“The journalist…never had the slightest intention of collaborating with him on the story, but always intended to write a story of his own.”
—Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer, 1990
Journalists often talk about balance, and it is usually in the context of a finished piece of writing: was it “fair and balanced”? Did it consider all sides of an issue? Did it appear to take a side?
These are difficult questions, and they become even murkier when the moral and political ground is shifting underneath us. Recently I had an encounter in a newsroom where I proposed a story about a lawsuit against Donald Trump over his business conflicts. A colleague worried we already had too many stories that day that were critical of Trump—his concern was about the appearance of balance. But if the 45th president of the United States wakes up every day and makes an inflammatory comment, lies, or gets sued for an impropriety, is it my responsibility to “balance” these facts with the reality that some people trust him nonetheless?
I won that argument and did my story about the lawsuit. But the whole discussion made me uncomfortable: the appearance of balance, in this case, conflicted with the pursuit of truth. And I know for a fact that this same conflict arises constantly in news production—we are compelled to put long, dishonest statements from companies or politicians alongside the crushing stories of people whose lives they have destroyed, so that our audiences can see that we at least tried to be fair. But in the pursuit of perceived balance, institutional power almost always gets the upper hand.
And the journalist or writer, supposedly a neutral mediator of the whole thing, stands not in the middle, but somewhere on the actual scales of balance, too. Let’s admit it: journalists always have opinions. And, we are often lying to ourselves and our sources about our goals. We tell ourselves the pursuit of truth is pure, but we ask others to share their stories so that we can get another paycheck for telling these stories publicly. The risk is often distributed unevenly: the recent story of Daniela Vargas, detained by ICE after she talked to the media (she has since been released), makes clear the imbalance often inherent in our interactions with the people whose stories we tell.
In this line of thought, I’ve been influenced by the delightful cynic Janet Malcolm, who writes in her book, The Journalist and the Murderer, “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too 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 then betraying them without remorse.”
So many times I’ve gone into interviews humble, gentle, full of smiles and eye contact, and made myself believe that the source will get something out of sharing their story. People have told me about rapes, beatings, child abuse, war, sexual harassment, unjust imprisonment, terrifying journeys across international borders, losing their jobs, losing family to police violence, and murdering people with their own hands. People have told me things they’ve never told anyone else; they’ve said I was an “angel” for listening so sensitively. I’ve cried with them, asked careful follow-up questions, texted or called back to make sure they are okay.
But professional journalism is, as Malcolm suggests, inherently extractive. Being a person who sells stories in a marketplace of ideas, you become selfish—you take in stories about trauma with a twinkle of delight—“this is a good one,” you think, even as you empathize in the moment. Recently I found myself on the phone with my mom, telling her “it would be great if I could find someone who is sleeping in their car” for an upcoming reporting trip. She was horrified—that would be “great”? Well, right. Not great for the family living in a car. Great for the story.
Journalists are like miners. We go in and dig. And more often than not, we take something that is never returned or rebuilt. Journalism is extractive, because journalism is about selling a product. Photographers, artists, and many other kinds of storytellers run into the same conflicts between respecting their subjects, and selling their images to make a living.
Which brings me back to the issue at hand, the subject of this issue of Art21 Magazine: “Balance.” What if balance, in the kind of nonfiction storytelling I do, was not about appearances, but about process? My friend Andrew Ramsammy, in his recent piece on “rebel journalism,” writes: “News is not journalism if what’s being reported is only meant to extract value from communities as opposed to creating value within them.” What would it look like to produce stories in a less extractive, more collaborative way—to do harm reduction against the dishonest dynamic that so often exists between writer and subject?
It begins, I think, with doing what I’m trying to do here: honestly acknowledging the inherent power of being the one who crafts the story. Malcolm writes that the source or subject inevitably ends up realizing “the journalist…never had the slightest intention of collaborating with him on the story, but always intended to write a story of his own.”
But what if we resisted that cynicism? What if we did go in with the intention of collaborating on the story? What if our process, as Andrew suggested in his piece, attempted to cultivate skills, connections, and curiosities, rather than merely pulling out the most clickable quotes? What if we sought true balance between the people who hold the tools and the people who tell the tales? What if we honestly conveyed the limitations of finding that balance?
I’ve tried this many times before: from a project in Chicago where young people learned interviewing and recording skills to tell stories about their experiences with police; to a series in Dayton, Ohio where women in prison recorded and curated one another’s life stories. And many other journalists, artists, and media producers work with those intentions and that approach. But in my experience, there is still always a power dynamic: a moment where my opinions carry more weight or override the less “expert” person, a moment when the story becomes mine to tell, because of the position I’m in. So far, the only solution I’ve found to that is total transparency: let people know which decisions will be truly collaborative, how they will benefit, and how they will not.
I don’t believe balance is a stable place at which we can ever fully arrive, and we’d be kidding ourselves if we claimed we can disappear the lines between writer and subject, photographer and photographed, or individual and collective. In our current system, we can’t. Still, I have a vision I know I’m not alone in, that I know is also tied to ancient cultures and fantastical futures: a vision of a world in which the artist, the storyteller, the creator, is a person whose value is in what they cultivate in a community, a person who seeks balance in the process, not just the product.
In this issue we’ll hear from poets, performance artists and visual artists seeking or toying with balance in its many manifestations: balance in artistic process, balance between audience perception and the artist’s intentions, balance on one leg in a yoga pose, and balance with history, memory, and oppression. Seeking and striving for balance may be all we can ever do, so long as institutionalized racial, gender, and economic inequality remain the frames within which we work. But I’m delighted to share a platform with so many other creators who are striving nonetheless.
Correction: March 20, 2017
This story has been updated. Daniela Vargas was not deported by ICE after talking to the media, she was detained. She has since been released.