Just be nice


I don’t know if it’s just a Minnesota thing, but I was raised to believe that “niceness” was an important value. Just be nice. That’s not nice. Ask me nicely. These were the mantras. And later, realizing the appearance of nicety was even more important than actual niceness.

And so, as I try to approach journalistic writing, I find one of my greatest challenges is that sometimes I have to fight against the urge to be nice.  A nice reporter would just write nice things about people all the time. That would be very boring and also not useful for the reader because it wouldn’t indicate value between good ideas and bad ideas, truth and untruth.

So you have to be kind of not so nice sometimes. You have to ask questions that the person doesn’t want you to ask. You reveal to readers information that some would rather you didn’t. You judge what is of value and what isn’t, and you share this analysis with an audience. 

It doesn’t get easier the more you write, either, because the more you write, the more you meet people and develop trust with sources. And the more that trust develops, the more you find out about deeper, more interesting, complicated and sometimes controversial stories, the kind that would make great pieces of writing. But what are you supposed to do? You found out about this stuff because of a trust that developed, and now you’re going to go tell the world about it? That’s not very nice!

The worst, of course is writing reviews, because it’s essentially making subjective judgments about someone else’s creativity, when they are at their most vulnerable. When you are writing a review, you are either mean, or nice, or boring. You either praise it, find fault with it, or say nothing about it except to describe it. I don’t really see the point in the last option, which means that it has to be one of the first two. And I feel you just can’t say something is wonderful if it’s not wonderful, because then people might go to the show based on your recommendation and then be annoyed with you (this has happened to me). So, you have to sometimes not be nice. And it’s terribly traumatic, because people get their feelings hurt and they get mad at you, and you think, “Oh, if only I’d been nice, then maybe I would have more friends.”

The truth is you can’t be nice. You can, however by fair. What does that mean? Well, I’m still trying to figure that out. Being fair means being honest, first of all, and being truthful. It means getting as many sides to a story as you can. It also means always gauging the value of a story — and why it needs to be told in the way that you tell it. It’s not easy. The easy thing would be to just re-write press releases. But nobody wants to read that.