On journalism, and poor choices, and cultural influences, and storytelling

It must've been around 10 years ago that I first came across Dooce, a popular American blogger.

I didn't intend to though.

Back then, a fellow Estonian blogger, Daki, kept referring to Dooce in her very plentiful posts and as a result, I became familiar with Dooce as a matter of... consequential repetition, I guess. Sorry, I don't know how to call it otherwise: I didn't feel connected to Dooce and neither was I particularly interested in what Dooce had to say, but I kept seeing her name pop up in Daki's writings, so I became familiar with Dooce as a... sort of a side effect of being familiar with Daki, if that makes sense.

But anyway - in the last two years, I think I've started to finally... get Dooce. As I read her thoughts, I now actually relate to her, and what's more - she has become a fascinating storyteller to me.

I don't know if she's been like that for a long time and I just haven't had that mental space to notice her, or whether she's developed into this storytelling angel only recently - probably both - but I have found a fellow human being whose thoughts move and affect me deeply and frequently.

I don't read everything she has to say and often miss entire weeks' worth of her writing because I'm just... not interested in what she's up to, or too busy, or whatever.

But the consistent thing that's been happening when I come back to her - whenever that is - is that I keep discovering stuff that... moves me.

Take her recent post, for example, 2 Minutes of Your Time. I read it this morning and felt myself nodding inside when I was going over,

"During the panel I shared a sadness I’ve felt about the increasing lack of independent storytelling online, how so much of the content being produced now is all about images and beautifully styled vignettes. So much of the web has become a giant Pinterest board. Why share that emotion with that audience? What’s interesting is that one of the most consistent sources of incoming traffic to my website is Pinterest. And it’s not because of a picture of a room in my home or an outfit I wore to a fancy dinner. It’s a picture of me when I’m 40 weeks pregnant and it links to the story I told about Marlo’s birth. It’s been pinned to several thousand different Pinterest boards which leads me to believe that there still exists a very real need for connection and storytelling."
dooce.com/2014/04/29/2-minutes-of-your-time

It's a thought I relate to very deeply, and on a very personal level.

I've been lucky, in a sense I guess, that I've been able to have a very considerable journalistic "career" very early on, at an age when I wasn't aware of the impact my writing was making and the responsibility it carried. As far as I was concerned, I was just a young, interesting backpacker whose experiences various magazines were interested in featuring, and as I accrued more experience writing about Alaska and sled dogs, I started to delve deeper into other sorts of writing.

I mean, Christ!, I've written about... international airline travel, low GI diets, motorcycling, schooling, dress codes; have interviewed people, some of them internationally renowned; columns, editing, researching.

And only through experience, and time, have I come to notice and understand how superficial a lot of this type of writing is, and how I've come to almost... loathe it - loathe it because I now have the ability to recognise it.

The sharpest turning point, for me, was during my first year of Master's studies when I was doing an internship at a major, respected, national-level newspaper and by chance and luck was assigned to work within their editorial team.

Editorial team - it's those people who take care of pages 2 and 3, right at the beginning, where there are columns, opinion pieces, sarcastic caricatures. In many ways it is the cream of journalism, a role only outstanding and usually rather old journalists get assigned to. (I don't know if you've read the book, but John Grogan explains it really well in Marley & Me - he was, and I am going by memory here, a columnist for a... Miami newspaper? Something along those lines.)

I did good work during my 6 weeks there, too, of course, and a few of those articles I would quite proudly read even now, but... there is also that little column, that little sarcastic opinion piece I was encouraged to write on a topic I have almost no knowledge of whatsoever.

You would never know what it was (and I am not going to tell you either) because on those little opinion pieces where essentially a whole newspaper's view on some topic is represented, a journalist's responsible name doesn't get printed - it is an opinion of a whole newspaper after all - but on that fateful day, editorial team asked that I do that opinion piece.

Which in itself was not a big deal, because I'd done them before, too.

But on that day, my first draft was cast aside as too dry and in need of work, and so was the second, and by third I was asked to really pump it up and say what I wanted to say with gusto - which I did, because I am obedient like that - but I also had a feeling even as I was writing it that... it was wrong.

It wasn't journalism - it was lashing out, mindlessly. It was like being a popular kid in the class and bullying some other, smaller kid, simply in the knowledge of being able to get away with it. I wrote what I was asked to write, and it was, indeed, rather harsh and "pointy", and the next day, of course, comments were coming in.

In some ways it's what opinion pieces get judged by - by the amount of feedback they receive. If a piece connects with readers or at least touches them, they write; and if it doesn't, they don't.

That morning, the comments were in - there wasn't an outrageous amount, but there was enough to see that what had been said had worked, to a point. But it was the... content of these comments that made me feel sick to my stomach.

