Saturday, January 25, 2014

Why We Use Attribution in our Stories and Cultivate Skepticism

Wendy Davis is a Texas politician with a compelling life story but - according to a Texas newspaper - in describing her life story she was less than ruthlessly accurate, you might say.

FORT WORTH — Wendy Davis has made her personal story of struggle and success a centerpiece of her campaign to become the first Democrat elected governor of Texas in almost a quarter-century.
While her state Senate filibuster last year captured national attention, it is her biography — a divorced teenage mother living in a trailer who earned her way to Harvard and political achievement — that her team is using to attract voters and boost fundraising.
The basic elements of the narrative are true, but the full story of Davis’ life is more complicated, as often happens when public figures aim to define themselves. In the shorthand version that has developed, some facts have been blurred.
The lesson I take from this is not that we judge her harshly. The point is that our sources don't exactly lie to us but that - when they tell their story - they emphasize certain facts, ignore others and shade things in their favor. As storytellers, we all learn not to overcomplicate the narrative. We strive for truth (let us hope) without always maintaining scrupulous accuracy.
 In short, our sources are us, if you know what I mean. So when we write we make clear where we get our information so that if the facts turn against us, it's clear that we didn't guarantee them and - given the  limited amount of time our masters gave us to do a story - did our best to adhere to that deep journalistic principle of IF YOUR MOTHER SAYS SHE LOVES YOU, CHECK IT OUT.
How does that apply to this class, where as feature writers we drop attributions and otherwise seem to guarantee the narrative so the story flows?
We end our story with a Methods Box. Tell you readers how you learned what you seem so confident about knowing.

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