Minding The Gaps — Ethics in Non-fiction Writing

In a world of reality television and dramatized documentaries, the lines between fact and fiction are constantly blurred. Books are written, sold and reviewed as if the reportage and opinion never overlap. Real people or events are appropriated in novels. Tabloid hacks create dialogue, even invent detail. Hence writers, perhaps more than ever, have to be mindful of how they represent reality, and how readers will read (and read into) their portrayals.

Getting it Right

Responsible journalists, and non-fiction writers generally, have always placed prime emphasis on accuracy and balance. They strive for accuracy in the factual information presented, and balance in the interpretation of events. “Getting both sides of the story” is a basic rule, though there are often more than two sides to a story. The rule is intended to be cautionary. Presenting something to the public as actual truth requires a high level of vigilance from writers, in the checking of facts and sources. Writers also need to check their own preconceived notions at the door.

The risk is getting it badly wrong. And the two parties at risk are the writers on one hand, and the people being written about on the other. In the infamous University of Virginia campus-rape article published in Rolling Stone in 2014, both writer and informant took major hits to their reputations and credibility when the story turned out to be false. The fatal error was the decision to forgo standard verification practices in the interest of “believing the victim”, and avoiding re-traumatizing her. These laudable concerns hardly mattered when the flawed article itself became the news.

Scandals like this do little for the public perception of professional penmanship, built as it is on trust. Readers need to trust that reporters and writers are being straight, and that they have done their homework. The upside is the pointed reminder about the dangers in taking information on faith and repeating opinion without corroboration.
[link Columbia University School of Journalism Review: ]

Getting it Balanced

Balance is the other major concern. For journalists whose work is frequently described as “a first draft of history”, this is the cue to cast their nets widely, to explore testimony coming from differing perspectives, especially dissenting opinion. For non-fiction writers who are not reporting or analysing the news, balance still matters. The balance of fairness.

In ethical terms, this is where the rubber meets the road. A writer makes editorial choices in recounting a story, and describing individuals. Decisions are made such as whether to include an interviewee’s Freudian slip, or to use the unflattering photo that happens to best illustrate the article. It involves figuring out how to handle gaps in the story (especially when the protagonists have gone), and how far to go in representing another person’s thoughts.

Trickiest are the judgements about character, behaviour and motivation. Technically speaking, there are only two resources a writer can lean on for support on this one. The first is research, and this is one place where over-research really pays off. He or she should reach beyond the timeframe of the story, perhaps into other lives the individual has lived, for more intelligence. It’s the search for a broader and deeper understanding of a person and the surrounding circumstance of a life. It includes side-trips to situate others, especially informants, within the story and within the gamut of opinion about the subject.

Besides research, the art of writing itself offers means to depict character from overt statement to implication. The choice of words becomes extremely important in conveying the notion that not all judgements and characterizations are equal, which is to say delivered with the same degree of certitude.

The Eternal “What if…”

There are many ways to speculate about what isn’t known for sure, what might have happened, or what someone may have felt. Historians routinely engage in conjecture using qualifiers like “it may have been”, “there are reasons to believe” and so on. For their part, documentary filmmakers invented the drama-documentary using techniques of re-enactments and invented dialogue, and writers of literary non-fiction have pioneered ways of integrating documentary with narrative prose and first person prose. However, the standards of journalistic practice must still prevail in these fields. There is an expectation that when it comes depictions of the lives and characters of real individuals due diligence has been done, that the writer is travelling on more than rumour and opinion.

In academia, strict rules govern studies involving individuals (specifically those laid down by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and followed by many Canadian institutions and universities). But there is nothing about a writer’s responsibility to the same individuals when it comes to their representation in books and articles published in academic journals. This means that while libel laws address the fair treatment of living protagonists, there is no protection for individuals who have died. In fact, beyond the prohibitions against plagiarism, there seem to be few rules relating to standards of research and balance in the depiction of the lives and character of people as a literary concern.

