Transparency and Gene Weingarten’s Visit

During his recent visit to UMass, Pulitzer prize-winner Gene Weingarten told a few stories.  One of them involved an exchange with Bob Kaiser — one of my favorite editors from my time at The Washington Post.

The story was an amusing one and involved an effort by Weingarten and one of his reporters to construct a profile on a person who made a living off of writing term papers for college students.  After the interview turned out not to be the best, the reporter jokingly suggested they have the term-paper writer write the story, put it under the reporter’s byline and wait until the kicker at the end of the story to let the reader know they had been duped.

As with most of Weingarten’s story, there were chuckles from the crowd when Weingarten decided to go ahead with the idea.

But Weingarten continued and said that Kaiser, then the managing editor at The Post, said that while he liked the story, misleading the reader violated the contract of trust that journalists have with their audience.

“We don’t lie to our readers,” Kaiser told Weingarten.

The story was from the pre-Web days but even then Kaiser seemed ahead of his time with his notions of transparency.

Weingarten also gave some old-school stories about getting information and interviews through some questionable means early in his career — including hiding behind a curtain during a city council meeting.

Finally, Weingarten spoke about the stories surrounding both of his Pulitzer Prizes, including “Fatal Distraction: Forgetting a Child in the Backseat of a Car is a Horrifying Mistake. Is it a Crime?” In describing how he was able to get people to talk to him about this difficult topic, Weingarten said he related his own story to interview subjects, sharing how he almost killed his daughter, Molly, the same way.

To a near-quiet audience of a couple of hundred people, Weingarten related how one day in the early 1980s he was taking his daughter to daycare, made a wrong turn and ended up in parking lot of The Miami Herald.  He was about to get out of his car when his daughter saved a tragedy from occurring.

“As I was about to get out, Molly said something and that’s the only reason she’s a veterinarian today,” recalled Weingarten.

It was a moving story, especially since it was delivered to a room filled with budding journalists.  Yet, the admission is not found anywhere in the narrative of the Pulitzer prize-winning story.  In an online discussion after the story was published in The Post, Weingarten told his story. So, while there was transparency, it was transparency after the fact.  Since Weingarten’s visit, I’ve had several class discussions on Weingarten’s appearance and what it means to be transparent in today’s 24-hour news cycle.

And, after reading the online discussion, some students felt angry, almost emotionally manipulated by the story he wrote.  Would readers’ opinions on the topic have been different if Weingarten had been transparent within the story?

Possibly.

For me, I remember the huge discussion that happened after the story was originally published.  As a father of three, I have a built-in bias.  I was repulsed by the headline and the attempt to classify these deaths as “mistakes.”

Being transparent would have provided Weingarten with a different approach to the story and perhaps swayed those holding my opinion.  But, most importantly, Weingarten would have been honest with the reader.  Letting the reader know you have an emotional investment in the story is one of the main arguments for being transparent.

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About journalismprof

Steve joined the journalism faculty at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in August 2007 and has been working to incorporate multimedia across the curriculum. Since arriving at UMass, Steve has developed three courses modeled after his multimedia journalism course. The courses allow students to work in teams in a newsroom-like environment where they work on packages -- using video, audio and photos to tell stories. He is also working with students on developing amherstwire.com, a news Web site staffed completely by students. Steve has more than 25 years of experience as an editor and reporter for print and online publications, including 10 as an editor at washingtonpost.com. He also edits part-time for espn.com with the NFL and college football network.
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11 Responses to Transparency and Gene Weingarten’s Visit

  1. Pingback: Class Blog Discussion « Steve Fox’s Multimedia Journalism Class

  2. I agree that while Weingarten was transparent after the fact in his “Fatal Distraction” piece, he should have been more up front about his own emotional involvement from the very beginning. It is an easy thing to do and as a student myself I know it is one of the first things all my journalism professors have ever taught me: better transparent than sorry!! At the same time, I think it is clear (at least nowadays) that Weingarten isn’t hiding anything; he is very honest and open about his past and his more unorthodox ways of getting a story back in the day because he knows that current journalism students can learn from his mistakes.

