Finding Perfect Pitch
‘… the stronger their facts, the more vivid their detail, the less reliant they are on the poetry.’
How difficult is it to achieve the right tone — humane, but clear-eyed — when writing about the disadvantaged? I think at times our gratitude to those who lay open their difficult lives for our inspection — and maybe our abashed relief at returning to easier lives — can tempt us to use a tone more appropriate for a preacher than a chronicler.
I'm not talking about the well-edited coverage of the poor, the exploited, the undereducated and overlooked that is scrupulously nuanced and reported in all its complexity. There's a great deal of that. This criticism applies only to those print and broadcast pieces that give the impression that the reporter presumes all folks of good conscience will want to join him or her in rescuing the victim of the day from any number of stock villains — rule-worshipping bureaucrats, uncaring educators, calculating politicos. While as journalists we understand that not every story can be perfectly balanced and that fairness emerges over a number of pieces in the fullness of coverage, news consumers often measure us by a simpler standard. They react to the last story they read, heard or viewed. So I worry when I come across a tone-deaf story — one where, in the noble service of trying to cut through noise and achieve impact, the reporter slips into pathos or subtle hectoring.
Striking an appropriate tone is a mighty struggle for some of my journalism students. In their hands, every profile subject is a hero or a zero. They have a hard time just letting a person be on the page. I tell them the solution lies in the reporting: the stronger their facts, the more vivid their detail, the less reliant they are on the poetry.
A recently published book by the sociologist Annette Lareau bears that out remarkably. Written by an academic, presumably for a readership heavy with other academics, the Lareau book is crammed with fascinatingly detailed fieldwork (sociologist-speak for reporting) in the homes of children whose lives the author compares by economic class. In "Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race and Family Life," Lareau describes, for example, a nine-year-old girl named Katie whose mother is typical of the working class and poor parents Lareau observed. Child's play, to many of these parents, is simply not their business — it does not require adult involvement, encouragement or praise.
"While middle-class homes typically have a nearly inexhaustible supply of paper, crayons, markers, stickers and assorted other craft supplies for children's use, the Brindle house has none, literally ...." Lareau writes. "When Katie fashions snowflakes from clean cardboard she found in a Dumpster at the apartment complex, her mother accepts the one Katie has made for her, saying only, 'Winter will be over soon.' She offers no praise, no comment about Katie's resourcefulness or creativity. Ms. Brindle sees these various creative endeavors as Katie's projects, not hers. Thus, when Katie asks her to help build a dollhouse out of a cardboard box, she refuses, casually and without guilt."
Lareau's tone here is one I would describe as no-tone, tone-scrubbed. But the picture could not be clearer. When the reporting does the job, the tone can take a break.
Susan Brenna is a journalist based in New York City, a consultant to nonprofit organizations serving children and families, and an adjunct professor of journalism at Columbia University. She has reported and edited for publications including The New York Times, New York Newsday, New York, Atlanta, AdvoCasey, Child and Good Housekeeping. This article first appeared on the Casey Journalism Center on Children and Families Web site.