Ethical Considerations

Consideration of ethics intrudes on any serious discussion of facts, accuracy, thoroughness, credibility, creativity, or professionalism in any nonfiction writing, but especially in journalistic writing. We can't get into the legal implications of unethical behavior; ethicists and lawyers sometimes clarify these issues for writers. And, as many books have been written on the subject of ethics in journalism, we won't go into great depth on the subject, fascinating as it is. I want only to provide some tips about how a writer can remain ethical. I'll also mention several cases where otherwise excellent writers apparently lost track of the absolute requirement to be honest with the reader.

Traditional journalists have fewer difficulties with ethics because they adhere as closely as possible to the facts. The creative nonfiction writer, however, may run into problems because the craft uses techniques borrowed from the fiction writer, making it almost inherently suspect. Skeptics abound in this world, and especially in the world of journalism. This skepticism puts an additional burden on the writer of creative nonfiction, or, as Norman Mailer has called it, the writer of "applied creative writing."

When we write personal nonfiction—nonfiction (journalistic and otherwise) in which we deliberately insert ourselves into the story—ethics problems diminish in one sense. Since reader skepticism usually derives from the question of credibility, readers of personal nonfiction can assess for themselves the reliability of the writer. Traditional journalists, of course, try hard not to write personally, fearing it will destroy their objectivity. Their readers have to accept at face value the statements made by this faceless, anonymous writer.

When we write "impersonal nonfiction"—nonfiction in which we avoid revealing our presence to the reader—we have the inherent problem of credibility. Skepticism may sometimes be justified, because the seemingly anonymous creative nonfiction writer, especially when using fiction techniques heavily, may embroider the facts to make the piece more dramatic and appealing. As soon as that is done, the writer may cross ethical boundaries, vague as they are. It's very easy to wander innocently across those fuzzy borders. Creative nonfiction writers therefore need to keep their wits about them and behave scrupulously, bending over backward to be professional and responsible.

EthicaL Implications of Techniques

I'll proceed here from a discussion of writing techniques that may seem almost outside any concern about ethics, to techniques considered ethical by some, borderline ethical by others, and definitely unethical by yet others. It's quicksand terrain, this matter of ethics in writing.

EtHical Implications of DictioN

William Safire, in his New York Times column in 1985, "On Language," first brought to my serious consideration the ethics implications of diction. In the column "Caviar, General?" he referred to a "dilemma" that I translated for myself as "an ethical dilemma." He worried around, in that delightful way he does, the problem every writer faces all the time—if you have in mind the perfect word, le mot juste, should you use it in the interest of accuracy, even though you realize it will sail loftily over the heads of most of your readers?

Safire posed the dilemma like this: "Do you settle for a more generally understood term, thereby pandering to our audience's

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ignorance—or do you use the unfamiliar word, thereby failing to communicate, and appearing to be a showoff?" Then he summed it up eloquently: "Is your job to communicate or to educate?"

Safire questioned whether to ever use a word that will fly over the audience's heads, and I enjoyed his answer: "Fly over everybody's head only when your purpose is to teach or to tease." He went on to suggest that we should never do it when our purpose at that moment is to persuade.

Since much of creative nonfiction writing tries to educate (inform) our audience while persuading them, we should take his suggestion and go ahead and use the occasional high-flying, accurate word, provided we do so in a context that makes the meaning clear. We can even do it by slipping in a phrase or word nearby that's closely synonymous, with the dual effect of making the meaning clear and educating the audience about the meaning of the word. This technique, handled without empathy for a reader's sensitivity, can unintentionally take on a tone of condescension. Better, I think, to gamble that the context will gradually clarify matters, than to condescend, or even appear to condescend, to the reader. A well-educated audience actually enjoys learning a new word or having a new use for a familiar word (and they'll go through the trouble of looking it up), but they can smell condescension a paragraph away— and they won't come back for more.

Closely related to such "elitist" writing comes jargonistic or specialists' writing. Michiko Kakutani brought this business to mind in her book review column in the New York Times (January 30, 1983), when she reviewed John McPhee's In Suspect Terrain. She made one extremely interesting point not frequently made. She said that the ethical dilemma here was whether the author of a technically oriented book, in this case, a book largely about geology, should use specialists' terminology or somehow simplify it for the reader. The review reports McPhee's defense of a particularly arcane exchange between two geologists: "It doesn't matter that you don't understand them. Even they are not sure if they are making sense. Their purpose is to try to." In effect, the reviewer said that you don't have to understand all the details of the talk as long as you understand the talk's significance. It would become an ethical problem only when the writer hides his or her own ignorance behind the jargon or specialists' language, or in any other way tries to obscure, distort, confuse, or fabricate facts behind the convenient screen of specialists' words.

In the case of elitist language, as in the case of specialists' language, the governing criterion is whether you have been honest with the reader. If you can say to yourself that your use of either kind of language was designed only to clarify facts, establish mood, or create a tone to the reader's overall benefit, go ahead and use the language that does the job best.

EthicaL Implications of Irony and Humor

Irony and humor also have ethical implications. The possibility that irony and humor could have an ethical dimension came to me in the 1970s while reading an article by Richard Bernstein in the New York Times. He described the interesting competition for French readers between France's major, and largely establishment-oriented, newspaper Le Monde, and the "alternative" paper once headed up by Jean-Paul Sarte, Liberation. Liberation had pulled many readers away from the traditional, very staid, very serious-to-the-point-of-somber Le Monde by writing "creatively" about serious topics. Its tone was not funny, it was ironic. Bernstein quoted French writer Alain Finkelkraut as saying, "You can hear the chuckle of the journalist audible behind the headlines."

If Liberation had only poked fun at the news and at the government bureaucracy, it would have stayed a small humor sheet, but under it all its writers are serious journalists. Unlike most French papers, which featured pages filled with commentary and analysis, not reportage, Liberation took to sending reporters to the scene to relate what was happening. There would be no ethical implications if all they did was go for the laughs alone, while calling themselves a

224 / writiNg creative nonaction humor or parody sheet, but they put themselves forth as a newspaper, so there is the potential for problems. They behaved ethically, however, by taking the news and the facts seriously, even though they presented them in an arresting, if sometimes playful, way. As long as they approached matters like this, there should be no major ethical problems. The French, who are said to have a word for everything, may not have a word for the kind of writing produced by Liberation, but I'd probably call it creative nonfiction.

Irony and humor have a respectable place in journalism. Since irony, however, very often gets its strength by stating the exact opposite of what's intended, the opportunity for misinterpretation exists. A literal-minded person would not have been too well warned by the title of Jonathan Swift's essay back in 1729 ("A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People from Being a Burden to Their Parents or the Country"). Would he or she have been aware of Swift's irony when he wrote the following in that essay?

I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection. I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.

If you write with irony, provide sufficient hints that it is not to be taken as the truth. Ask yourself with all honesty: Will my presumed audience "get" it?

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