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Ethical issues in the practice of book-length journalism
thesisposted on 2017-01-15, 23:43 authored by Matthew Ricketson
The purpose of this thesis is to examine a part of journalism practice that has received less scholarly attention as journalism practice and more as an area of writing that is or aspires to have literary or artistic merit. It is called book-length journalism and is defined as the practice of using journalistic methods to research and write independently about contemporary actual people, events, and issues at book-length in a timely manner for a broad audience. This thesis examines the most pressing ethical issues arising in what I argue is a vibrant, growing and significant area of practice. The examination shows how some leading practitioners have engaged with these issues and resolved them while others have ignored or struggled to come to grips with them. The practice of book-length journalism may be vibrant but the term itself is not widely known or used, partly because the practice sits not in but alongside other print journalism and is subsumed into the broad publishing category of non-fiction, and partly because of scholarly emphasis on literariness and art. The effect is to occlude three important points: first, the extent to which journalism is practiced at book-length, second the particular ethical issues arising in this area and third the conflating of a narrative approach with notions of literary merit. Ethical issues arise for practitioners throughout the process. Some are similar to those encountered by practitioners working in newspapers and magazines while others take on a different form or are felt more urgently. I examine these issues by interviewing and studying the work of leading Australian practitioners and then by developing a tripartite framework that follows the practitioner from the research phase to the representation phase to their relationship with readers. Close readings of two landmark works – Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s The Final Days – as well as other American practitioners’ work reveals that the practice of journalism at book-length brings together an interlocking concentration of ethical issues; first, practitioners need to negotiate and manage close relationships with their principal sources while maintaining a sense of editorial independence. Second, when writing in a narrative mode they need to balance the demands of veracity inherent in a form making truth-telling claims with the desirability of creating a narrative that engages readers emotionally and intellectually. I argue that it is the taking of a narrative approach to representing people and events that triggers certain ethical issues, not whether the practitioner is an artist. Capote is widely regarded as a far more accomplished prose stylist than Woodward but they face the same ethical issues in the writing phase and both struggle to resolve them. Third, practitioners present their work in books, a form which many readers associate with fiction, especially when presented with a book that reads like a work of fiction and offers little guidance that it is not fiction but journalism. For this reason, I argue practitioners have an ethical obligation to make clear what they are offering readers.