Perpetually #huangry. Occasionally #huangover.

Responsible Storytelling

Lately, I've been struggling with what I'm doing as a journalist, editor, and writer. Part of that is because publishing is an industry that will never be known for its generous salaries, but another large part is the fact that I went to school with a bunch of smart people.

A lot of those smart people are doing smart things—becoming lawyers, doctors, chemists, and engineers, working in nonprofits, being activists on the front lines of vital social causes—a whole host of what one might consider real work with measurable real world consequences.

Meanwhile, I'm in an office writing articles about artists, drinking coffee, and binging on scones. It can feel like I'm not doing much to improve the world, at least not in a tangible sense. But if there is anything I learned as an English major, it's that there is a power to language and imagery. Having the ability and the platform to tell stories—to use language and imagery—is not something I can take lightly.

After all, as a journalist (or an editor, or a content creator in general), I'm populating the world with knowledge by storytelling. That’s a huge responsibility: the creation and codification of knowledge. There's suddenly an authority when we write something down, when it gets printed or published. (I won't say that it's "fact," per se, but it certainly seems that we perceive that kind of knowledge as more legitimate than an oral tradition.)

Furthermore, I feel there's a responsibility to the people whose stories I have the privilege of sharing. A person who shares their story with me is trusting me to do a good job—I’m still not exactly sure what that is, but it's really, really hard.

I say all that because of something that has popped up more and more, especially as meta-coverage of tragic events like the deaths of Trayvon Martin, or Michael Brown, or Sandra Bland, or the Emanuel Nine shooting. There are a lot of takedowns of irresponsible media representation—language or imagery that is inherently biased, originating from platforms that derive legitimacy from their supposed impartiality.

I remember seeing a tweet talking about an egregious misuse of the passive voice in a New York Times account of Michael Brown's death. That account says “Several shots were fired from the officer's weapon."

That is, an unnamed something or someone acted upon the gun in such a way that it went off. In that instance, the use of passive voice obfuscates responsibility and culpability in the incident. And while we might know, objectively, that someone had to have pulled the trigger, in our minds, we read that and, consciously or unconsciously, form this idea of a gun going off by itself. It lets the officer off the hook. (There are tons of examples of this kind of misrepresentation, and plenty of folks who have done much better jobs of pointing it out, so I won't go into greater depth here.)

So I guess that's where this idea of responsibility comes in. I'm not Ta-Nehisi Coates, I’m not writing mind-blowingly insightful social commentary for The Atlantic, and I'm not writing viral takedowns of double standards for Buzzfeed. But those folks are writing in response to stories that have already been told. They are trying to rewrite—trying to reframe those stories. It's a necessary thing to do, and something I hope continues to happen when and where necessary.  

But, as a writer, I don't think that's the only role you can play.

I think it's just as important to be a part of the initial creation of discourse, to set the terms for discourse in a responsible, sensitive way. That's sort of where I see myself operating. As an editor or writer, I hope I'm populating this landscape of discourse with thoughtful, insightful content. Content that doesn't perpetuate or depend on lazy thinking, stereotyping, or systemic inequalities. 

The nature of a lifestyle and culture magazine is not combative, aggressive, or confrontational. It's not really our job to call people out, and that can be enormously frustrating. But, I think there's another way to utilize this platform and the kind of reach we have with our audience. I think the subtlety of being responsible and sensitive from the outset plays a significant role in shifting the baseline of people's expectations.  

In a sense, it’s not about being impartial or unbiased. It’s about recognizing that I’ll never be able to completely remove myself, my biases, or my influences from the work I do. It’s about realizing that, and then working to mitigate the ways those things manifest. That’s what is hard for me about being a storyteller: allowing myself to be a part of the stories I’m telling without, in turn, taking over those stories and making them about me. 

If we have done a good job of storytelling, then those stories don't need to have an alternate version told. The embedded biases and inherent inequalities don't need to be exposed because they, hopefully, don't exist in the story that has been told.

It's another way of effecting change.