Sunday, April 01, 2007

Some Facts Omitted

"Never let the facts get in the way of a good story."

That's sort of a running gag among journalists, I've heard a lot people say it, and more than I care to admit practice it.

As I've explained previously, I don't write much about my career here, because a large part of it involves writing things I have to write so I want to use this little space for what I want to write. Also writing about my job could get me fired, something I try to avoid.

However in general terms one of the duties I'm tasked with at my office is to "coach" people on their writing.

***Note to Amy and Harlan: I do not teach grammar, spelling or punctuation, so stop panicking.***

We have had a lot of folks come through the newsroom, especially in recent years, who never took classes in journalism, some never went to college...and a whole bunch of them have been "home grown" - kids who started at the radio station any way they could and worked their way into the News department. There are also folks who have bad writing habits, or outdated styles - some correctable...some, well I try to remember all the grace bestowed upon me throughout my life.

Okay, I re-write their stuff daily, but that's another story for another day.

Anyway, every so often one of the folks I work with will ask me to critique their writing, something I am eager to's not that often people actually seek my "wisdom"...something I'd prefer not to dwell upon.

The first thing I invariably say is, "The hardest part of writing is knowing what to leave out." I know there's a standardized school of thought about writing news: who, what, when, where, why...but in truth, when people write like that, it gets very boring very fast. So I encourage, especially young reporters who may not really fully understand some subject matters they find themselves covering, to avoid getting caught up in the bureaucratic jargon, and the minutiae of meetings...find the meat and hit it hard...let the rest go.

Please don't jump on some high horse and tell me I'm "dumbing down the news." I'm only trying to get the real news on, in a way people can understand it.

You have to consider the medium. In radio news, story count is king. You quite often have very little time with your audience, so you need to find the facts that they'll relate to the most, understand quickly, and then move on to another story.

I mean think about it....the days of the family gathered around the radio hanging on every word are for the most part gone. These days when you turn on the radio you're probably only half-listening to begin're getting ready for work, telling the kids to settle down in the back seat of the car, screaming at some driver who just cut you off, or trying to remember if you took the drugs your shrink prescribed to help you cope with hearing the news to begin with...

There are some downsides, obviously...if people are only half-listening, they may "hear" something or as is more often the case "think they hear" something which they perceive as wrong, biased, racist, blasphemous, you name it. It's not unusual for me to get angry phone calls from people - it's amazing what they get ticked off about too, but that's another tangent - only to have me find the story they "heard," read the whole thing to them and have them say, " mind" or hang up in apparent embarrassment.

Usually though, leaving out some facts from a story makes it easier for the listener to understand; however it's often far harder for the reporter to write. I mean you do have to pick the right facts...separate the wheat from the chaff...boil down complicated blathering to what it really means to the folks who've given you their attention.

In truth, it's a discipline that has to be honed over time.

On this blog though, I follow different rules...or my rules of the moment...or sometimes no rules at all...except I don't use profanity in what I write - that's just my rule, please feel free to curse all you want. It's not a law or anything.

***Note to any fellow employees who've asked me for writing tips: that no profanity rule does apply to broadcast copy.*** I suddenly had a vision of getting fired over that...

Anyway, in this little virtually unnoticed crevice of virtual reality I usually write whatever I am feeling and quite often it is the emotion of the moment. It's not a news story, it's the stuff that's on my mind, or my heart...or stuff that Amy and I are experiencing, or something I find interesting... Heck, I don't have any real guidelines for what comes out here, that's why I have this I can take it where I want, or more often I let it take me. It's cathartic...

In essence, this is a very long way around to the only point I can glean from this diatribe which is: I don't take you guys along everywhere my mind or my life wanders. It's not like you'd want a seat on the Michael Main Brain Express anyway, trust me, sometimes I'd like to stop the bus. Plus, I don't exactly lead an adventurous life that would keep you on the edge of your seat...although several years ago I did run across a blogger who wrote about how she and her friend wouldn't "miss a day" of Amy and me. I'm not talking in a healthy, friendly, way...I'm talking about a somewhat obsessed, daily soap opera and sort of creepy way. Not sure what happened to those lone cult members, presumably I bored them off. Sigh, another rabbit trail...sorry.

Anyway, I alluded to this before but I suppose it bears repeating.

Even here, I still leave a lot of stuff out. Trust me, there are no secrets between me and Amy, and I write as honestly as I can here...but...sometimes I deliberately leave out some important facts.

There are any number of reasons for that - besides the slight fear that those lady bloggers who were sort of living vicariously through our lives might renew their interest. Most often the reason I leave out facts is that to do otherwise would hurt people or invade their privacy. I might add, I've had to hone that discipline too.

Why am I telling you this today? That's the funny part...well, at least to me.

I can't tell you why.

It might hurt people.

However if I ever write something that you think is about you, your faith, your job, or whatever, and you feel convicted, angry, or think I'm slamming you specifically...please know that probably wasn't my intent...I'm sorry you took it that way.

Also know this: you may not have all the facts, despite what you may think.

I once gave a testimony talking about my spiritual growth and mentioned a verse from John where Jesus told his disciples, "There's so much more I want to tell you, but you can't bear it now."

Believe me, no one is ever going to confuse me with Jesus...but every once in a while I try to remember His words. The end result sometimes is that I might not tell you all the facts...

And the fact is, I may be doing that because I'm following someone else's advice on how to write the story.

"...for true wisdom has two sides." - Job:11:6