On the Firing Line
"…I find it reprehensible. You have chosen to capitalize on the ghoulish nature of some people…. I am hoping that morally you will see that there is nothing to be gained by continuing to display this information… I find your pictures in poor taste and completely disrespectful…"
For beginning writers, criticism can wound and hurt, even cause an onset of self-doubt and second-guessing. When her subject is controversial, a writer makes an unwritten, nonverbal agreement to step up to the firing line of public opinion. And no matter how many people say "good job," and no matter how right or objective the angle, someone will disagree.
Often, that dissension takes the form of an indignant letter or email sent directly to the writer. (This is why I encourage writers to leave their phone numbers and home addresses off their web sites.) Sometimes the editor, publisher or editorial board is included on the cc: list in an attempt to ruin the writer's reputation.
What can a writer do to prevent negative feedback? In a word, nothing, except omitting controversial topics from the repertoire.
Feel-good features, warm fuzzy vignettes and straight profiles are safe and practically impossible to dispute. These are good stories and are often more readily available.
But controversial subjects that require investigation and tough questions are a different and tougher breed. These big dog pieces will make any writer better and often develop writing skill. But the hidden asp is the opinionated, disgruntled person who vehemently disagrees with you.
Every story needs an angle. If you write for a publication that is pro-anything, story angles will lean with some sympathy one way or the other. If you wish to continue writing for that magazine or newspaper, you'll oblige the editorial request. Even if you are writing for yourself and posting only to your own web site, your personal opinion will surely offend someone.
The only way to deal with hate mail is to be a reliable, quality writer with an impeccable reputation for pursuing a story objectively, honestly and with integrity. This reputation takes time and work but can be achieved. Once it's in place, even an adamant Ph.D. will have little impact when he questions the truth of your reporting. And when a family member of a horrific tragedy writes to thank you for keeping the victims' memories alive, all negative reactions will pale in comparison.
As experience builds and the quantity of stories increases, a writer's skin does thicken. Most criticism bounces off without making a dent. But some well-placed criticism can sting, even when you are firmly in the right.
I am dealing with this in the wake of September 11 and an unforgettable opportunity I had to photograph and view the Flight 93 crash site in Somerset, Pennsylvania. I saw so many things that my viewfinder never captured. Carefully selecting my words and level of description of the traumatic scene six months after the fact, I wanted people to understand the aftermath of debris is so widespread that it will never all be recovered.
My words and my sharing of all the raw images I shot as a memorial to the heroes on that plane weren't good enough for several hypercritical people with strong opinions of their own, in radical opposition to my ideas about truth, freedom and sharing. It disappoints me to no end that some Americans claim they love freedom, yet want nothing more than to sweep this national tragedy under the rug. Don't talk about it, don't share pictures; let's just move on. I disagree. We can't ignore it because it will happen again.
"I was touched by your photo essay and your words…. I just toured your photo essay of the crash site and memorials—very well done…my father died on Flight 93, thank you for your online memorial…"
Thousands of people have viewed my Flight 93 memorial and many sent positive feedback, including a thank-you note from the daughter of a woman who died on that plane. I offer my findings to all who choose to view them for free. Choice is one of our precious rights, a happy side effect of freedom. I could have sold these images for plenty of money, but I stand accused of being an unethical violator, encourager of treasure hunters and promoter of graphic words and pictures.
Only a few individuals were highly offended at my words and images. These people don't care that I agonized over what to do with the images and my experience and how best to share them in a caring, yet truthful, way. How important I know they are and how eye opening for those who don't realize how violently sad the scene still is. They don't care because, like some Americans, they value their freedom as long as no one else can publicly impress a differing opinion.
A George Mason University grad student is putting together a digital collection of Flight 93 narratives and images, and she asked to use my words and pictures. The Smithsonian is including her archive in their September 11 exhibition this year and is considering creating a permanent collection. A nonprofit New York organization has also asked for my photos to be included in their exhibitions in New York and D.C. If my words and images were truly offensive, I doubt I would have been contacted.
As a writer, I must weigh these varied reactions against the truth of the matter and my own strong feelings on the issue. When a writer takes on a controversial assignment or independently pursues an emotionally charged topic, someone is bound to disagree. Is it worth the occasional sting? Absolutely. It's called a deep love, appreciation and respect for the First Amendment, especially the most volatile of ideas, "freedom of speech" and "freedom of the press."
Anything worth doing is worth doing all the way, and if you're brave enough to step on the firing line, you must also have the strength to withstand the shots. Imagine going through life never ruffling anyone's feathers or causing anyone to think. How dull. The end result of taking such risks is tremendous growth as a writer and person. That is something no fluff piece or classroom will teach.
Copyright © 2002 Amanda Lynch