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For journalists today, the whole world is watching

Op-Ed

Reporters working abroad used to assume that those they wrote about wouldn't see their stories. No more.

January 13, 2013|By Amy Wilentz
  • People are seen using the Internet at the Los Angeles Public Library. Technology is changing how journalists interact with readers. Instead of responding just to the imperatives of an editor, journalists now must also respond to the public.
People are seen using the Internet at the Los Angeles Public Library. Technology… (Los Angeles Times )

Recently, I wrote a post for my personal blog about the opening of a garment factory in Haiti. The ceremony was attended by, among others, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Sean Penn, Ben Stiller and Haiti's president, Michel Martelly. But I was bothered by the idea of cheap Haitian labor making scores of T-shirts each day that would sell, individually, for more than a worker at the plant earns per day, and that's what I wrote.

The post got a lot of reaction. I heard from politicians, celebrities, a State Department liaison. And guess what? They were not pleased. "I am SO disappointed…" one email message began.

I've been writing about Haiti for a long time, which is why the reaction surprised me. It used to be that you could write about Haiti — and I suspect about almost anywhere in the developing world — without anyone taking much note. For years, I wrote in what seemed like secret. I wrote for the Nation magazine, and no one I knew ever mentioned that they'd seen what I'd written. More surprising, I rarely heard anything — positive or negative — from anyone I had written about. Then, I moved to Time magazine, in those days the most widely read, most mainstream newsweekly in America with a readership in the tens of millions. I felt like I'd made it to the big time, but no one ever seemed to see my writing there either.

This meant that for the most part, I could write without raising the hackles of those I wrote about. Or at least not until their maiden aunts in Dubuque or Boise sent them a clipping. Even then, I was guaranteed a nice time lag, during which I would have moved on to the next story. I liked that: I got the thrill of publication without much possibility of backlash.

If, by chance, someone happened both to read and react negatively to what I'd written about them, I never knew unless that person bothered to write a letter to the editor, which entailed typing a letter, putting it in an envelope, locating the address of the publication and getting the whole shebang, with stamp, to a mailbox. That took really caring.

I began my first book on Haiti in 1986 on a portable white Olivetti Rocket typewriter (which is still in my possession, in my son's closet), and I used white-out for corrections; I finished writing the book in 1989 on a Kaypro black-box computer. My latest Haiti book was written on a MacBook Air, something that my children already seem to find archaic.

All that technological change, and the connectivity that has come with it, means that now, when I write about Haiti, it's noticed not just by my closest friends and family but by the people I'm writing about, and anyone else who could possibly care anywhere in the world. Now, everyone, even that maiden aunt in Dubuque, has a Google alert set to bring instant news of people or topics of interest. Response to the written word is immediate and highly judgmental.

Today, for better and worse, publication is unbearably … public.

I composed the post about the garment factory in Haiti under the old understanding I had internalized as a younger writer: No one reads what I write.

But I was wrong. Everyone reads what I write these days, or so it seems. I can no longer count on slipping under the radar, writing only for the audience I want to reach.

It turns out, after the initial shock, that this is not all bad. For one thing, it helps keep writers honest and responsible. Instead of responding to the imperatives of an editor, journalists now must respond to the people in their stories. The public has become the gatekeeper.

These days, people take me to task for every sort of sin, and yet I know I am not a worse or less accurate writer today than I was back at Time. People read what I write while sitting at their computers, and can then attack me immediately, without even having to stand up. No more looking for envelopes and stamps; no chance to cool off on the walk to the mailbox. Now it's dash off an email and hit the send button.

It's not a bad thing to be held accountable, even when it's uncomfortable. But there is one thing that worries me about this "new word order." Some writers don't like to be criticized, and will do almost anything to avoid it. In the new world of swift and scathing feedback, this can lead to self-censorship, to an avoidance of touchy topics and a tendency to pull punches. Why write about Haiti's failings if it's only going to bring attacks?

The other day, I happened to blog about Haitian food rather than politics. Posts about food, it turns out, make people happy, not angry. I posted pictures of the New Year's pumpkin soup I made, a Haitian tradition. No one's mad yet. I put up a picture I took on my iPhone of a pot of cornmeal, another Haitian staple. No response from State.

And the cornmeal didn't seem to care.

I'm thinking I'll blog about spaghetti Creole tomorrow. It's really yummy.

Amy Wilentz's most recent book is "Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter From Haiti."

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