Susan writes:

I have spent a good deal of my writing life researching and writing the stories of other people. Two have been full-scale books: a biography of labour leader Grace Hartman, and a cross-genre examination of Emily Carr’s legacy. Portraying another person forces you to think about representation and its limitations. It makes you consider the accuracy of your sources, contemporary and historic. It prompts you to keep checking the context — which is to say the politics and spheres of self-interest playing themselves out in the story. It moves you to seek out individuals who can translate and advise you about things unfamiliar to you. It teaches you to play the devil’s advocate when making judgments. And it instructs you to line up your adjectives to see what story they tell while you’re not looking.

This doesn’t mean you can avoid ethical dilemmas or criticism. They come with the territory. And so do editorial mistakes, those moments when you find your prose saying something you never thought of. This is when you learn you are in the business of communication not self-expression.

Writing about women in the media in the eighties, I had a major problem with one prominent on-air TV host, a very affable and able woman who was brilliant on camera. In conversation, however, she was a stream-of-consciousness monologist who spoke in clichés, never completed a sentence and flitted from subject to subject. It was hard to rescue a sentence (or a thought) from the interview. My choice was to write her comments up using short quotes or quote her verbatim and wait for a defamation suit.

The book, called Newsworthy, was conceived as a literary version of a radio documentary and featured a whole raft of women working in the media “in their own words”. Instead of interviewing a dozen or so and publishing edited transcripts, I wrote a script around lengthy excerpts from many interviews, providing background and history as I went. There are always surprises when a book meets the public for the first time. In this case, it was Christina McCall who I’d written about, and had great admiration for who stunned me. I ran into her at an event and following my sunny ‘hello’ she turned to me with, “Well, I didn’t know you had to be lobbied” which took me a few moments to decode. She was visibly angry, but it wasn’t about anything I’d written about her. It was what Adrienne Clarkson was quoted as saying. “I could give you a thick file full of the guff she gave you,” was Christina’s only comment.

In short, I’d walked into was the aftermath of a marriage breakdown that involved children. Christina’s partner by this time was Adrienne’s ex, and Adrienne’s short rendition of the split left McCall feeling betrayed, and possibly set-up by me. This is the kind of risk inherent in experimental writing, but it can happen with any writing that hits someone personally where they hurt. McCall, a seasoned magazine journalist and political writer, was expecting the same kind of fact checking you do with a profile or biography. And perhaps she was right. I had not, in fact, considered this ramification. Still I had to own it. Had to admit I should have caught this in the edit, thought about it, or at least asked the question. What’s this personal information for? It was, in fact, inessential to the story.

Ultimately, I haven’t seen these mistakes as wholly unfortunate, gut-wrenching though they were at the time. And since that book, I’ve learned that in some projects, writing across racial and linguistic divides for example, it is inevitable and part of the process.

Going back to my ethical dilemma with the TV host, there was one comment she made in our interview that came through loud and clear. It popped out when she was expressing frustration about an item on battered women, and how so many of them had gone right back to their abusive husbands. She couldn’t fathom the behaviour. “I wanted to hit those women” she exclaimed into my tape recorder. In the end, I decided it was fair to use that piece of what felt like unconscious self-revelation; she was, after all, a journalist. But to insist on verbatim quotes felt gratuitous. So I resorting to ellipsis and quoted phrases in sentences I constructed.


Writing about others also makes you wonder about the impact of your words have on those connected to the story. Mainly because inaccuracies and new angles have a way of floating to the surface over time. Because sometimes you write about people you hardly know and may never have met. Because you always wonder what back story you are missing. Very occasionally, you find out.

There I was in Vancouver at a reading in the 1990s, having chosen to read an excerpt from the introduction to a book on child custody and family law. It was my story of an incident I’d witnessed in the park behind my parents’ house in the sixties, which had distressed me enough to call the police. I’d no idea what had just transpired, but I’d seen a woman rush past me with a baby in her arms, followed by at some distance by a man. The two of them had left another woman in the park, gesticulating beside an empty baby carriage. Lickedy split, a detective was at the house with a pile of mug shots, and I was asked to identify the man who’d followed the woman from the park to the street, where the two had jumped into a cab.