The ones that were crying out alongside me, "Yay! Well said!" were written in a way that led me to believe that people who'd written them hadn't had a lot of schooling; and the ones that were well-spelt and respectful were saying things along the lines of, "Are you trying to become Daily Mail?" One actually said that he was considering ending his subscription because he was reading this newspaper in the hope that it was set on staying respectable and well-researched, but what he saw being said in this opinion piece was mindless lashing instead.

And I could totally agree with him.

And this - this is what puts me off about so much of the media nowadays. This is what encourages me to listen to Kim Hill on Radio New Zealand instead, and read older copies of National Geographic, and steer clear of almost every current newspaper and a magazine out there, with a few, thoughtful exceptions.

I am able to recognise that a lot of the writing out there is done not because this is what an author genuinely feels like, but because what's written looks good, or sells good, or has been asked for.

Journalists are people also, and they, too, want their bills paid and their salaries in their bank accounts. If a story has been promised by Thursday evening and it's been a hell of a week before that, but the invoices need paying and the promises need honoring, pieces get submitted.

I've done that, too - I have sat up late into the night, finishing articles I really couldn't see being great, but because I had promised I would, I did finish them, and they were printed and published, and they are there forever now.

And it's sad for me to think that some of the readers are still in the mindset of trusting media - maybe not everything, but at least trusting what they think to be the respectable sources - and as they read my words, they won't necessarily know that it was a 22-year-old writing it at 11 pm on a Wednesday night, based on some information she had googled on the internet.

I don't write like that any more, not for other publications anyway - this space here is different - but I know for a fact that a lot of the writing I see published and printed does get done in that manner. I know for a fact that some home interiors that get photographed and featured in glossy magazines get set up precisely for photo shoots and then when it's finished, people move things back to how they usually live because what looks good on a photo and what actually works in a room where people move about may be two different things.

I know for a fact there are DIY articles featured out there, with furniture makeovers and room makeovers and whatever - that if you came to see that DIYed piece a few months later, you would see that the paint is peeling and that classy look which looked so sassy on a photograph, it doesn't actually work well in real life. How many times have I seen carpenters tell me that this is not how something's done, not if it's meant to last anyway? Or gardeners point out that two plants planted together like that will have one of them die within two years because the other one will overcrowd it? Or doctors comment on a diet featured in an article, saying that this is just asking for development of hypocalcemia, if a diet is stuck to?

It's why I am being... stubborn, I guess, at not wanting my name to go on that book cover any more before I am able to be proud of the text I produce.

I think it's what I have come to appreciate in Dooce's writing so much - it's that I can see a certain level of... integrity. It's the lack of integrity that puts me off so much from some other, also very popular bloggers' writing, and makes me outright cringe when they start getting featured more and more in other publications, based on their popularity.

But having said that, everyone to their own, right? It is my right to choose who I listen to, and it is other people's right to listen to who they choose to. Parenting topics especially - Christ!, potty training, starting solids, breastfeeding, schooling... Just do what you're comfortable with, within reason, and accept that other people may disagree with you, and leave it at that!

It's why I think I fit in better in cultures that leave and respect a decent amount of personal freedom, for all the problems that also come with this approach, and why I probably find it so fascinating seeing where Dooce has come having grown up in an environment of Mormonism, and Brigham Young, and seeing how she is balancing that against still having that extended family around her.

I don't know if you had a chance to listen to it yesterday, but there was a radioshow on Radio New Zealand National between 9 and 10 pm local time where a guy discussed gender equality in the context of different cultures and countries.

I listened to this lady saying how women simply are better at taking care of children and when the interviewer replied that he can see it with breastfeeding - being a male he isn't able to - but as far as everything else goes, he doesn't agree, and how this lady just repeated that of course men can take care of children, but it's just that women are better at it.

I cringed. When I arrived home shortly thereafter I told The Man I am glad neither of us is of this opinion.

Or how there was a father that, when asked why he allowed his son more freedom than he did to his daughter, he replied it's because he loved his daughter more.

I cringed at that, too.

But it's how cultural influences work: just as I weren't able to recognise poor journalism when I was 22, I can see how other people follow a certain mindset simply because this is what they're accustomed to, or because they haven't got access to information that would state otherwise, and how even this "independence" and "freedom" I am referring to is, also, actually a mindset.

It's what environment I am in. And it's the choices I make.

2 comments:

  1. Anonymous29.4.14

    Hi, thought I'd just leave a mark of having enjoyed reading this post. And while I'm at it - thank you for sharing snippets of your everyday life and thoughts in general. I too enjoy blogs/articles that are "real". Reading blogs like your's broadens my horizon, even though I do not know you personally. It's an unique and kind of cool way to have a peek into someone else's world, and when people are more or less real about what they show you, the more valuable it is.

    So, here's my appreciation and thanks for sharing a bit of your world, and all the best wishes for you and your family - purely selfish reasons, it makes my day brighter too, if I get to read a post about good stuff happening ;)

    Misti

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    1. thank you, misti, for taking the time to write this comment.

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