Why it's better to write about other people

Graphic by Diana Boger

When I write news, I want to be invisible. I don’t want people to see me; I want them to see the facts.

Last May, I almost ended up using a personal story in a radio story. That previous winter, Minnesota Public Radio reporter Sasha Aslanian invited me to do a radio story about bullying in high school.

Youth Radio is a program for teenagers to report and produce a story that airs on MPR. MPR reporters and editors mentor students. The radio pieces are usually told from the teen’s perspective.

Like almost every kid since the beginning of time, I’ve been bullied. To me it was just something that happened a long time ago.

Working for public radio is my dream job and I wanted to impress the reporters and editors there. I wanted to produce a news story, not a radio essay.

For a few weeks in May I carried around a tape recorder the size of a small mammal, along with a full-sized microphone and a long list of questions. I got interviews, sent in audio and did follow-ups. Then came the editing.

I hadn’t actually talked to anyone about not putting myself in the story. But every radio story needs a script, so I started going the MPR building after school to write it with Aslanian.

We had fun writing the script, with me meeting all my MPR heroes like Gary Eichten and Tom Weber, but eventually Aslanian found a place where my personal experience with bullying would fit right in.

So I added a paragraph to the script talking about being bullied in the eighth grade. She is, after all, an amazing reporter with much more experience and I figured that if she thought it was important, it probably was. And I trust my editors.

Bill Wareham, another excellent Public Radio editor, looked over the script and said it was good. Then Wareham did something that made him one of the best Public Radio editors of all time: he told me to take out the parts about my personal experiences. I was so happy I was practically dancing in my chair.

Because, as the Society of Professional Journalist’s Code of Ethics says, one responsibility of the journalist is to give a voice to the voiceless.

My story wasn’t as important as those brave teens I interviewed, both the bullied and a former bully.

A few days later my story aired twice on the program called Morning Edition. My parents and sister listened to it with me, along with friends and relatives. When I got to school, my teachers congratulated me, and a few of them played the story for their classes.

I don’t hesitate to say that that was the best day of my life, and I don’t think it would have been the same if I hadn’t stayed an objective observer, as every journalist should.