Good Storytellers are Changed by Their Stories

Early this morning, as snow fell softly in the pre-dawn darkness outside and my family slept upstairs, I had a 45-minute conversation with a little boy who couldn’t understand a word I said and who said about only two words I was able to pick up — one of which led me to give him chocolate for breakfast.

There we were, sitting at my kitchen table, two people who, on the surface, are about as different as can be, chatting in our own languages and somehow forging a new bond.

For the next six to nine months, my wife and I will be host parents to D., a 4-year-old boy from the West African nation of Burkina Faso who was born with several leg deformities the physicians at Shriners Hospitals for Children — St. Louis will attempt to fix.

D’s journey to our home began three days ago when he boarded an Ethiopian Air flight with just a small backpack stuffed with a few articles of clothing. Yesterday afternoon, he landed in Columbus, Ohio, and, suddenly, this little dude was our responsibility.

But D’s journey into our lives began months ago, and it illustrates an important point about storytellers and storytelling: Objectivity is a lie.

Soon after I started my job at Shriners Hospital, I learned about our commitment to treating international children with severe conditions who would not be able to get treatment in their home countries. That led me to talk with Amy, a host mom who has welcomed five overseas kids into her home over the past three years ago.

The night after I interviewed Amy and her children and wrote “Rewriting Their Stories: Host parents play important role in Shriners Hospitals international efforts to change lives,” my wife and I sat on the couch talking about the topic when a sudden silence descended. We both looked at each other, and I said, “We should do this, shouldn’t we?”

“Yes, we should,” she responded.

And so we are.

Of course, there’s a lot of story in between that “We should, shouldn’t we?” and us welcoming D into our home last night. But here’s the thing: I became a print journalist at 16 and worked in newspapers until I was in my mid-30s, and not once in my entire journalistic career did I ever write an unbiased, objective story.

Now, saying that is going to lead my journalist friends to think I was a horrible journalist (I wasn’t), and it’s going to lead others to say, “See! I knew the Mainstream Media is biased!” (It is.) But I’m simply being real. There wasn’t one article I wrote that didn’t change me in some way. Most of the times, those changes were small and maybe didn’t last long. Sometimes, the changes were deep and lasting. By the time I did all my interviews, completed all the research for a story, I felt something; I had an opinion about the topic. Whether it was a group of moms getting together to raise money to support a friend with cancer or a city council decision, everything I covered passed through the filter of my upbringing and experiences before winding up in print.

Every single journalist goes through the exact same journey with every single story. Most, however, cling to this untrue maxim that journalists must be objective and, seeing as how they are a journalist, they too are objective. That might sound good and make journalists feel somehow better-than, but it’s a lie. Journalists are human. They have a past. They were raised to believe certain things and either embraced those beliefs as they grew or rejected them. They all have deeply ingrained biases they might not like to admit are there, might not even be aware are there, but they are there.

When I ran a newsroom, I didn’t want a person working for me who would be unaffected by, say, the murder of a child, the death of teen in a small-airplane crash or the failure of a school levy. People who don’t feel things are called psychopaths. So for journalists to claim they aren’t biased is actually to claim they are psychopaths.

So let’s just all agree that every single journalist and every single piece of journalism you have even seen was produced by someone who was biased because it was produced by a human being and all human beings have biases.

Now, let’s pause here. This doesn’t mean journalists or journalism is bad. Journalism is vital to democracy. It’s degradation in the past few decades mirrors the rise in extremism, division and corruption, what some (me included) believe will one day be seen as the beginning of the end of our empire.

The fact that all journalists are biased, that no journalist is objective, should not be misconstrued as a way of saying all journalists are unfair. During my entire journalism career, I can count on one hand the number of journalists I encountered whose biases were so pronounced and whose ability to separate from them was so weak that their work shouldn’t have been printed. The overwhelming majority of journalists I worked with were perfectly able to be something and produce work about the anti-something that was 100 percent accurate and fair. I know journalists who were Republicans who covered Democratic candidates fairly. I know journalists who were Democrats who covered Republican candidates fairly. I know a journalist who grew up with a family that could easily be described as white supremacists and who showed the scars of that upbringing but who was eminently fair covering matters of racial divisions in his community. I know a journalist who was extremely anti-white but who covered an all-white good-old-boys city council fairly, accurately and superbly.

As for me, I feel things more than the average person. It’s part of who I am. I can’t change that and, frankly, I wouldn’t want to even if I could. While this makes me even more biased than most and more passionate about my biases, it also leads me to be able to see “the other side” crystal clearly and to incorporate that in the stories I tell.

And that right there is the key: Objectivity is a lie, but empathy is the equalizer.

I don’t care what a storyteller believes so long as they are able to see how someone else could believe something different, something completely opposite. In other words, it’s not objectivity that matters. It’s open-mindedness.

The reality is, good storytellers will be changed by the stories they tell. It’s been happening to me since I was 16 years old. As a young sports journalist, I went to Yankee Stadium to cover a story and learned that my Yankee hero was, well, a jerk. The posters came off my wall. The T-shirts with his name and number on the back went in the “donation” pile. I was changed. I was biased. But could I still cover him fairly as a baseball player? Sure. He’s another human being who has a past and experiences that helped shape him into who he is. Who am I to judge that past and those experiences and paint an unfair picture of him? Would I want someone to do that to me?

No.

So here I sit, writing this blog while D is scooching around in the only way he can move right now, playing with cars and trucks and talking to me in a mixed French-tribal language I can’t understand. But I can make him smile, I can make him laugh. I can make him feel safe and secure. After less than a day, he has a place in my heart that I know will only grow as we go through our Shriners Hospital journey. He’s going to have the best medical care available in the world. They’re going to give him a chance to be able to walk, to go back to his family in Burkina Faso and live the life any other child would be able to live.

There will come a time when I have to hug him for the last time and say goodbye to him so he can begin that long journey back home.

Anyone who thinks this kind of story doesn’t make a person feel something is nuts.

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