Everyone has bias. Journalistic objectivity is easy to confuse with offering personal views in a neutral tone of voice, or giving equal time/space to each side of an issue. Flat earth and round earth, five minutes each.
According to the American Press Institute, the late-19th-century ideal of “realism” held that truth would emerge when reporters presented the facts. But honest intentions can’t erase personal bias. During the Russian Revolution, journalist Walter Lippmann said reporters saw what they wanted to see. True objectivity lies not in the person but the method.
Kovach and Rosenstiel advocate three core principles for verification: transparency (name your source, tell how you reached your conclusions), humility (keep an open mind, don’t assume), and originality (do your own work, check your sources).
Former Washington Post correspondent Paul Taylor said he used to write the lead before he began work on a story, then compare it to the lead after he finished. If they were too similar, he hadn’t looked far enough beyond his preconceptions. He had more work to do.
The oak beyond the garden is brilliant orange. Acorns play percussion on the roof. Meteorological and astronomical calendars agree that autumn is upon us: pumpkins by the roadside, ragweed-induced sneezes, falling leaves, early nightfall.
Long ago I spent a year in Eritrea, where the seasons scarcely changed. We enjoyed sunshine with highs of 70° to 75° year round. I loved it! Here in Wisconsin, which has the same continental climate as Siberia (tropical summers and arctic winters), I’ve learned to delight in the fresh beauty of each season with only a passing regret for its losses and challenges.
Changing seasons of life are as inevitable as those of nature in Wisconsin. Would you stay one age if you could? I recall thinking 37 was just about perfect: fully a grown-up, not yet on the downslope. I don’t know if I’d want to have stayed 37, given the option. Since we don’t get to choose, I might as well relish the gifts of the season I’m in.
Events long ago may be harder to document than current events, but they can be easier to write about. My term papers, seminar papers, and theses were mostly set in Europe between 1400 and 1700. Later non-academic projects pulled me into more recent settings.
How different could it be to write history as it happens? I loved the new kinds of sources, such as eyewitness interviews and aerial photographs, but the basic process of gathering, synthesizing, and interpreting information had to be the same. As I got into it, other differences became apparent.
• Tone. Writing about private individuals still living or fondly remembered posed a new challenge: to be respectful as well as honest. It made me aware how much I relished the freedom to be snarky about people who died 300 years ago.
• Perspective. In the middle of a situation, it’s hard to distinguish major turning points from blips. Today’s headline may be forgotten in a month, or it may start a new chapter in future history books. You make your best guess, use convoluted wordings like “Discussions began with a target date of implementation by XXX,” and hope you’ll get a shot at revision.
How hard to push oneself? As a writer who largely sets my own schedule, I ponder this often, with no consistent result. Asking "how important is it?" offers only limited guidance for self-assigned tasks and timetables.
A more subtle criterion is, on which side do you tend to err? Writers who stress the need for external accountability and a regular writing schedule, I suspect, are trying to offset a tendency to creative disorder. Since I tend to self-discipline, my creativity benefits when I attend to the mood of the moment and allow a certain amount of free flow.
I wonder if this relates to recent research about rigidity and chaos in neural networks. A sparse pattern of connections between brain cells goes with rigidity, literalism, left-brain involvement, and difficulty reading facial expressions. A chaotic overabundance of neural connections is associated with figurative language, right-brain involvement, and reading too much into other people’s faces: They’re watching me; they’re judging me.
Asperger’s syndrome lies at one extreme, paranoid psychosis at the other. Ideally we avoid the extremes and integrate these tendencies flexibly to fit the occasion. That can be easier said than done.
What do you mean, don’t take it personally? Putting yourself out there is a personal risk. Actors try out, singers audition, writers query, job hunters apply, politicians run for office. Where do you get the resilience to persist through rejections, defeats, and bad reviews for the sake of the risk that pans out?
“Maybe it won’t work out. But maybe seeing if it does will be the best adventure ever.” This quote’s been showing up anonymously on social media, and I love it. One source of resilience for me is a sense of curiosity, exploration, and growth. I can learn through every encounter, so none of it goes to waste.
Paradoxically, another source of resilience is to get over myself—to remember I’m one of many and none of us is perfect. As I wrote last October, belief in oneself can mean belief in one’s ability to improve, to keep honing one’s craft. Rejection can serve as a sharpening tool.
How do you bounce back from rejection? Please comment to share what works for you.
