The world was a dramatically different place before the advent of the Internet; it is an undeniable fact, an irrefutable catalyst in the narrative of the modern age. What was not as well understood, both then and now, is just how penetrating its influence would be, particularly in revolutionizing the way we view, use, interact and develop the concept of narrative.
Narrative, at its most fundamental level, is the structure through which we tell stories – reveal ourselves, relay history, share information, give commands, entertain ourselves and, most importantly, conceptualize ourselves. The media – our global narrative producers – have been fundamentally altered by the Internet: the 24/7 news cycle, the drive for immediacy in reportage, and the dynamism and democratization of the website platform. We have seen the rise of the blogosphere, netizens, citizen journalists, and the kinetic, multimedia, cross-platform, real-time, interactive, reportage that takes about as much time to describe as to read.
With the expansion of what and who we consider as voices of authority in our personal media funnels, the force of the first-person pronoun ‘I’ has become increasingly pronounced in news, particularly in essay writing. Laura Bennett of Slate Magazine wrote last year of the “First Person Industrial Complex,” a well-trafficked piece that sparked debate about the value and pitfalls of ‘I’.
“First-person writing has long been the Internet’s native voice,” she says, and has since become the dominant pronoun in essay writing. She applauds the power of the ‘I’ to introduce new, more diverse voices – though critics have balked at that assertion when it comes to minority voices. She also appreciates the impact of framing larger sociopolitical issues within personal narratives, which heightens awareness of identity and the inherent bias in authorial perspectives. However, she says most essayists actually fail to achieve this heightened awareness of identity and perspective, “In fact, the defining trait of the best first-person writing is exactly what is missing from so much of the new crop: self-awareness.”
The stakes get even higher with the move of the ‘I’ into more traditional hard news, such as war and conflict coverage. The shift has become a particularly important concern for students of global affairs, diplomats and others who rely on open source information about dangerous and impenetrable places. Not to forget that beyond practical uses of media, journalists produce narratives that are consumed and adopted by the public of entire nations, regions and international communities.
For some, the ‘I’ is refreshing, a reckoning with something that was always there. Journalists Bill Kovach and Tom Rosensteil wrote, “the impartial voice employed by many news organizations—that familiar, supposedly neutral style of news writing—is not a fundamental principle of journalism…Journalists who select sources to express what is really their own point of view, and then use the neutral voice to make it seem objective, are engaged in deception.”
Others have hailed its authenticity, others its ability to engage more readers and make horrific, distant events personal and more “real.” A different, convincing vein of argument is that the ‘I’ satisfies skepticism about foreign reporters who are expected to immediately produce copy about a country, conflict and culture they barely know. The acceptance of first-person in hard news has allowed candid, non-professional accounts of what’s going from local’s perspectives, appreciating a different kind of “expert.”
As academics we face the issue too. When we are so aware of the influence of culture, gender, race and identity en masse – when handling topics like identity politics, justice and fairness – it is hard to maintain the omniscient, anonymous, third-person if we aim for high levels of honesty and recognition of bias. Perhaps by making room for acknowledgement of our background it can add new layers or fodder for analysis, make our statements more measured, or force us to acknowledge more perspectives.
But using first-person is certainly still a minority in practice; traditional strains of thinking in journalism and academia do not advocate the shift. Go ask a professor or editor at the Wall Street Journal and the response will likely involve some amount of knee-jerk refusal, dogmatic horror at the idea. “That is not how things are done!”
Though, the argument against first-person is not without compelling reasons and evidence. Bringing the author too much into the article or broadcast very often runs the risk of shifting the focus of the piece onto the author.
Former NBC newscaster, Brian Williams, was once polled as one of the most trusted men in America. After it was revealed that he lied about coming under fire in a helicopter in Iraq, he lost all favor as well as his position at NBC. It was a serious lapse in judgment that is oft ascribed to the increase in and glorification of ‘I’ accounts. VICE news is another example of the pitfalls of ‘I.’ VICE, a giant news organization tailored to younger, anti-institution news consumers, now runs a vertical called Correspondent Confidential. Journalists tell stories about themselves on assignment, producing some engaging and insightful pieces, but mostly just encourage a degree of insufferable naval gazing – e.g. stories about their clueless, bizarre nights in Thailand that sound amateur and ill-informed to anyone who knows these places.
There are valid reasons for resistance to and caution about the first-person. To forget the greater purpose and focus of journalism and academia – exposing truths and stories of the unseen and unheard – is obviously self-defeating and even dangerous. The stakes rise when the purpose is meant to shed light on issues and people hard to access, about people and issues of mortal and immediate importance. These worries about the first-person, however, seem to confuse the pronoun with the person itself. The issue is less about the ‘I’ and more about who the ‘I’ is; less about the importance of first hand accounts and more about whether and how responsibly authors can wield their own voice.
The first-person pronoun brings with it both advantages and disadvantages, the Internet too. Lying and self-aggrandizement are not new vices to the human species, but the explosion of narrative platforms on social media throws these vices into a new relief, a setting that is quite literally global in scale. Now we can tailor and manipulate our personas with apps and filters on top of our already existent mental filters – our social media selves are aspirational rather than true selves. These kinds of forces are what problematize ‘I’. As Bennett’s Slate article aptly highlighted, the paradox is that most essayists lack exactly what ‘I’ should promote – self-awareness.
Editors and professors are in positions to hone more safe, aware, measured, principled uses of the first-person in their students and reporters. It is an unavoidable fact that authors are real people and sunshine is often a helpful policy. Rather than a blanket no to the first-person, it would be helpful to more clearly differentiate ever-expanding narrative forms and spaces, to use the ethics and purposes of our stories as our guide.