Look at me, I’m complaining about journalists who write about themselves!

As someone who reads far too many news articles for his own good, I may be somewhat more sensitive to media cliches than your average news consumer. For instance, I have a whole category on this blog for “kabuki” metaphors.

But today I want to talk about another of my pet peeves in the English-language news world: when the reporter flips things all around and makes him/herself the focus of a story. While some people might be interested in the daily life of some freelance writer who rides his bike around town, probably most of us don’t want to read about what substantively is no different from following a homeless man around all day and writing about it (though wait, that would be a good idea). And speaking of homeless people, I almost broke my mp3 player in outrage when I heard this pointless “report” about a man who decided to write out of a storage unit in New York. He should have tried that in DC – he’d have ended up getting arrested if he was lucky, but more likely had his ass handed to him like the rest of the crackheads who try that stunt.

Or consider the reporter who freaked out when he was deemed unworthy of a Wikipedia entry for lack of notability. He spent a full two pages on the subject, and once published the article apparently made him immediately eligible for an article again. This naked display of the writer’s fragile yet gargantuan ego leaves me almost speechless but I will say this: You use Slate to whine to the world that you’re underappreicated, and then that whining (intentionally or not) simultaneously pressures the source of the perceived slight to recognize you once again? You should be ashamed of yourself! (I am not mentioning the writer by name or linking to the article in the hope that he won’t ever find this and have a mental orgasm over seeing his name in print because of something I wrote. I wouldn’t be able to touch the keyboard again).

I could go on and on, but you get the idea. Journalists can be pretty egotistical, and as writers they no doubt have a burning desire to tell their story. Or perhaps sometimes they’re just dicks (“I got Bill Clinton to threaten me!”). Foreign correspondents especially seem eager to put themselves in the reporting, which is usually justified (“My convoy got hit with an IED!” “I got kidnapped!”) but too often an unappealing by-product of the expat experience (“Look at me, I am getting paid to walk around China!”). And often it’s less about autobiography than it is a cheap stunt (“Look at me, I got waterboarded!”). Whatever the case, it just doesn’t sit right with me when there are real things to report about. Much like nonbinding resolutions directed at foreign governments, these articles seem to be lost on their way to somewhere else.

Since I haven’t been around for very long, I am going to assume that this practice has been around for a while — HL Mencken seemed to like writing about himself for one thing, and you can see traces of Hunter Thompson in a lot of these kinds of projects. But at the same time this practice seems like some unholy amalgamation of gonzo reporting and the Today Show with Katie Couric meets livejournal, which would make its growth more recent.

There are better ways for a reporter to talk about him/herself as part of the story than to simply say what is happening and then try to link that to some cosmic truth or the zeitgeist or whatever justification you use to get printed in a news publication. The best use of personal narrative that I’ve seen in recent reporting is Nicholas Kristof, who has used the sheer power of his reporting to play a pivotal role in keeping alight what little focus the US has placed on resolving the genocide in Darfur, Sudan, not to mention his efforts to force people to take a hard look at the state of child prostitution in Cambodia from a much more dynamic perspective than almost any other source would have the guts to give. That might be setting the bar high, but I think it has to be pretty high or else we’ll never hear the end of Budding Journalist’s Amazing Tales of Public Transportation.

5 thoughts on “Look at me, I’m complaining about journalists who write about themselves!”

  1. While the tone of that Slate piece annoyed me a bit as well, I think his actual point regarding the weird and arbitrary manner in which Wikipedia editors judge “notability” was perfectly reasonable and worth writing. How could he have written about that without interjecting his own experiences?

    Mencken is of course one of America’s great writers and I love his work, but he also wrote in an age before objectivity in journalism became as sacrosanct as it is regarded today. If he were around today, he would be writing mainly magazine pieces, as well as columns like, say, Kristof. Frankly, much of Mencken’s writing was at least as trivial as the stuff that you are complaining about, with the rather significant difference that Mencken was a brilliant and hilarious writer.

    While Kristof is in fact doing good excellent journalism, he has also made a deliberate choice to remove himself from the ostensibly objective realm of conventional newspaper reporting and work within the column pages of the NYT, where it is considered appropriate to inject personal narrative into the story.

  2. “How could he have written about that without interjecting his own experiences?”

    He could have not made the whole damn thing about him, which is probably the point you found as annoying as I did. While there are questions to be asked about the notability policy, that argument seems like an afterthought in a piece that is mostly all about how jilted he feels. Sure he qualifies his reaction at being included as being “mildly flattered” and tries to play down the damage done to his ego, but the whole tone of the piece is just distracting.

    Slate seems to be especially fond of letting its writers make themselves the subjects. Maybe people like that, but I’d rather see a piece about Wikipedia that uses personal experience as an illustrative example rather than a personal rant that happens to touch on more serious issues.

  3. Before you accuse me of egotism you should know that the Adam Richardses of the World project has not exactly been flattering. A good number of my fellow ARs are convicted criminals. One even abused a poor hedgehog, I’ll have you know. It’s enough to make me ashamed to bear the name.

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