The boundaries of journalism

By Caitlin Kelly

The New York Times newsroom
The New York Times newsroom

I recently watched two terrific films — one a feature, one a documentary — that raise interesting questions about when, how, why and where we, (I’ve been a journalist for 30 years) decide we see a story and decide we want to tell it.

Must tell it.

The feature, based on real life, is called True Story, and is quite extraordinary. I remember, even 13 years ago when it happened, the downfall of a then Golden Boy of journalism, Mike Finkel.

It’s a very rare journalist who gets to write a story, let alone multiple pieces all-expense paid to travel to some distant country to do original reporting, for The New York Times Magazine. It’s considered a real pinnacle for ambitious writers — and one I have yet to scale, even as I enviously read friends’ work being published there.

What Finkel did, combining several characters to make one more compelling, is completely taboo in news journalism, which is mean to rely wholly on verifiable, truthful fact.

But the pressures to stay well-paid and widely admired and respected by editors with the power to make or break our careers? Relentless. It’s only worse now in an age of social media, as my friend Karen Ho knows — her recent Toronto Life story about a murder-for-hire has won huge attention and kudos from the toughest editors in the business.

Yet she’s still working, for the moment, for a small and remote news outlet.

Ambition is crucial for a successful journalism career. But so are rigorous fact-checking and tight ethical boundaries — as the editors of Rolling Stone have also learned after the fiasco of a story about rape at the University of Virginia that rapidly fell apart and has resulted in firings and lawsuits.

In “True Story”, which features a chilling performance by James Franco as Christian Longo, who murdered his entire family, the mutual manipulation is quite amazing to see. (Another fine film examining this issue is Capote, starring the late Philip Seymour Hoffman as author Truman Capote.)

One of the many issues I found so compelling about TS is how it lays bare the ravening ego of a writer who’s fallen from grace — and how desperate he was to redeem himself professionally. Like throwing meat to the lions, he calls every editor he knows, all of whom now worry that he’ll just lie to them as well.

It’s also a painfully truthful film for anyone who’s still lusting to reach the higher rungs of the ladder of writing success — which is almost everyone!

You’ve just won a Pulitzer? Your best friend has a Neiman. You won a Neiman? Your college room-mate won a MacArthur “genius” grant or your former intern won a high six-figure advance/Hollywood contract/three-book deal/NYT best-seller list.

It’s a world of insecurity, self-doubt and perpetual status anxiety.

Yet — without credibility — even the most talented and hardworking journalist has nothing.

The documentary, The Wolfpack, is an astounding film, about six brothers — wearing dark sunglasses, waist-length glossy black hair and some very sharp suits — who grew up sequestered in one of the world’s largest cities, Manhattan. The Angulo brothers (they also have a sister) were essentially held hostage by their father, the only person with keys to the door of their huge apartment in a public housing project on the Lower East Side.

The pathology of his marriage to their mother, a gentle, soft-spoken Midwestern woman, is equally mysterious. Only one moment, and it’s brief, hints at even darker issues.

Darker than keeping your seven children locked up for decades?

As one of them tells film-maker Crystal Moselle, they’d leave their home maybe nine times a year — or one year, not at all.

The men are funny, engaging, stylish and blessed with extraordinary imaginations and empathy. It’s hard to even imagine their life before Moselle discovered them, and their story, on a city sidewalk.

From a recent review:

The Wolfpack is mesmerizing but not because it has stunning cinematography or dazzling effects: the footage is grainy, resembling home movies. Moselle’s camera is surprisingly non-judgemental, especially considering that the film’s subject matter screams “child abuse” and “domestic violence.”

Nevertheless, I couldn’t look away, and each cut felt like a cliffhanger, leaving me with questions that I had faith the filmmaker would answer (or at the very least, acknowledge). However, the documentary leaves many questions unanswered, and I couldn’t help but wonder why this family would volunteer to put their life on display considering the legal and moral questions the film was bound to raise.

In a press release, Moselle claims that she never felt the need to intervene, and that she sincerely believed that the children were well cared for. Perhaps the idea that all is well in the Angulo household is more clear to her than to the average viewer — she did spend years with the family — but a little on-camera reassurance (perhaps by a lawyer) would’ve made me feel slightly less uneasy.

It’s the boundary between voyeurism and value, between finding and telling an astonishing story and feeling squeamish knowing — as we do — that “astonishing” often means “bizarre” or “terrifying”.

One of my first national magazine stories
One of my first national magazine stories

Those of you working in journalism may have already heard this:

“Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”
Janet Malcolm

I sometimes wonder how much of that is true.

