Monday, February 25, 2008

Just Don't Ask Me to Define `Insanity'

Feb. 25, 2008

Dear Karin Wahl-Jorgensen:

Last night I finished reading your ``Journalists and the Public’’ for the Feedback Journalism class at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Interesting to read about the criteria that cause editors to eliminate letters from publication. During 11 years, I struggled with attempting objectivity and the pain of feeling the deadline pressure shaping my work into pre-fabrication. However, I had only a vague idea of what an editor’s job is like, and none about a letters editor’s job.

I was most interested to read in chapter six about editors’ ``expression preferences.’’ I was grateful that you pointed out that political movements used to contain a great deal of emotion, if emotions weren’t their only fuel. I suspect that activists who shun emotion in their public communications now have for some reason decided that they must take an objective tone, and their feelings have nothing have to do with objectivity. Why did we become so hung up on trying for objectivity anywhere and everywhere?

``Though the embarrassing, the painful, the wonderful, the funny, and the beautiful textures of our lives may be grounded in experiences of a deeply personal nature, perhaps they are also the only experiences we can truly share with others, and speaking about them the only way to link us together in an emphatic pursuit of the elusive common good.’’

Really nice.

Although the use of objectivity and nothing else cuts out a lot of useful communication, I still want and expect at least an attempt at objectivity in news reports. One way for the public to get around the limitations of newspaper objectivity could be in the use of blogs. That is, blogs that aren’t written by crazy people, but more on that in a minute.

The only trouble with your recommendation that letters editors get more time to find letter writers and spend more time editing shaky letters into readable form, is that it is kind of thin. As Bob Dylan said, I don’t think that’s liable to happen / like the sound of one hand clappin.’ For publishers and owners, time is money and that rule is gonna remain inert short of sea change. Those people just don’t give a damn.

Depressing to read that editors speak an ``idiom of insanity.’’ But it seems all too clear, based on what I read in your book, that a lot of the letter writers are ``insane,’’ or close to it. They produce an avalanche of letters that just don’t qualify. Buried under the avalanche, the editors had the idiom forced on them.

So I walked away from your book wondering how people who don’t employ emotion and their experiences in politics could be persuaded to do so. I also suspect that letters sections won’t get better until we figure out why there are so many ``insane’’ writers out there. A lot of folks aren’t born crazy, they’re driven to insanity. Good news articles could explore why this is, and how to change it.


Emily said...

Very insightful letter to the editor. Comparing it to others in the group, you remain more positive. In general I don't know if this would be considered too long of a letter? I'm not sure what the limits are, but overall it's a powerful opinion.

Alex D. said...

I was wondering the same question at the end of the book. How to persuade disinterested people to become interested, and people who have a valid view that isn't "insane" to send in letters and comment.

Scott Brodeur said...

By the end of this book, I became hypersensitive to letters to the editor that do not take such a dogmatic, unchangeable point of view. They are rare. And the more of these a newspaper is able to solicit and get into print, the better off for our democracy. But it does not appear anyone has any viable ideas on how to get more civil and interesting discourse into their letters sections, which frankly is sad.