    I have read both his Pulitzer Prize winning stories and whether or not he was on morally unstable ground at the time, he is without a doubt a phenomenal writer. Even though the Joshua Bell piece doesn’t have the most ground-breaking outcomes, (I could have told you almost no one would stop to listen…we are busy Americans!) the fact that he set up the whole experiment and followed up with people who walked by was very interesting and creatively done. I really enjoyed listening to Mr. Weingarten speak and think we at UMass are very lucky to have such interesting and off-beat speakers come here.

  3. gene weingarten says:

    Interesting post. There were two reasons I didn’t mention my own history in the Fatal Attraction story. The first was one of false parallelism: To include it in the story would have seemed to equate my “almost” experience to the horrifying, life-changing experience that the parents in the story suffered; I felt it would have seemed … presumptuous. (It also would have forced me to insert myself as a character into a story — something that can be seen as self-indulgent; I believe in doing it only where absolutely necessary.) So the question became: Without that personal disclosure, is the reader denied information she needs to judge whether the story is fair and accurate? My editor and I decided no — that in the story, I was basically showing my work, supplying both sides to the argument, allowing dissenting voices in there, and giving them fair weight.

    Still, we considered including my personal story anyway, for just the APPEARANCE of transparency.

    The deciding factor involved the advantages of modernity. On the day after the story appeared, I was going to be conducting a national chat to discuss it, take questions, etc. The chat was advertised along with the story. As it happens, I discussed my personal history there, at great length. My editor and I decided that the existence of that online component made the supposed issue of transparency much less urgent. Here is the url for that chat. See if it changes your thinking at all.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/discussion/2009/03/04/DI2009030402198.html

    • journalismprof says:

      Thanks for weighing in, Gene. Yes, the online discussion was linked to in the original post. As you note, there are certainly two sides to the discussion on whether or not your personal story — and how you were able to get people to talk — is relevant to the original story.

      Steve

      • gene weingarten says:

        Ah, right. Sorry, I read right over that. You might ask your class, as an exercise, to actually write a section in the original story, describing my personal history. Insert it where they think appropriate, written as they’d like to have seen it written. I’d love to see the results of that.

        I could be wrong, but I think y’alls would see there is a cost to it; that while it delivers additional context, it may also skew the story in ways that are not helpful at all.

        I ultimately decided that if my editor disagreed with me, and wanted it in, I would have done it as a sidebar. Delivered with the story, but not part of it. And I know how I would have written it: A third-person narrative, describing what happened that morning, and revealing to whom it happened only at the end.

  4. journalismprof says:

    Thanks, Gene. The logistics would certainly be a fun writing exercise. And, a sidebar is certainly a solution here. I understand your points about possible costs — the tradition of “you’re not part of the story” is certainly part of the training undergone by many of us. Yet, I think we are seeing a development in the audience — everyone, not just journalism students — are increasingly media savvy and are just as curious about how the writer got to a story as to the final product. And, I’ve now talked to more than a few people who seem to feel that the inclusion of your personal perspective as part of the narrative would have added credibility to the story.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts,
    Steve

  5. I feel as though I have to disagree with the majority of people out there who believe Weingarten should have been more transparent in his “Fatal Distraction” piece. Yes, I understand that the world of journalism if changing and more people expect and respect transparency from writers, but in this case, I don’t think it was immediately necessary.

    As Weingarten said in his response to this post, he didn’t want to insert himself into the story because he only feels he should do that when absolutely necessary. He also asks, does lack of a personal disclosure mean the story isn’t fair and accurate? No.

    And let’s be honest here. Would the knowledge that a similar situation happened to Weingarten really change the way you view this situation?? I feel as though the majority of readers are going to either to lean one way or the other on this issue. Yes, it would be interesting to know how he came upon this story and possibly why he had such an interest in the subject. However, is it absolutely necessary for him to disclose, at the moment of publication, that what happened to all the people in his story almost happened to him? I don’t think so.

    Also, as Weingarten says in his above post, “The deciding factor involved the advantages of modernity. On the day after the story appeared, I was going to be conducting a national chat to discuss it, take questions, etc. The chat was advertised along with the story. As it happens, I discussed my personal history there, at great length. My editor and I decided that the existence of that online component made the supposed issue of transparency much less urgent.”

