It's Not About Lisa Bonchek Adams' Dying; It's About The Status of Journalists Dying.
There's a lot of talk about writing in this crazy whirl of plenty that is content. But editing -- deciding what stories to tell and how they are told -- is in many ways even more important, the invisible architecture behind all that we see and read. But it is the choices of editing that have been very much on display for all to see in the past few days, and the takeaway lesson is this: All journalists, citizen journalists and professionals both, need to come to terms with the fact that asking people whether they get to tell their story—or whether how they tell their story is appropriate—is a moot question.
That's what I kept thinking about, as writer, blogger and cancer patient Lisa Bonchek Adams found her way into unasked-for fame when not one, but two, journalists at "newspapers of record" decided to write about her Twitter feed and blog—and question whether she was being "appropriate" in sharing the hard-knock realities of being a person with stage IV terminal breast cancer. That the two journalists were husband and wife, Bill and Emma Keller of the New York Times and U.K. Guardian, respectively, only upped the oddity.
I was actually splashing around in my Twitter stream when Emma's post went live. (The post has since been removed by the Guardian, for not adhering to its editorial code, most likely for publishing bits of Emma and Lisa's email correspondence, which is a clear violation of common journalistic ethics.) Since Lisa is a daily fixture in my stream and someone I consider a friend, I clicked over to read the post, and responded in Twitter, then shut down my feed to get to work.
As the story started exploding, I checked in and re-read Emma's piece. Then, two days later, I read Bill's. The whole time, I was reading Lisa's tweets, which were full of confusion and pain and anguish at being mischaracterized and misunderstood.
Reaction pieces have wondered why either Keller decided to pick up on this story (and it's easy to make the call that husband Keller jumped into the fray to better position his wife's some loosely assembled wonder-out-loud piece). Many stories, including the Salon post I linked to above, have also noted that Emma Keller violated journalistic ethics by choosing to print private email correspondence between herself and Lisa Bonchek Adams. But what I still haven't read is the more cutting critique: That Old Journalism still wants the power to decide what, exactly, counts as a "real story," and whether the people who are creating and birthing their own content and media every day get to count at all.
Hey, I get that. I worked in mainstream media for 22 years as a magazine editor. I miss the days when I was confident my career was secure, even if my job was not. (Cut-throat competition means you sign a contract that agrees you can be fired at any time, just because.) Every day was a walk on a tightrope, but at the end of the day I went to bed with my sizable influence as the head of a national magazine wrapped around me like a cozy comforter.
Let's talk about that influence. The most powerful role in editing isn't what we decide to include; it's what we leave out: troublesome facts that interrupt a story's arc, the pieces of news that don't have enough "oomph" to make the homepage and so don't get written about at all, entire swaths of the population who don't ingest news and therefore, in some awful math, don't get to exist in it.
This is why social media matters so much. Social media leaves nothing out. Social media gives people a voice so they can have their share of influence on the people whom they attract. (Of course, social media only gives voice to everyone with a computer or smart device, that is, so let's remember, it's still leaving out a lot of people who desperately need voices.)
But for most people in social media, it's actually NOT about the influence. It's about being seen and heard. It's about making the call to find your tribe. It's about being able to ask the hard questions and share the dumb jokes and know that your 147 or 11,000 followers are snickering or weeping along with you.
Traditional journalism can't get let go of the questions it has to ask itself every day: "Is THIS a story? Is THIS a story?" Which is, effectively, what Emma Keller was asking. Does Lisa Bonchek Adams get to decide that the "gory" details of her cancer are a story? Guess what, Emma, and Bill, and all the rest of us lucky professional journalists who stumbled into these magnificent careers long before we knew the word "disruption" would change how we live our lives and make our money? We are not the only filter any more. And this is good.
This is partly what rubbed me the wrong way about Emma's piece, as she blithely asserted that "Adams' moderate following occupies a niche realm, consisting largely of cancer activists and those afflicted with the disease." In other words, Emma was saying, Lisa's story barely matters. It's niche. It's for people with cancer. But Emma is wrong. Adams' followers run the gamut, from literary stars like Dani Shapiro to, well, me. (For the record, I have found Lisa's tweets not too gory, and I often go searching back to her blog for details on how she is doing, health-wise.)
This is the greatness of social media: We will all become familiar with and therefore come to know parts of humanity that would never before have touched us. We can be egg-heady about it when we are writing long posts about the Arab Spring, but we must remember that the small stories really count, too. Whatever it is that knits us together is enormously powerful, and clearly a force for the good. That is, assuming we can agree that a world in which everyone feels witnessed and feels that they have some value to society is a world worth striving for.
I know, I know. This is very kumbaya of me. And it reminds me that was mocked—sometimes gently, sometimes less so—for being such a champion for ALL women when I was running Redbook magazine. It was de rigueur within my company to write off those readers of Middle America, who (they assumed) all clipped coupons and aspired to Coach bags and drove minivans. Editors were separate from, i.e. above, all that.
The fact is that professional journalists are SUPPOSED to assume a detachment, in order to keep a clear eye on what's a story and separate from one's biases. But detachment often becomes a one-way ladder to being above it all. And why not? In old-school media, editors are the chosen ones, the ones in fashionable clothes, the ones who get to decide who gets seen. You go to the best parties, you are sent every book before it comes out, you can get into any restaurant… Journalists are like celebrities, minus the 000,000s. It's easy to forget that your vaunted position comes to you because of your vaunted position.
And with the vaunted position can come the worst bias of all: that your own biases are a stand-in for everyone's, and that you can therefore both decide that something IS a story and also disparage it for being a barely a story. You can assume Old Journalism's entitlement to pronounce and judge, while also failing to also follow Old Journalism's long-held ethics, which were designed (imperfectly) to protect the people whose stories you got to tell.
This is how a piece like Emma Keller's can get published. Because when you are in the world wherein you get to set the agenda, it's only too easy to decide that others are very much not allowed to do that.