What I’d witnessed, I then discovered to my horror, was a mother re-possessing her daughter after a judge had awarded custody to the grandmother in lieu of either parent, both known to be drug users. My contribution was to help put away her friend for the crime of helping. A friend of mine, who is also a criminal law lawyer, read the manuscript of the book before it was published by a small feminist press (with no legal budget) and counselled me to change all the names. “In your line of work, it’s only a matter of time before someone one sues you,” he said. So I didn’t use the mother’s name, and in fact I’d never learned what she’d named her daughter.

A young man in the Vancouver audience, however, knew who I was talking about. Knew that the name (Renée) I’d given the mother in the book was the name the mother had given her daughter in real life. Moreover, he told me, little Renée had died. On the lam from the law, her mother had lived a life off the grid that avoided any contact with authorities, including doctors and schools. Renée was four when she wandered off into the forest one spring morning and drowned in a stream. Then she’d had to talk to authorities. Her little girl’s body was shipped back east to the grandparents and she still didn’t know where she was buried.

Twenty years after the first fleeting glimpse, I meet Renée’s at her home on one of the gulf islands. She told me about the life she’d made for herself on the coast, and about Renée. I told her how deeply affected I’d been by the cruelty of her situation, and the fact I’d played a part in it. I admitted I’d lost my innocence about the law and justice at her friend’s trial. In due I had a chance to talk to him, too. And was able to tell her where little girl is buried.

Rory writes:

Half a lifetime ago I was a teenage Canadian “doing” Europe. During a happy, footloose 1970s summer, I climbed the Eiffel Tower, tripped down the Spanish Steps and felt the earth move under the stars on an Aegean beach. Then on the last week of the holiday I saw the Berlin Wall. The sight of the heinous barrier shook me to my core. At the heart of civilised Europe were watchtowers, barbed wire and border guards instructed to shoot fellow citizens who wanted to live under a different government.

I knew the history. I understood what had happened. But I couldn’t conceive how it had happened. The individuals whose actions had divided Germany and Europe – the wartime planners, the Soviet commissars, the Stasi agents – weren’t monsters. They were ordinary men and women. How had they have grown blind to their human experience, clouding it with dogma, worshipping a distant tyrant? I longed to understand their motivation, how they came to act as they did, yet at the same time I was repulsed by their crimes and needed to feel their victims’ suffering.

In time that longing – that need to comprehend the discrepancy between the morality of a man and of men — made me a writer. I came to realise that it is only by experiencing the world from another person’s point of view that we can begin to understand that person or society. I wanted my readers to be able to feel what it was like to be alive during Thirty Years War or the Nazi years, and for me that is most powerfully achieved through characters, through stories, by evoking empathy.

Why did – and why does — it matter? Because at the heart of my longing – and my decision to become a writer — there is a moral question. How would I have behaved under the Nazis or Communists? Would I have stood up for the victims, or allied myself with the majority and gone with the flow? It is a question that we all need to ask ourselves.

Answering this – and similar moral questions — is part of the reason why we read books.

Of course, the ambition to understand the inner thoughts of a fellow human places responsibility on the non-fiction writer. He or she asks the reader’s trust. In return the reader expects the writer to have done thorough research, to have considered the story from different points of view, to have striven to be balanced and true.

One hundred and eighty years ago Thomas Macaulay wrote of the importance of history being burned into the imagination, as well as received by reason.
History is full of stories, plots and sub-plots that thrive on the conflict between good and evil: villains, innocents and heroes. So there’s a temptation to use some players and events for narrative effect, to drive the story on, to quicken it with intrigue. But the result of such an approach is the inflation of roles, and the exaggeration of fact that risks reducing individual biography to caricature.

In my work – a total of ten books to date including two UK top tens — I seek out the lives of ordinary men and women, people who are marked and separated by borders and ideologies, courage and cowardliness, reality and dreams, even time and death. I collect their extraordinary stories and try to retell them in a manner that enables the reader to empathise with the subject, and so build bridges of understanding – and compassion – between individuals, through societies and across nations. I work hard, balancing viewpoints and opinions, digging deep into the past, looking for nuance, reading and rereading and editing each sentence, paragraph and chapter at least a dozen times. I try to burn history into the reader’s imagination, as well as to be received by his or her reason. I ask the reader to trust me. I know that trust must not be betrayed.

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