woman writing in notebook

I was recently interviewed by a reporter who was writing an article about local Silent Book Clubs. It’s an exciting feeling, to be considered important enough to be interviewed by a reporter. Have you ever been approached by a reporter for an interview? It’s a heady experience. However, like most heady experiences, it’s also something to be cautious of.

You may have encountered the below quote before. It’s extremely famous, especially in the writing and journalism world. Coincidentally, I had just read the quote myself, in its full context, shortly before receiving my interview request. So I did not go into the process unawares. Here is the famous quote:

“Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.”
—Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer

What a zinger of an opening line, to a head-spinning ride of a book. Published in 1990, this slim read is still highly relevant today.

Janet Malcolm, the author, is on to something. Like politics, law, marketing, and weapons design, journalism requires its practitioners to do morally dubious things. The crux of the matter is that the journalist and the person being interviewed have, intrinsically, two different goals. The goal of the person being interviewed is to have their side of the story told. The goal of the journalist is to tell the story that the journalist finds to be most objective, or most riveting, or most pertinent, regardless of how the interviewee is portrayed.

This dilemma came into stark relief in a court case during which a convicted murderer sued a journalist. The journalist had agreed to write a book about the accused murderer, and in order to continue procuring information from the accused murderer, gave every indication that he thought the man had not committed the murder. But when the book came out, it portrayed the man, now in prison, as a cold-blooded killer. Hence the lawsuit against the journalist, which the convicted murderer won.

This raises the question, how far can or should a journalist go in appeasing their subjects in order to snag their story? Like most writers, I believe that it is in the public’s best interest to have factual information available to them, even if the revelation of certain facts does harm to certain people. On the other hand, there is a line that can be crossed.

Where is that line? Read The Journalist and the Murderer to learn all about this issue and make up your own mind.

As for me, the journalist who wanted to know about Silent Book Clubs sent me questions by email, which made it easier for me to vet my own responses. Still, part of me feels queasy. At least here on the blog, I do my own editing of my pourings forth.

Have you divulged any information lately?