Thursday, August 02, 2007

Should A Journalist Use A Character?

Yesterday, I got into a discussion with my girlfriend about whether it was ethical, on a personal level, to assume a character for an op/ed outlet. This came about after I began guest-blogging at IvyGate, a satirical, Gawker-toned blog catering to the supporters and critics of America's top-tier schools.

I originally took the assignment on to pose as a nice change from the serious journalism I practice during the day at a major city newspaper. It was a fun change. But my girlfriend said she didn't like the tone that I used on the blog -- the satirical, lampooning one that's the blog's trademark -- because it didn't match my person.

Should a journalist assume a character for opinion? Is he or she then a journalist, or an actor?

It seems that this kind of issue wasn't a big deal in the past, but with the rise of digital citizen journalism -- that is, assuming anonymous pseudonyms to use a "different voice" or more, assuming it under one's real name and hoping the audience gets it -- I think it leaves the journalist in a bit of an ethical predicament: Be true to oneself, or be true to one's work?

If this were a case of violating personal beliefs, it would be much more clear-cut. But the nuance here is tone. Let's take an editor of Gawker, a popular satirical Manhattan media blog, as an example:

Doree Shafrir
is a young, accomplished journalist who graduated from Penn and Columbia with journalism on her degree and has worked as the arts and entertainment editor at Philadelphia Weekly. Clearly, she's got the right experience. But when she writes on Gawker, she assumes the voice that Elizabeth Spiers and so many others have trailblazed -- snarky, unsympathetic and verging on offensive for the sake of being so. Is that the real Doree? Only her friends could tell you.

But does it denounce our trust in her as a journalist? Does Gawker hire jaded, angsty, ignorant editors who revel in writing personal attacks, or do they hire people capable of assuming that voice?

The same story goes for Ana Marie Cox, former editor of Wonkette. Cox wrote on under a pseudonym, Ann O'Tate, and now works as Washington Editor for In her Wonkette days, she often used such phrases as "ass fucking" liberally in her posts, and she's known to have gone after Sen. Mike DeWine for accepting money for sexual favors.

Does Cox really have a vendetta against DeWine? Or is she outing him like any other proper journalist would, but using sensational language to match the tone of her outlet?

Is it all an act? Is it allowed to be?

I think it's a fine line to straddle when one's true name is in the byline. Before and still today, writers assume pen names to create a barrier between their actual person and their 'character.' But in an age of citizen journalism op/eds, where the barrier can be implied by how outlandish the writing is, should the journalist be held accountable?

I, myself, don't know. I'm still thinking about the vague boundaries in this. And in real life, there's a lot of doubling-back: After Cox appeared on Don Imus' radio show, she wrote "I'm embarrassed to admit that it took Imus' saying something so devastatingly crass to make me realize that there just was no reason beyond ego to play along."

In other words, Cox thought Imus was racist or sexist or, at the least, overtly sensational. Which is often times what a Wonkette post can verge into, so long as it's equally offensive for everyone of all demographics.

So it brings me back to my main question: Can a journalist be an actor, assuming another voice, without repercussion? Is he or she allowed to if a disclaimer is placed up? Or will it always reflect on their person and past, present and future work? Are they even a journalist anymore once they've become an actor?

And most of all, does it violate a journalist's own ethics doing it?

I don't know. But I've got a lot of questions.


Missy Kurzweil said...

It's an interesting question that I've thought about, too. There's no clear-cut answer, but i'm starting to think that, more often than not, a journalist's responsibility is to the publication for which he writes. And I don't think it's unethical to vary one's tone accordingly, as long as the content is credible and reliable.

Editorialiste: I've been reading your blog and other writing since you posted a comment on my TimesSelect "graduates" post. I really enjoy your writing. keep it up!

The Editorialiste said...


Thanks so much for reading and commenting, I'm honored. Your response is fascinating, and I'd love to hear more people chime in on this. When it comes to ethics, we need to support each other!

Again, thanks for the read and the comment -- hope nyc is well.

All the best,
The Editorialiste.