Sunday, February 10, 2013

What subjects should expect from writers

When I began writing a column on ethics almost 15 years ago, my approach when I wanted to interview someone was to identify myself, tell the person where the column appeared, and then start in on the questions. It was only after the third column appeared that I realized this wasn't enough.

In that column, I wrote about a particularly noble act someone had taken in the workplace. An employee had offered to donate a kidney to her boss. I wrote about how altruistic an act this was, but also focused on how the act could change the relationship between the employee and her boss -- and that this had never been discussed by them or anyone else within the company. I believed then and still do believe, that it should have been.

My mistake was that I had not revealed to the subject of that column, or the handful that preceded it, the nature of the type of column I write: that I look at ethical choices people make and how they go about making them. The subject's reaction to the piece about that noble workplace act was not positive. She suggested I was calling her intentions disingenuous, that somehow I was suggesting she was trying to curry favor with her boss and ensure job security in the process. I didn't write that in the column. I believed then and still do now that what she did was altruistic.

So, where did I go astray in doing the right thing by my subject?

Writer Tracy Kidder and his longtime editor, Richard Todd, explore the implications of letting writers into a subject's life in their recently published book Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction (Random House, 2013). They believe that it's important for writers to help their subjects think through these implications. They stress that it's essential for writers to be clear with their subjects about the nature of their relationship.

The writer, they argue, should "assume that all potential subjects don't understand what they might be getting into" by talking to a writer.

"Explain to subjects," they write, "that there is no predicting how you will portray them or how they will feel about their portraits, or how readers will judge them, and that they can't determine any of this because you cannot give them control over what you write."

I wish I had had their advice prior to writing those first few ethics columns, because what Kidder and Todd advise is exactly the right thing to do. Since that experience writing about the noble act of the altruistic employee, I now make very clear to anyone I interview for the column who isn't already familiar with it that I write about how people make ethical decisions or how they might make better ethical decisions.

This caveat to subjects doesn't change what I write about or how, but it better prepares subjects for what to expect. Doing this often results in a more focused and better interview -- but, more important, it's the right thing to do. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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(c) 2013 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.

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