Eli Witek: On the perils of writing

It would be so much easier if people were all bad, or all good.

It would be great, too, if all situations and events could be dropped into one of those two simple categories.

But, the truth is, nothing is just one thing. It’s a multitude of things. Never is something black and white and plain; it’s all manner of grays.

Well, I’ll tell you what — that makes it darn difficult sometimes.

First, as humans, we tend to understand things as compact narratives, as clear stories with characters we can readily identify.

Second, I’m a newspaper reporter, so that literally is my job — compactly codifying a narrative of events as factually as possible to inform the reader.

I quickly learned that, in nearly every story, something like 90 percent of what I learn — of, indeed, what I need to know to write a story — won’t go into the story.

Extraneous information can and will confuse the readers, or bore them. Both go directly against the mission, to inform.

We also live in a time of information overload. Competing for your precious time, we must skim the most important points and write them in a way that is engaging. Accompanied by attention-getting photos.

On top of those challenges, every person has inherent biases, so this process of “skimming” has very clear and obvious pitfalls, of which we have to constantly be aware.

Even the most boring event — a governmental meeting, perhaps — is always more complicated than it seems. There are personalities and history, and little moments, and procedure — all of which add up to this greater context, that lead to the moment where something happens. Like spending nearly half-a-million dollars on new trees on one block.

During my first year as a working journalist, I’ve stumbled into multiple situations where I found people doing things they shouldn’t. Sometimes, kinda big and important things.

But just because they are doing something bad, doesn’t mean their reasons are bad. It doesn’t mean they’re good, either. Most often it’s a combination of a lot of things that just are not wholly one thing or another — literally, shades of gray.

And painting the situation or individual a certain way because it makes a better story isn’t an option. That is not what we do.

So then, the news story can lay out the facts. It can show as much context as possible (even if it isn’t explicitly in there, it is behind every line). It can present this sea of gradations.

Here’s the problem: At the end of it, in a situation like this, without clear winners or losers, bad people and good people, black and white, logic and emotion, yin and yang, whatever false dichotomy you can think of — what is the reader supposed to think?

There almost isn’t even the possibility of the reader having a strong opinion when it’s laid out this way; and, in my opinion, this is the fair and truthful way. Without engendering a strong opinion, the story is a drop of water in a storm. A dust mote in the sunlight. It exists. There it is.

Our mission is to inform and engage, and tell the truth.

Listen, I’m telling you that this is a big task, and it ain’t always easy.

Thanks for reading.