Mystery, history, historical mystery: restorative time-travel from the comfort of a chair. Three picks from my summer reading:
• Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin, set in Cambridge in 1171. At last, a medieval mystery with a spunky, independent woman sleuth. Trained in Salerno, Italy, a progressive city of Jews, Christians, and Muslims where women can study and practice medicine, Ariana must solve the murders of English Christian children before the local community turns on local Jews as scapegoats—and on Adelia as a suspected witch. This is the first in a lively series of four.
• Cézanne’s Quarry by Barbara Corrado Pope, set in southern France in 1885. Two of Cézanne’s more disturbing paintings depict the knife-murder and strangulation of women with red hair. When a redhead is found dead in a quarry, Cézanne is one of two suspects. The other is the victim’s lover, an English radical who offends the establishment with lectures on Darwin and the age of the earth. This and its sequels touch on tenacious issues like religion/science and antisemitism.
• Nemesis by Philip Roth, set in Newark in 1944. How can a young playground director sustain self-respect when poor eyesight bars him from military service and he’s powerless to protect his playground kids from a raging polio epidemic? The hook for me is the pre-1950s polio mystery I’ve written about: Why couldn’t fly-swatting campaigns, quarantines, and insecticides stop the spread of polio?
Four minutes and thirty-eight seconds of total darkness on August 2, 1133 (Julian calendar), portended catastrophe: the death of King Henry I of England, followed by years of civil war, and Duke Frederick’s burning of Augsburg in Germany. In honor of today’s eclipse, I hope you’ll enjoy five chroniclers’ accounts:
“In this year King Henry went over sea at Lammas, and the second day as he lay and slept on the ship the day darkened over all lands; and the Sun became as it were a three-night-old Moon, and the stars about it at mid-day. Men were greatly wonder-stricken and were affrighted.”
Extracts are from David Le Conte at MrEclipse.com. He credits the first two quotes to UK Solar Eclipses from Year 1 by Sheridan Williams, Clock Tower Press, 1996, and the last three to Historical Eclipses and Earth's Rotation by F. Richard Stephenson, Cambridge University Press, 1997 (pages 392-393).
Brocade, taffeta, ruffles, and jewelry used to be common on wealthy men. Rather suddenly about 1800, men gave up their claim to beauty in favor of looking sober and useful. Beau Brummell (1778-1840), English arbiter of taste and fashion, favored suits in dark, somber colors with full-length trousers, plain linen shirts, broad-shouldered coats, and knotted neckties. Suits remained standard menswear for two hundred years.
Why did Brummell’s taste take such enduring hold? Opinions differ. Gentility and respectability displaced aristocracy under the democratizing influence of the Enlightenment and the American and French Revolutions. According to The London Tailor in 1899, “There never was a time in history when everybody was dressed so alike.” Homogeneity loosened a bit since the 1950s, but men in most settings still don’t dress to stand out from the crowd. It’s unclear who benefits.
While “the Great Male Renunciation” blurred class distinctions, it heightened gender stereotypes. Men are rational and practical, clothing patterns suggest, while women—and only women—are decorative. I bought my first adult boots in the men’s department because they were more comfortable than women’s.
Norms for masculinity are transient. Some in the early 1900s proposed dressing boys in pink. Upper-class men wore high heels, practical for riding, before the fashion spread to women. Maybe someday we’ll cycle back to the days when men could flaunt their beauty with no one raising an eyebrow.
When I moved to Wisconsin twenty-two years ago, my freelance writing moved with me. Everything else started fresh. Creating a new life was like planting a bare patch of dirt. Some activities and connections put down roots, while others soon died out. Happily, work transplanted well.
When I’ve lived in one place for years, the garden of my life sometimes needs weeding. It can get over-scheduled or unbalanced, with invasives spreading out of control. Periodically it’s time to pull out what no longer works, give essentials like writing and family the light and water they need, and plant a few new flowers in selected spots to keep the colors vibrant.
The first time my mother’s face looked back at me from the mirror, I was shocked. Was I becoming her, with all she did that irked me? Taking over my projects to make them better but no longer mine? Giving me lessons when I just wanted a sympathetic ear?
Today on her birthday I’m recalling traits I cherish. She cultivated my love of reading, taking me to the tiny library in the fire station basement and the annual AAUW book fair. Along with English classics from her Canadian childhood, she pointed me toward stories of children in other cultures, times, and places.
She taught me to relish small wonders. We trekked through fields and forests, delighting in spring trillium and summer wild raspberries. One night she had a group of girls sleep in a barn loft so we could wake early to marvel at the dew on the grass. My memory doesn’t include why we couldn’t see the dew just as well on the lawn at home.
If the face in the mirror shines with love of books, curiosity about lives different from mine, and joy in everyday wonders, it's hard to complain.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.