Y is for you: writing in the second person

This picture was chosen random but, in journalism, the choice of photographs can affect how you perceive the story. As an example, an unflattering picture of a person may cause you not to like the person and to see the person in a negative light because people are very influenced by physical appearance.

Dear Reader,
I will readily admit that the only time that I write in the second person is when I am writing a letter. Generally, I don’t ever mention you.  I am not the type of writer that the late Christa Wolf (1929-2011) was. For sure, I don’t have her writing skills so I am not sure that I could carry off an entire novel written in the second person. The German writer, who was one of the few famous writers from the former East Germany,  wrote several books in the second person, including Patterns of Childhood. I felt drawn in by her writing because I felt as if she were talking to me and only to me. 

And speaking of me, when I am writing newspaper articles, I also don’t mention me. Journalism is supposed to be “objective,” and the me and the you have no place in journalism. They are too personal, and journalism is about the impersonal, not the personal. Hence, we delete me and you from existence in the world of journalism.

Although I have done a good deal of journalism and even have a master’s (monster’s?) degree in journalism, I have my doubts about the entire concept of objectivity. We are humans, after all. We see the world through our own experiences, our personalities, our education, our personal stories. How is it possible to shed all of that and take on the burden of total objectivity? 

Even the selection of events worthy to be reported on in the newspaper or on television indicates a level of bias. It is a decision made by editors and reporters and producers. Today, I look at The Buffalo News and The New York Times, as they cover events in Baltimore. Here are the headlines that I see:

  • How social media spun a protest into a riot (this was reprinted in The Buffalo News, and was originally published in the Washington Post)
  • Troops and Citizens Fill the Streets of Baltimore (The New York Times)
  • Riots Another Scar on a City Battered by Neglect (The New York Times)
  • Troops clamp lid on Baltimore violence (this is in The Buffalo News, a reprint of Troops and  Citizens Fill the Streets of Baltimore)
These are three different stories about the same event. I would have questions about all three of them. I’ll start with Riots Another Scar on a City Battered by Neglect. West Baltimore has been a disaster area for years. I have actually been there and have seen the devastation. Why weren’t stories written about this level of disaster years ago? Entire neighborhoods that looked as if they had been victims of aerial bombing campaigns were treated as if they did not exist until they erupted in flames and violence?  

The story about the troops and citizens filling the streets of Baltimore seems to be a factual news story. I wonder about the two very different headlines on the same story from two newspapers. The headlines do not say the same thing at all. I wonder how that happens. Same article, two completely different headlines. People filling streets as opposed to troops clamping a lid on violence. I see the headline writers in both cases as interpreting the articles and choosing verbs accordingly. 

Are the interpretations objective or even accurate?

I don’t really know.

Of all of the stories, I see the social media story as being the least objective. It seems to imply that young people, using various forms of social media, turned a protest into a violent riot. It seems to blame social media for the riots. I see a lot of interpretation in this article that mentions a 2013 movie called “The Purge.” 

I wonder if the loss of you and me in the stories actually leads to the lack of objectivity. The stories are not about us; they are about other people, and we can’t feel the other people. We go about our lives, grateful that we are not the Other People. Writing about you and me and us may seem to be less objective than writing in the third person but, what it loses in objectivity, it gains in immediacy and connection to the people whose stories are being told. Or, how about if the people who are mentioned in the news stories wrote or told their own stories? 

How would the reporting change if the stories were not about the impersonal them  but, instead, were about you or me or us?

I have no answers. I only have questions. 

What do you think?


3 thoughts on “Y is for you: writing in the second person”

  1. As writers, even for the news media, we are not objective. You are very correct in that. It's impossible to completely shut off our own bias. The average reader believes that the news media is unbiased when writing, or hopes that anyway and seeing I, me, you, etc. would remove that feeling of nonobjectiveness.

  2. Interesting post I must say. You really wrote intelligence here. Well, i think You and Me can be incorporated little here and there if it goes well with the news I am covering. Can't be sure tho, not an expert.
    but thanks for the post. informative 🙂

  3. Stopping by from the #atozchallenge 2015! Don't forget our after party. The Reflections Linky List will open on Monday May 4th.
    Great post. That would be interesting if stories were more related, and less "other people" and thus the problems of "other people." Which, I imagine, is difficult for politicians to deal with, as they need to get people to feel the urge to go vote, so stories about "other people" probably don't help. More so with news, where "other people" are usually breaking laws or doing other bad things. (Except maybe in the Sports section.)
    J @JLenniDorner

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