By Diane McDougall
Earlier this year I published what might well have been the most challenging piece of journalism I’ve ever tackled.
“Most challenging” is obviously relative. I’ve never been assigned to report on starving children in a dusty African nation, torn between recording comments about their protruding bellies and picking them up in my arms. That kind of “challenging” might well do me in, emotionally.
No, my version of challenging was more cerebral than emotional. And I actually proposed it, so I couldn’t blame anyone but myself for the mental gymnastics I found myself engaged in.
My article pitch: to interview people who voted completely differently in the 2016 election, despite having been lumped together as one cohesive demographic.
In the process, what most intrigued me — because, of course, the event itself was long over — was how challenging it was to be objective when addressing something about which I have my own deep convictions.
Like many Americans, I was weary of the election season’s posturing, the defensiveness, the inability to have a civil disagreement. I knew that some people had made uninformed choices, slanted choices, don’t-confuse-me-with-any-facts choices. But I was convinced that many more had thoughtfully considered everything set before them. And still come to different decisions.
Different decisions, because we prioritize things differently; we have personal passions and personal demons that drive us in different directions.
My goal was to hear-out these individuals, perhaps ask a few pointed questions, but otherwise basically respect the thoughtful process they’d each engaged in and give them a voice.
Can I truly hear you or am I too busy formulating rebuttals?
I knew I’d be interviewing people I liked, trusted and respected. These wouldn’t be — for the most part — strangers I could easily dismiss if I didn’t share their reasoning. The very act of liking them as people meant that I’d be compelled to give them oodles of benefit-of-the-doubt.
I looked forward to the experience — the exploring, the Hmm … tell me why? And even Help me understand? I found it fascinating that this particular subgroup of individuals — often assumed to be a cohesive cohort — could be so all-over-the-map regarding the priorities that shaped their vote.
And you know, the interviewing itself wasn’t the challenge. Basically, with everyone, I asked who and why about the past and what about the future.
No, my bigger challenge lay in sitting down to write the thing. I didn’t want to tip my hand as to my own vote by using subtle pejoratives or extensive, detailed defenses for one “side.” I was driven to convey well-earned respect even when I didn’t completely agree.
But despite all my good intentions, I can’t tell you how many times I wrote myself into a corner. Or had to edit-out a turn of phrase that simply wasn’t neutral. This objective journalist thing is really hard.
I could have done the John Stewart thing and just stated my own opinion, my vote, right up front. But I really wanted to see if I could pull it off — if I could treat people and their thought processes as more important than introducing my own slant.
I also felt the pressure to add my own clever insights instead of letting others simply tell their own story. Medium writer Jeff Jarvis nailed that one in his piece “A Postmortem for Journalism,” about media coverage of the election:
“In the end, journalism lost sight of its simple, vital reason to exist: to inform the public. Think back on story after story and round table after round table and ask whether it was conceived and executed to help inform the electorate or instead to entertain them and grab their attention or make the journalist look like the smart one. Our job is to make the public smart.”
After much backtracking and cursing and deleting entire clever paragraphs and starting over, I finally turned it in. In the end, the greatest praise I received from each of my interviewees was that I’d been fair and balanced. “This is a work full of grace,” one wrote.
I’m not sure what lesson I learned beyond: Being objective and grace-full is hard. But I’m glad I tackled it. “Being right” is not my primary goal, so I don’t want to live — or write — as if my life depends upon it.
Again, the actual article seems less important than the process. But you’re welcome to read my essay, and form your own opinion as to whether I was objective or not.
Diane McDougall loves dogs, dancing, neighbors, editing and spicy Thai food. Tries to find a way to combine it all whenever possible. (It’s not as hard as you might think.) She is the editor of EFCA Today and editorial director for the creative agency Journey Group. Diane served EPA as president from 2009-2011.
Originally posted on Medium July 9, 2017.