If I’m not mistaken, that’s bullet point number two in the journalistic code of ethics. It’s a commitment journalists at every level are supposed to take with them whenever they report a story. While lots of journalism is bound to cause discomfort, no reporting should go so far as to cause actual harm.
On Friday, we did something that got me thinking about that commitment. We watched The Lovely Bones. And it got me thinking that maybe that commitment should extend even to those who write things that aren’t true, aka, fiction.
I know that this book was a bestseller, so there are obviously a lot of people who feel differently about the book, who weren’t revolted. (Also, I have not read the book so what I say below is based solely on my impressions of the movie. So no offense meant Alice Sebold.) Frankly, I avoided reading the book. I knew it wouldn’t be my cup of tea.
I am a person who has led an immensely blessed life free of “yuckiness.” However, in my last two years of college, I mentored in a class called “Human Violence and Dignity.” I have held a bullet-torn textbook which helped save the life of woman whose boyfriend shot her in the head. I have sat in a classroom while a mother spoke of her daughter who was raped and murdered. As I watched The Lovely Bones’s story unfold, I just couldn’t figure out how this story wouldn’t be harmful to someone who actually has been a victim of violence. The concept of a dead child somehow guiding earthly actions from a limbo area between heaven and life just doesn’t seem really helpful to the healing process to me.
And I’m not just talking about The Lovely Bones here.
At my last book club meeting, one of the ladies talked about an author whose books she had been loving. She was cruising through the books. Until she came to the author’s latest work which contained graphic descriptions of torture methods.
“Every day I pray I will forget the images of things I read in this book,” she said.
These books are exposing things that we don’t like to talk about. Torture and violence are appalling realities in our world. Maybe these books caused someone sitting on their couch to get up and do something about changing torture policies or preventing violence in their community. Those are some really great outcomes from literature that gave me and my fellow book club member nightmares.
So where’s the line? Obviously we’re dealing with subjective material here. What is awful to me might be something you wouldn’t even sneeze at.
I mean, no way in heck am I going to go out and watch a gory horror movie. But some people love them. But then again, gory horror movies are meant as entertainment, not really as a form of truth. Horror films don’t take bits of truth from this life and mix them up with little bits of make-believe like The Lovely Bones or many, many other novels do. Therefore, sensationalizing shocking writing meant only for a “thrill” is exempt from this discussion.
But when it comes to a fictionalized story of something that might be true should that affect how we write? Do we have a commitment to minimize harm when dealing with material with a greater potential to disturb?
I’m not advocating censorship here. I believe in the freedom of speech as much as I believe in the journalistic code of ethics. I also believe in sensitivity: having a right doesn’t necessarily make it right.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember as a writer in situation like these is another thing I heard a lot in my budding collegiate journalism career: your words have power. . . . Use that power wisely.