Can Writers Get Creative With Facts?

When a congressman shouted “You lie” during a nationally televised  speech by President Obama in September, the gasp was heard around the globe. That phrase is an insult. And because it is, the verb lie is commonly replaced by misspeak, exaggerate, inflate, mislead, misrepresent, twist, obfuscate, make excuses, commit perjury and, the latest way of saying it, spin.

Everybody lies. Hardly anybody admits it, which is more lying. But lying comes in many guises, ranging from the polite “I love your hat,” to the carefully worded “I did not have sex with that woman,” to the blatant “It’s not a Ponzi scheme.”

I once got a call from a guy I’d interviewed for a magazine article. He told me he’d just been hired (after two years of unemployment) by the very company he’d criticized in the interview. My article-in-progress quoted him, but he explained that if his words appeared in print, he’d surely be fired. He didn’t want to change his opinion; he just wanted to never have given it. He was almost in tears.

Talk about material for The Ethicist. I weighed what I’d been asked to do. The easier solution was to print the comment, let the chips fall and hope the piece would be another step on my way to becoming editor of The New York Times. On the other hand, the guy had a family and his back was against the wall, and while his quote was provocative, it was not essential to my story.

A good test for dilemmas like this is to ask yourself how your decision would affect your article, your readers and your sleep (and how you’ll feel when you wake up). So, I pulled the quote. I’ve never regretted it.

But what I did was tantamount to lying. And I never wondered, until now, whether my source had lied to me in that game-changing phone call.

When you exaggerate on your résumé, that’s another kind of lie. You might say that putting your best (or, more grammatically correct, better) foot forward is the same as not mentioning the missing toes on the other foot. In fact, the recent economic climate has created a growth in outright lies. An article in the Philadelphia Business Journal recently reported that Know It All Background Research Services, a Bensalem, Pa. company that investigates such things, found twice as many discrepancies in employment applications in 2009 than 2008.

Of course, this is not to say that these techniques are new. In fact, some oldies but goodies are falling by the wayside as times change. I heard about one writer who used to use a pay phone to land tough interviews: When the subject said “hello,” he’d dump a bunch of quarters into the slot, and after all those dings the subject wouldn’t have the heart to hang up. Lying, no, but misleading nonetheless.

Salespeople lie. Lawyers lie. No surprises there. Then there’s sex: If nobody lied, no one would ever get laid, let alone married. (And, of course, no one would stay married. But don’t get me started.)

Without lies, narcs couldn’t infiltrate and writers couldn’t write exposés. Or restaurant reviews. Or much else with an edge.

Woodward lied. Bernstein lied. But not to their readers. They broke what was probably the biggest story of all time, and probably lied every day to do it—about what they knew, when they knew it and who they learned it from. But what finally appeared in print was worth it. That is known as the end that justifies the means: the public’s right to know.

Before we get too far along, let me stress that as a writer—unless you’re writing fiction—you have no business distorting the truth, calling fiction truth or misleading your readers. Writers caught doing so have left an embarrassing trail of high-profile evidence in their wake. Take former Washington Post staffer Janet Cooke, who infamously was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for a fabricated story about an 8-year-old drug addict who turned out not to exist. The Pulitzer was subsequently withdrawn, but the damage was done.

Then, of course, there’s former New York Times writer Jayson Blair, who falsified and plagiarized in dozens of pieces—destroying his career, causing heads to roll at the paper and giving it a once-in-a-lifetime black eye.

These stories should be enough to keep anyone honest. It’s easy enough to do: Tell the truth, hang a “BE FAIR” sign above your keyboard, listen to your gut and check your facts. But in my decades of reporting, I’ve seen plenty of instances that prove that’s easier said than done. So, here are some gray areas I’d advise writers to contemplate.    

USING COMPOSITES
Say I’m working on an article about how burglars burgle. I talk to three miscreants, one of whom is serving time and two who are still visiting homes that aren’t theirs. I decide that much of what each of them tells me duplicates, in many respects, what the others have said, so, in order to eliminate redundancy, I roll them into one character—a composite—whom I introduce in my article as “a person I’ll call Bobby G.,” which puts the reader on notice. Because of the anonymity, there’s no way my story can be verified—that alone affects my credibility—but I’m a writer, not a cop, and the article, written in the clearest way possible, may help people keep their homes and families safer.

BOTTOM LINE: So is it OK to use composites? When there’s a good reason for doing so, yes, provided you’ve actually done the legwork in the form of real research. If the aforementioned Janet Cooke had used a similar technique—that is, if she’d said, “a person I’ll call Jimmy,” and had based her subject on two or three real kids instead of a nonexistent one—things could be different for her today.
 

BEING SUBJECTIVE VS. BEING OBJECTIVE
I don’t have anything against objectivity, but nobody’s really objective and most writing doesn’t require it. Objectivity is misleading: Some people will think it’s actually without bias. Subjectivity is more honest, more interesting and juicier, and most readers spot it easily enough; in fact, almost everything they read contains it. That’s my opinion.

THE VERDICT: As a writer, you’re expected to have reasonable, responsible opinions, and stating them as such will never be a matter of life or death—unless you’re on
a jury.

FINDING A WAY TO SAY WHAT NOBODY’S SAYING
Sometimes I’ll have a thought or opinion that I believe should at least be mentioned in an article I’m writing, but nobody I’ve spoken to has actually said it. To give voice to the thought, I’ll occasionally put it into the mouth of “an interested observer” who happens to be me (arguably, no observer is more interested than the writer). Such an unattributed quote will likely not carry a great deal of credibility, however, because everyone knows the village idiot could have said it.