    It’s clear that he and his editor though a lot about the issue of transparency and whether it would be necessary in this situation, and I believe they made the right choice. His personal story came out the day after. I think that’s more than good enough.

  6. Demi says:

    It’s no secret that Gene Weingarten has got some serious writing skills. It’s also no secret that there has been some serious discussion regarding whether or not his work is ethical in a journalistic sense. After hearing Gene speak at the Cape Cod lounge, and after discussing his speech during class, my opinion on whether he deserved to be awarded two Pulitzer Prizes hasn’t changed much; I don’t think his ethical decisions were necessarily the end of the world.

    I am not upset about his lack of transparency in “Fatal Distraction.” I think that in the case of a story like this, it is acceptable to connect with your subjects on a more personal level. Just because his experience made the interviewees open up more does not mean that they information was retrieved unfairly. I can completely understand why this approach was taken before the story was written. I still can’t fathom something like this happening to me personally, but if it did, I would want to talk about it with someone who had been through the situation themselves.

  7. Paige says:

    The debate over whether or not Gene Weingarten demonstrated transparency or dishonesty towards the readers when his piece “Fatal Distraction: Forgetting a Child in the Backseat of a Car is a Horrifying Mistake. Is it a Crime?” was published in The Washington Post without any mention of the similar experience which happened one morning to him, is an interesting debate and I’m still not sure where I stand.

    When I heard the story, I was one of those audience members, those “budding journalists” who felt a little confused when Weingarten mentioned his experience with his daughter Molly. I found myself wondering why this hadn’t been mentioned in the article I had read (I had not, at this time, seen the chat where Weingarten wrote of that fateful morning in Miami). If it hadn’t been mentioned, I thought, maybe it wasn’t that relevant to what Weingarten wanted to portray through telling this story.

    As a storyteller, Weingarten has amazing style, and in his two Pulitzer Prize winning pieces, there is amazing separation between the actual events Weingarten writes about and his own personal biases. While Weingarten did, horrifyingly, almost live through a similar experience to the stories he writes about in Fatal Distraction, that is not what is being spoken of in his final piece. Instead, he delivers the story of others who actually DID experience the trauma of leaving their child, part of their life, to die in a car by mistake. In this case, as Weingarten points out, it is impossible to compare a day that could have turned into death, to a day that actually did.

    In “Fatal Distraction” I think Weingarten is as honest a writer as any. He is connected to the piece in a way which he didn’t speak of to the public for a long time – he is connected to the piece in a way which he didn’t need to demonstrate or write about because that is not what he felt was relevant. This story is real, and unbiased, and though sad and disturbing, it is still an example of brilliant journalism.

  8. ltelamusic says:

    The main problem with the “Fatal Distraction” piece is the topic itself. It is difficult for any journalist to cover such an emotional topic. I believe that Weingarten did a good job of covering the topic, even if the title makes me cringe. As for inserting his own personal story, if he did not think it was relevant then I am okay with having it excluded from the piece. We need to not forget that Weingarten is a brilliant writer so we should trust him in making decisions about the content of his work. I also feel like his story would have taken away from the piece.

    Overall, I think Weingarten did a great job of not sounding biased. I did not feel angry with him after reading the piece. I do not think he was being dishonest with the reader even if he was omitting his own story. Was he sneaky in the way he got interviews? Yes. I do not necessarily agree with the way he got his interviews but I still think the story does a good job of describing the effects of a parents’ worst nightmare.

  9. Haley says:

    As someone who was unable to attend this guest speakers talk I was not one of the “budding journalists” that was in the audience to hear Gene Weingarten and his stories first hand.

    I am however, in a Media Ethics class at UMass with Professor Sibii. After this talk we discussed Weingarten and his methods of journalist reporting. These questionable practices included his “hiding behind a curtain” and telling those he interviewed that he had a similar experience with them without stating this fact in his resulting story.

    The transparency and individual ethics of his reporting and him as reporter himself were brought into question by many in the class (since it was a media ethics class).

    I however, completely understood his reasoning behind his ways of reporting. The world of journalists is cutthroat and extremely competitive and whatever way to get ahead must be used. Obviously his methods did not effect the effectiveness of his stories or his ability to write, he is a multiple Pulitzer Prize winner.

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