The theory and reality of “the right to write”

I was recently told about a group of friends in New York who get together regularly to discuss Socratic questions.

Essentially, they meet at a bar or restaurant, and one member of the group will toss out a question, typically about matters of philosophy or life. Then, the group discusses the question.

It’s a simple idea — and, in the right light, kinda cool.

Sometimes I think it might be a worthy idea for journalists. I have lamented before how we can easily get caught up in the day-to-day grind of the business without examining its larger questions and possibilities. Maybe we all need to take a little time, individually and collectively, to think big.

I read an article this past weekend that got me thinking big … or, perhaps more accurately, thinking Socratic.

Roxana Robinson of the New York Times wrote a column for the newspaper’s Opinionator blog, entitled “The Right to Write”. She discusses a seemingly simple question: “who has the right to our stories?”

Robinson is a fiction writer, and she examines whether authors can legitimately represent what they have not experienced? Her introductory paragraph perfectly sets the table:

I sat on a panel once with another novelist and a distinguished African-American critic, to discuss Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” The critic said, “Of course, as a white woman, Stowe had no right to write the black experience.” The other novelist said lightly, “No, of course not. And I had no right to write about 14th-century Scandinavians. Which I did.”

Who is correct here? And how do we extrapolate this to journalists, who inevitably cover stories about people, neighborhoods, races, religions, and situations about which they have little first-hand experience? Unlike authors, we do not get to choose; we accept our assignments regardless of whether they reflect our personal backgrounds.

The question then, for journalists, becomes “how”: how do you accurately represent experiences you may not personally understand?

I offer a personal example. Last fall I did the following story about a group of World War II veterans who took an honor flight to Washington, D.C. Each person was roughly three times my age, with far more experience in both life and war. I have never served in the military and cannot imagine how it feels to face down the horrors of war and the terrifying enemy of Nazi Germany.

My strategy was to learn and observe as much as I could.

I spoke at length with roughly half of the two dozen veterans on the trip. I interviewed different people at different spots on the tour, allowing them to explain why certain monuments were more meaningful than others. I resisted the temptation to force my own presumptions onto the story; I simply tried to shine a light on their feelings and responses.

I walked away with a story about which I am very proud.

I try to maintain that mindset regardless of the story. If I am covering a neighborhood issue, I first try to understand why that issue matters within the neighborhood. If I am assigned a human interest story about a family or individual, I spend as much time as I can to connect and understand what makes it unique.

The problem is, journalists are rarely rewarded for such efforts. Background work means nothing without a deadline-making product, and often it enhances said product in ways that are not easily recognizable.

But that’s why we need, every now and then, to examine our work through a Socratic lens.

Robinson says the following about fiction writers, but she just as easily could have been describing journalists:

We’re trying to give voice to everyone on the planet. And who has the right to do that? Do I have the right to write my version of your story? And how does exploitation get into this discussion? Because the word suggests ignorance and deception, an imbalance of power.

If nothing else, Robinson’s column reminded me of our immense power and responsibility. We receive excellent access and are entrusted to tell people’s stories to a much wider audience than they would typically reach.

Shouldn’t we feel the necessity to do it right?

Matt Pearl is the author of the Telling the Story blog and podcast. Leave a comment below or e-mail Matt at

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.


Enter your email and keep up to date ...