SOME GUIDELINES: If you choose to employ this technique, do so sparingly—and keep it short and to the point, the kind of comment you’d get from a stranger standing next to you waiting for a flu shot. (Like a flu shot, you want to present the germ of an idea, not the whole disease.)

SHIELDING YOUR SOURCES
I once did a cover story for Philadelphia magazine about a coterie of soccer moms who were turning tricks (I’m not talking pinochle). I’d learned about the team from a colleague who set up a friendly chat about their entrepreneurial secrets over milk and cookies—confidentially, of course.

When the evening came, I told my friend to drive aimlessly in the darkness for a while before moving on to our destination. We ended up at a small, nondescript home somewhere in New Jersey—I knew not where.

After the story’s publication, a couple of New Jersey police investigators came to the magazine to find out who and where the prostitutes were. I said I didn’t know nothin’, which was true—no names, no addresses. I could have said it under oath. They could have asked me about the friend who acted as intermediary, but they didn’t. I guess they had bigger fish to fry.

While it’s rare that you’ll have to protect your sources—most stories are harmless, after all—when     you do, knowing less is sometimes better. But the fewer hard facts you supply to the readers (names and addresses, for instance), the more soft detail you should include (what she was wearing, brothel decor) to create a believable environment. Too much anonymity jeopardizes your credibility, so it’s a balancing act.

UNWRITTEN RULE: When people agree to be your Deep Throat, you are honor-bound to protect them. If you’re covering a crime but you’re not ready to go to jail, think twice before cutting any deals. 

PARAPHRASING
When you paraphrase, you transform an inept mouthful into a clearer, more concise statement. For example, to paraphrase the two paragraphs preceding this one (assuming you think they’re a waste of space), you could cut my 100 words to 12: “Spikol recommends citing sources when possible—but not if you’ve promised anonymity.”

REMEMBER: Mention the sources of paraphrased quotes; use quotation marks around verbatim phrases only.

GETTING THE INTERVIEW YOU NEED TO PITCH THE STORY
You can’t say you’re on assignment unless you are. So, what if you’re not? You’re hoping to get a byline for a freelance article, but what does the interviewee get for her time? Whether this question comes up or not, it’s top of mind for the person who is considering your request for an interview. Some things you may be able to offer are publicity, increased visibility or an added line on the subject’s résumé—all true if and when you sell the piece. 

RULE OF THUMB: There are ways to imply that publication is a possibility. If an editor has agreed to look at your idea, even though that’s no promise of a sale, you could say that the publication has indicated interest. If you can’t honestly say that much, phrase your request to give the interviewee a stake in the action. “I’m researching an article about __ and think you might want to add your point of view.”

WORKING UNDERCOVER
Guy Neal Williams wrote a piece for me at Philadelphia magazine many years back. He spent two weeks as a migrant worker on a Pennsylvania farm. He smuggled a camera in and never told his employers his real name or what his intentions were—or even that he could speak English. He was probably in danger the entire time, and he couldn’t have done the article without lying to the owners. His article revealed how migrant workers were being cheated, mistreated and worse by employers in one particular industry, and he won a major journalism award. In hindsight, we didn’t pay him enough.

TIPS: Look stupid. Restaurant reviewers don’t warn the maitre d’; if they did, they’d get the best meals. If you go forth with hidden tape recorder or video camera, use caution—states have varying rules regarding taped conversations, so check the statutes. At the time of this writing, the folks who taped those embarrassing ACORN videos were being accused of violating wiretap law.

INTERPRETING THE FACTS
Facts may be facts, but if they were all that mattered, life would be easy. What also matters is the interpretation of those facts. In court, witnesses swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but both prosecutors and defenders still call experts to the stand. In the final analysis, opinions are more compelling.

What to do?

You’re entitled to your opinion. What a country! But opinions should be expressed as opinion, not as fact, though hyperbole is usually fine. Your chances of avoiding libel are better if you make sure your opinion sounds like one. A food reviewer can say a steak “tasted like it was two years old,” but cannot claim she was served a two-year-old steak. Similarly, “There’s evidence that Mr. Spikol cheated on his income tax” is a statement for which I could sue you—unless I’d already been found culpable. It’s not the writer’s job to interpret evidence. But you can say, “The government’s evidence may cause problems for Spikol.” Or phrase it as a question: “Could this be the end for Spikol?”

GET UP TO SPEED: For your protection (and that of the publications you write for), you should be familiar with the laws regarding libel, as well as the protections for writers under a principle called “fair comment.” Look it up.
 

BEING PAID TO LIE
Hey, don’t feel bad. Not everybody is Clark Kent. If you work in public relations, your job probably includes spreading the good news and stifling the bad. Employee newsletters often sugarcoat things for employees. Mission statements rarely state that the company’s primary goal is to make money. Annual reports usually are optimistic. And it’s not your fault. It’s dangerous out there in foreclosure land. We gotta do what we gotta do.

THE TRUTH: In the age of the Internet, most writing is out there for everyone to see. And there’s that built-in bullshit meter most of us have: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. To wit, ads mislead on a regular basis, putting bad news in tiny print or delivering health information against a background that makes it difficult to focus. On TV, diets work and tap water sells. And that device I bought to get me online in a heartbeat doesn’t perform as advertised.

One last word. Reporting isn’t what it used to be when who, what, where, when and how were the elements that kicked off every story. Today’s writers are often characters in their own pieces; the first person is common; nonfiction employs fictional devices. In this environment—where credibility is so important—it’s essential for writers to establish who they are by behaving in the ways for which they would like to be recognized. So whoever you choose to be, choose to do the right thing. 


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