‘Don’t Believe What You Think’

To my former self, who thought newspaper journalism had to be a boring, stuffy recitation of facts and events: You were wrong.

On Monday, the Fred W. Smith Forum in the Reynolds Journalism Institute was packed as members of the Mizzou Mafia shared their thoughts about, experiences with and tips for writing narrative, “literary” journalism. While I listened to these seasoned writers speak, I thought about how the tips they gave could apply to editing these types of stories.

Robert Sanchez’s “Finding the Right Character” and Tony Rehagen’s “Discovering the Story” gave tips I’ll keep in mind when writing for the remainder of this semester, but I found Walt Harrington’s “Keeping the ‘Non’ in Nonfiction” to be most helpful when I return to editing.

As an editor, I’ve struggled with determining what is definitely fact and what could potentially be embellished. I’ve contacted writers and section editors when descriptions and statements look questionable, but when only the writer’s testimony is confirmed, it’s difficult to make a decision about what to include and not to include.

As a reporter, I find myself often doubting what I think I know to be true. I know each person’s memory of an event can be different, and I could interpret a situation differently than another person present. As a result, I’m hesitant to put an abundance of sensory, possibly subjective details in articles I write in the event something could be misconstrued as inaccurate.

“Don’t believe what you think,” Harrington said during his speech. Instead, he suggested writers fact-check sensory details.

I have no idea why I never thought to take notes about sensory details and check them for accuracy just as I would with a quote or statistic. (It made for quite the “oh, duh” moment.) That way, you can include vivid imagery in an article without the possibility of exaggeration.

This is also something I’ll keep in mind when I edit. I’ll try to verify these details as much as possible and suggest to writers that, yes, these sensory details can be confirmed and verified just as their quotations are. That way, they can make stories more interesting to readers while maintaining accuracy.

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