mails from readers who shared with her their experiences with rape and sexual violence.
Entertainment reporter Lee Thomas of Fox News in Detroit had a similar experience when in 2005 he reported about his experiences with vitiligo, a condition in which the skin loses its pigment. In his documentary, "Turning White," Thomas said he had never received so much feedback for a story.
Jodie Wilson, a page designer at The Detroit News, has a blog on the paper's Web site called the "Breast Monologues." In the blog, she chronicles her experiences living with breast cancer. Readers comment regularly on her posts, sharing anecdotes about radiation and chemotherapy treatment. "Today was Day #16 for me and only 14 more rads to go -- yahoo!" a woman calling herself Dana wrote.
St. Petersburg Times reporter Jan Wesner has created a blog called "Standing By." In it, she writes about the difficulties she and her children faced while her husband, Mark, was stationed in Iraq. She has written about exercising to cope, her desire to help other army wives and about her children getting upset when Mark, who returned from Iraq in January, leaves town.
Folks who comment on her blog often thank Wesner for sharing her story. One woman identified as Kathryn recently wrote: "Without your blog we wouldn't have a place to speak out about our lives, and we wouldn't have come to know you and your family. You're an inspiration and a very brave woman to bare your soul as you do."
When asked in a phone interview about the idea that journalists should keep their private lives out of the public sphere, Wesner said, "You don't want to become so attached to your sources that it affects the way you tell a story. You want to maintain that open mind and objectivity, but I think there's nothing wrong with sharing your story with sources. I always try to find something to relate to the people I'm interviewing. I say, 'Hey look, I tell my story every day.' "
Wesner said that updating "Standing By" daily has prompted her to ask more detailed questions of the people she interviews, questions she often asks of herself: "What was going through my mind at that point? How did that make me feel?"
Sharing her own experiences with readers has rekindled Wilson's passion for storytelling during a time when morale in many newsrooms is low. "By doing the blog and writing my own story, I really fell back in love with writing and being a reporter," she said. "It really sparked that joy in myself when I write something good. That's carried over into my work as well. I'm re-energized to write and report."
For others, personal writing can heal. Connors sums up her experience of writing about herself as a journalist in part five of her "Beyond Rape" story:
"As a reader and a writer, I believe in the power of stories to bring us together and heal," Connors wrote. "I have asked so many other people to open themselves up and let me tell their stories, all the while withholding my own. I owed this to them."