Writing with voice: judgment vs. opinion
Why not let your judgment show in a news story?
People like me tell you (the student media staff member) to write with voice, and then we tell you to leave your opinion out of it. When you quite logically ask us how to do both, we come up with advice like an earlier post of mine on observation vs. opinion in news writing.
As so often happens, a conversation with a student gave me a new thought. Kali Daniel, life editor of The Flor-Ala student newspaper at the University of North Alabama, called Thursday as she prepared to lead feature writing training at her paper’s “boot camp” next week. As we talked over this topic of avoiding personal opinion, the word “judgment” popped out of my mouth.
Then an example came to mind, and I’m afraid I subjected Kali to a long rambling lecture. I’ll trim it down here.
My thought was that you use judgment whenever you write a story. You choose facts to include, the order of those facts and sources to cite or quote. Readers are well aware that you do this. If you’ve written for publication for very long, you’ve probably been accused of bias because of such choices.
It’s useless to pretend you don’t use judgment. So as long as you’re transparent about it, why not let your voice come through in your judgment?
Now that example: I’ve recently been filling in as an overnight writer at CNN Digital. On my first shift, CNN had just aired two exclusive prime-time interviews. One was with a juror in the George Zimmerman trial. The other was with the young woman who was speaking with Trayvon Martin on the phone just before he was shot by Zimmerman.
The previous shift had written separate stories on those interviews. My assignment was to write a piece that would contrast how these two sources saw the case. Keep in mind nobody was asking me to write my opinion about the case. But the assignment definitely called for me to use judgment.
The story we published began:
(CNN) –Juror B37 found it hard to understand what witness Rachel Jeantel was talking about.
And after the jurors acquitted George Zimmerman in the death of Jeantel’s friend Trayvon Martin, the feeling certainly was mutual.
After a trial that divided many Americans by their views on race, guns and self-defense, CNN’s exclusive interviews with the witness and the juror Monday night illustrated their starkly different frames of reference.
Obviously, Rachel Jeantel never said, “The feeling certainly is mutual.” Neither she nor the juror nor any “expert” said they had “starkly different frames of reference.” Those were my judgments, and I submit readers understood that.
The alternative would have been starting the story with a series of “she said/she said” contrasts which would have taken many more words and risked losing readers.
I think that that little touch in the second graf, “the feeling certainly was mutual,” signaled the reader that “ah, there’s a narrator speaking to me.” That signal said, “This will not be a dry recitation. A person is going to guide me through some interesting stuff.”
Now that I look back at it, even ending the lead with a preposition and starting the second graf with “And” were signals of conversational style.
To be sure, the story then spelled out contrasts in the two interviews to back up the judgments in those first three grafs. You must demonstrate to the reader that your judgment is based on facts. (I think you ought to do that in opinion writing as well, but that’s a different post.)
But exercising transparent judgment will help you achieve that conversational connection with readers — that “let me tell you a story” moment that is such a powerful motivator to keep reading.