Education Matters: Should we teach journalism students to write in the first person?
Starting out by writing about themselves does not help students elevate their reporting and news-writing skills beyond what they could have attained by spending their three or four years blogging, writes education columnist Janice Tibbetts.
By Janice Tibbetts
In a few weeks, when I meet about 50 first-year students in my introductory journalism classes, one of the first things I will tell them is to keep the words “I,” “me,” “we” and “us” out of their stories. Journalism, after all, is about telling the stories of others and not drawing attention to yourself.
That is—or at least was—the conventional wisdom of the field during the two decades I worked in daily reporting. It’s what I learned at j-school and it remains, for the most part, the backbone of solid journalism.
This school of thought, however, is becoming an increasingly hard sell among students, who have grown up amid pervasive first-person stories. A domain that used to be reserved for seasoned writers, after establishing themselves as authoritative voices, has now become the norm. Bloggers, and other exclusively online writers, in particular, often rely on first-person accounts, in part because they are the easiest, fastest and cheapest way to write stories.
While I banned first-person stories and all self references in my first-year classes last year (and I intend to do the same this year), there are other journalism teachers who don’t necessarily feel the same way. They argue that it’s an era of first-person accounts and readers gobble up these stories.
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In traditional media, first-person accounts are also tremendously popular. Consider, for instance, that two of the three nominees in the long features category for the 2013 National Newspaper Awards wrote highly personal pieces. Author Don Gillmor won for his series, published in the Toronto Star, about coming to terms with his brother’s suicide. Jim Coyle, a veteran journalist at the Star, was also nominated for his account of his descent into alcoholism and hard-won recovery. They are testimony to the well-founded argument that you’ll have a better story if you write about what you know.
It’s against this backdrop that it isn’t always easy to convince journalism students that they should focus on objective stories in the early years, using the voices of others, before they start putting themselves in their work.
One motivation for banning the first person is that many j-schoolers, who have been brought up on texting and social media, hate to make phone calls. They also have an understandable fear of approaching strangers and authority figures. Allowing students to write in the first person, and effectively doing an end-run around interviewing, robs them of the experience they need to develop these core skills.
While I require students to interview at least four sources for feature stories, I know there are other (respected) teachers who have a different goal post, such as encouraging students to have fun with their stories, even if it means writing features in the first person.
I wonder sometimes whether I am being too traditional and hard core. But I remind myself that students have invested a lot of time and money into earning their degrees. To start out by writing about themselves does not help elevate their reporting and news-writing skills beyond what they could have attained by spending their three or four years blogging or peeling off personal accounts for the vast array of online ventures that predominantly provide little in the way of steady employment. As writer Hamilton Nolan argued in a 2013 piece for Gawker.com, it is far from “a career plan” for journalism students to pursue first-person essays. “By plundering your own life for material, you are not investing in yourself as a writer; you're spending the principal. Soon, it will all be used up,” he wrote.
So, I say “eat your vegetables class.” Then maybe one day you can move on to dessert.
Janice Tibbetts teaches journalism at Concordia University in Montreal. She spent more than two decades in the daily news business, working for Postmedia News, Canadian Press, the Chronicle Herald and the Halifax Daily News. She has written extensively about justice, federal and provincial politics, and legal affairs.
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Tamara Baluja is an award-winning journalist with CBC Vancouver and the 2018 Michener-Deacon fellow for journalism education. She was the associate editor for J-Source from 2013-2014.