Taking ‘fluffy’ journalism seriously

A radiation therapist takes down a mask from the wall. It will be snapped down over a cancer patient's head. That's serious stuff, right? Photo by Emily Siner

A radiation therapist takes down a mask from the wall. It will be snapped down over a cancer patient’s head to zap their tumor. That’s serious stuff, right? Photo by Emily Siner

A few weeks ago, I had a long drive back to Nashville on a Sunday afternoon and was, of course, listening to public radio. Somewhere between St. Louis and Kentucky, Krista Tippett, the host of On Being, was interviewing Michel Martin, an NPR radio personality and host of the now-defunct Tell Me More.

Ms. Tippett: One of the things you’ve done in your journalism at NPR and certainly on Tell Me More is to say that faith and family are huge topics at the center of your journalism. And I wonder, um, how you respond to the — because, you know, I think in journalism these are considered to be soft, and subjective, and…

Ms. Martin: Girly.

That word struck a deep nerve. Because, I realized, that’s what I thought about those topics, too. And the person who suffered most from that mentality was me.

I’ve always been really good at understanding emotions, and I’m also pretty good at digging into those emotions as a journalist and expressing them through words. I’ve written about a Holocaust survivor reflecting on humanity, about tornado victims reconnecting with lost photographs, about cancer patients turning their medical implements into art. Stories like these try to capture, for lack of a less lofty phrase, the depth of humanity.

I’m proud of those stories, and they’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from readers and listeners. But recently, I’ve started dismissing them a little bit in my mental hierarchy of my portfolio. Sure, they’re pretty, but did they change anything in society? Did they highlight corruption? Did they make elected officials squirm? I saw them as accessories to my real work — the breaking news pieces, the data-driven stories, the interviews with the governor. I branded these other stories “fluff pieces.”

In June, I went to a conference on investigative journalism — the opposite of fluff. I knew I was there to strengthen my investigative skills, but I also secretly hoped it would turn me into the kind of probing, no-nonsense reporter that commands immediate respect (fear, even) among officials and politicians and businessmen.

It didn’t work. About a day in, I accepted, with a sinking feeling, that no number of conferences could change my personality. I would never be abrasive and cynical, like some of my investigative reporter idols. And besides, I really didn’t want to be. I liked who I was and thought my personality was just fine for being a journalist. I just felt like it didn’t lend itself to being taken seriously.

At the heart of this insecurity was something that I was only able to admit out loud once. I was talking to my mom on the phone, and she complimented me on a feature story. I brushed her praise aside. “It’s a fluff piece,” I said, and started to choke up. “It’s so stereotypical of what a female reporter would write. I want to be more than that.”

I hated that I wasn’t taking more pride in my work. But when you’re a young reporter, every story feels like an opportunity to prove yourself, to make sure people respect your work. And when you’re a young 20-something woman (who probably looks and sounds even younger), the bar for respect feels higher. Why would I take pride in the fact that my softer, girly pieces were so great?

All of these thoughts zipped through my head in a microsecond after Michel Martin said that word. Then the interview continued.

Ms. Tippett: Well, girly, yeah, even that. How do you respond to that? How do you think about that?

Ms. Martin: Don’t care.

[Audience laughter/applause]

Brush it off, haters. Don’t care. Take a hike, haters. Go. Don’t care. I just think that these things are so fundamental to the way we live that they deserve the seriousness that we impart to other topics.

When I think about it objectively, I think people really do take stories about faith and family and humanity seriously. I mean, those are probably the stories that resonate with readers and listeners the most.

But at the very least, no matter who else respects my work — Michel Martin does, and I can too. That’s a decent place to start.

Faith, Family and Other Serious Stories I’ve Reported:

Longtime local rabbi forever grateful for ‘sparks of holiness’ during a dark time
Why Are Tennessee Churches Donating Only To The ‘Yes On 1’ Campaign?
Unmasked, Cancer Survivors Face The Symbol Of Their Torture
Tornado Victims Find Snapshots of Solace in Far-Flung Photos

1 thought on “Taking ‘fluffy’ journalism seriously”

  1. Janis Feldman Siner

    In our phone conversation, Emily, I told you what a special gift and talent you have. There is so much sensitivity and depth reflected in your writing. You can be really proud of that. Add to your list of serious and wonderful reports: “Thistle Farms”; “Hospice Singers”; Dragonboating/Cancer Survivors”. I am so proud of you and your work. I love you. Mom

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