Malcolm Gladwell on his new book and reporting

With a new book to promote, Malcolm Gladwell joined Longform’s podcast recently for an enjoyable conversation. Give it a listen.

Gladwell talked extensively about “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants,” and I’ll share a couple notes from that conversation I found interesting at the bottom of this post.

But first I wanted to mention something not specific to Gladwell’s new book, and that’s his viewpoint on reporting. He shares an opinion on reporting – more specifically, the process of reporting – that I suspect many journalists might find much different than theirs. Some might even vehemently disagree with Gladwell’s approach.

“If I write about you, I don’t want you to regret having talked to me,” Gladwell says on the podcast.

He mentions it is part of his process to discard snippets of interviews that might make someone regretful for having spoken with him. He tends to shy away from negativity, which is partly a result of his personality and, probably more so, a systematic and business-savvy approach (Gladwell mentions that readers can stomach very little negativity – “You’ll never reread a negative article, but you will a positive one,” he says – and credits the optimism found in his books for part of their shelf life).

Gladwell will often ask subjects a question twice if, after hearing their first answer, doubts whether that’s exactly how they’d state it if asked again. He’ll follow with an email, the subject might respond by saying, “No, this is what I really meant to say,” and Gladwell will use that edited quote in his piece. He talks about the obligation to “protect” his sources.

If you stopped listening to Gladwell here, then you might be inclined to believe this is a very flawed way of thinking about reporting, his work little more than the product of a compromised artist. You might even think Gladwell isn’t interested in the journalism so much as he’s interested in sculpting a shiny object of entertainment and selling it off his personal assembly line for many dollars (I assume he’s sincerely interested in both).

I don’t believe this to be remotely true, because the central role of Gladwell’s reporting is the same as it should be for all journalists: Determine what information is relevant, discard what is not and drill down, as best you can, to truth.

Gladwell mentions the necessity of thinking hard about what sense someone was speaking when interviewed, because most people are very naïve to the process of being interviewed. Most people are not professionally trained to articulate themselves honestly to a reporter. It’s an uncomfortable and unnatural position for most. As the interviewer, this should matter.

“It’s not a game of gotcha,” Gladwell says.

That line is probably where our – meaning the industry of media – standards and processes have become the most blurred. The competition for peoples’ time is more fierce than it’s ever been. If you’re a sports website, your competitors aren’t just other sports websites.

Your competitors are also news and culture and political sites, video games, print magazines, books, online shopping, Netflix, iPhone apps that are designed to waste your time, television and any other hobby people spend their free time doing. The desire to drive online traffic – to give people a reason to take some of their free minutes and click on your website – has driven media to, at times, the most salacious of ground. We hardly EVER pass up a good “gotcha” moment.

And why? It certainly isn’t because those are moments of actual truth. Someone caught in a spontaneous moment of vulnerability MIGHT be an accurate depiction of them, but not necessarily. Too often, that doesn’t matter even a little bit. On the Internet, if it makes clicks, it makes sense.

Oddly, the “gotcha” mentality is not even the part that most bothers me. What bothers me the most is when those moments are mistaken for what media is actually supposed to be doing.

I think part of the problem is this idea that Real Journalism is doing something that the subject ultimately won’t like. That if they don’t want something printed, then that’s EXACTLY what you should be writing. If they like what you wrote, then you’re nothing more than a PR flak (the truth is usually somewhere in the middle of those two extremes).

From the moment you begin journalism school, you’re taught to be skeptical, to question, quite literally, everything. These are important qualities for a journalist, which I’m certainly not trying to minimize. In certain journalists arenas – financial and political coverage, for example – they might even be the most important qualities. This is not an argument for softening a reporter’s approach.

But skepticism also doesn’t mean cynicism, and those terms can become synonymous in media.

Journalists are trained to be “watchdogs,” a term I severely dislike because it can easily smear the central purpose behind the media’s work.

It produces a large faction of disingenuous hard-asses who believe there’s honor in slaying subjects simply for the sake of seeing blood.

The goal of media, as it’s always been and forever should be, is to present work that’s honest and true. We’re not here to collect scalps.

Sometimes a scalp is what you end up holding at the end of a truthful pursuit. Sometimes what you hold is compassion and empathy for a subject. Both outcomes are equally satisfactory and even somewhat irrelevant. They’re just the outcomes. The focus should be on a process that remains honest and consistent.

I think that’s the point of Gladwell’s reporting process. You can ask a subject, “Before I print this, what did you really mean to say? Are you sure?” Or you can catch a great quote in someone’s weak moment, print it in 36-point bold and say you did the work of a “dogged” reporter.

And I’d ask, which of those processes is more true?

Couple notes on Gladwell’s book I found interesting

  • Gladwell mentioned that he’s trying to steer away from science more and rely on story to carry his books. He cites Michael Lewis as his writing hero, pointing out that Lewis uses no science (or very little) and all story in his books. Gladwell heavily indulges sociologists and psychologists and academic studies to help build the infrastructure of his books, and he says he wouldn’t need to do that if he could simply tell the story more successfully.
  • If you had to describe Gladwell in a word, before I chose “author” I’d probably say “thinker.” His books are the flushed out developments of non-traditional ideas. On the podcast, he was asked about criticism and people disagreeing with his logic, and he said something interesting. The point, Gladwell said, isn’t that his idea eliminates all room for rebuttal, but simply that it challenges common thinking. If his book forces you to reexamine a viewpoint, then it’s successful. The exchange of ideas isn’t about agreement, he says.

Email: Twitter: @TMitrosilis

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