Do not add. Do not deceive

Posted 04.05.06

A few years ago, I was asked to read from my book Mewsings/Musings to a third-grade class. They enjoyed "Grow Your Own Fur Coat" immensely, laughing at how Simon Teakettle made fun of various human habits, and applauded enthusiastically when I finished.

But one little boy frowned, so I turned to him and said, "You don't believe any of this, do you?" referring to my cat's ability to express his opinions in writing.

It gave me a perfect opportunity to explain the difference between fiction and non-fiction, and point out that humor, though often based on reality, is almost always significantly exaggerated or distorted to make it funny.

Unfortunately, the line between fiction and non-fiction has blurred considerably in the past few years.

"Reality" TV shows don't reveal to gullible viewers all the set-dressing, careful scripts, make-up and preparation behind the scenes. And does anyone really think any of the truly terrible performers who are shown on the Idol auditions are sincere? Or are they just willing to make fools of themselves in order to get on TV?

Simon Cowell calls it "a fame epidemic," and it extends beyond television into the printed word.

Oprah was outraged when the memoir she had praised was revealed to be a fake. Yet some defended Wm. Frey because "the essence" of his story was true.

Sorry, folks, when it comes to real or made-up, there is no middle ground. Something is either true or it isn't.

Those of us trained as journalists learned had this drummed into us. Facts have to be checked, which is why so many reports contain annoying phrases like, "according to sources," or "it is believed that."

As frustrating as that might be to the reader, it signals that you shouldn't accept this as completely true until other reporters are able to verify what actually happened (or quote what was actually said).

Newspapers are often reluctant to admit that their reporters fabricated "news."

When Brad Evenson was fired from The National Post for making up not only quotes but also the people he claimed to have interviewed, readers didn't know that Evenson had gotten away with the same kind of deception years ago, when he was a reporter at the Ottawa Citizen. The entire story was just revealed in an article in Ottawa Magazine last fall.

Roy Peter Clark, senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists, says there are two cornerstone principles for non-fiction writers: "Do not add. Do not deceive."

But Tom Rosenstiel says, "The line between fact and fiction in America, between what is real and made up, is blurring. The move in journalism toward infotainment invites just such confusion, as news becomes entertainment and entertainment becomes news."

Some of this is the public's responsibility. As long as we provide an eager audience for "reality" TV, for celebrity biographies that include unsourced allegations and fabricated quotes, and prefer salacious pseudo-memoirs to quality works of fiction, this blurring will continue.

Barbara Floria Graham is the author of the 20th anniversary edition of Five Fast Steps to Better Writing and Mewsings/Musings. Her website: www.SimonTeakettle.com

Copyright © 2006 Barbara Floria Graham/Log Cabin Chronicles/04.06