16 thoughts on “The boundaries of journalism

  1. Interesting post. I have always wondered how I would deal with not intervening if I were to be creating a documentary. I feel like even being present to view it all and share it with the world is in a way an intervention. By making something private, known to others, you’re altering someone’s life. In shows like “Intervention,” those involved in the filming have stated how hard it is at times to not intervene in the early parts (even though that person will be subjected to an intervention later in the show). Journalism seems to mean walking a very thin line with pitfalls on all sides. Great post. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks for your thoughts…

      There is a famous and awful story of a Pulitzer Prize winner photographer whose image of a starving African infant with a vulture sitting near her caught the world’s attention…he later committed suicide. One of the challenges of traditional journalism is knowing when to intervene (rules?) and when not to. Objectivity and detachment matter but so do compassion and empathy.

  2. I am not a journalist but I do find these questions fascinating. Have you seen the BBC series called The Hour? It touches on the same topics (in a dramatic way). Anyway, I think that final quote is more true than any journalist cares to admit (meaning, it is entirely true, in my humble opinion).

    1. I haven’t, but I’ve heard how great it is. Would love to.

      I have mixed feelings about this. I think ethical journalists at least have the self-awareness of the game and try to play it as cleanly as possible. But I wonder.

      1. LRose

        (First “The Hour” series, engrossing; second and final series, OK. But I was disappointed it didn’t carry on, as the Brits say)

  3. both of these films are on my list to see. when i saw the trailer for wolfpack, i was astonished by the family and the story. you are right about journalists, news, the pressure and the story, i think this is where brian williams went off the railsn-

  4. I really like this post. I have not seen the movies you mentioned but it sounds like they are certainly worth the time. Truth in journalism is a real hot button for me. At times I think that it is an oxymoron like Military Intelligence. The unbiased truth seems nearly impossible to find in most cases. From an outsider’s view, money drives the “truth”. At least where the large media shops are concerned. However, when I become more rational, I hope that the 80/20 rule applies and that 80% of journalists do want to and succeed in finding and delivering the true story without bias. I qualify all of these comments with this: Most of what I know about journalists and journalism, was provided to me by journalists…

    1. Hey, good to hear from you again! 🙂

      So true…The trust we have to place in journalists, even when I am one, is disturbing to me. The very decision to cover a story, let alone spend a lot of time and money covering it, is in itself a bias toward the importance of that issue over others that might have equal or greater value to another editor or set of readers/viewers.

      For that reason, I try to read a variety of press (Canadian, British, French) to balance it out a bit. But still…

  5. I like this post, too. I am the anti-journalist, the PR person. Yet, the moral ambiguities of messaging ring the bell of familiarity. Ethically, we cross a lot of the same bridges.

    That said, in my line of work, there are few journalists I trust. And I have to work with many. I have questions, continually, about who fact checks, how often, and why. And even, what does constitute a “fact” now. Three sources?

    I appreciate your insights! Thank you!

    1. Sorry to hear you trust so few of us, but I don’t blame you.

      The pressure now on any staffer to find and keep a rare/decent job is worse than ever and the clickbait issue worsens. I write for the NYT a lot and am very cautious about making sure my facts are correct — I am also backstopped there by fairly ferocious editors (one reason I value the assignments and clips) who will question many things before it hits print/publication.

      You know that any freelancer trying to make a living — at appalling pay rates now — is dancing the razor’s edge of speed vs. quality. Very few of us can afford the additional time (beyond finding sources, conducting interviews, writing, revising, revising to editors’ wishes) to fact check.

      Having said that, in my 30 year career — and I do not use a tape recorder — I’ve had only three corrections needed. When in doubt, I fact check with my sources and/or I omit anything that feels dubious to me. I think editors (and sources who bother to Google me) trust me because of this track record.

      That’s my goal!

      1. I completely understand. In fact, a couple of the journalists with whom I have regularly worked hold down a news room, all beats, by themselves. They have my unwavering respect.

        But I have a sense of an encroaching “new news” which isn’t news at all. People set up inboxes, blog follows, Twitter and You Tube accounts and other social media directly tailored to the subjective, personal interest with little regard for the big, even full, picture. The rise of the subjective sensational over the objective credible worries me. A lot.

  6. You are so right. The pressure to put yourself above/ahead of the competition drives people to do some outlandish stuff, which they find a way to easily justify. And that might be the scariest thing of all…

  7. Pingback: [BLOG] Some Friday links | A Bit More Detail

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