The Line Between Fact and Fiction

Journalists should report the truth. Who would deny it? But such a statement does not get us far enough, for it fails to distinguish nonfiction from other forms of expression. Novelists can reveal great truths about the human condition, and so can poets, film makers and painters. Artists, after all, build things that imitate the world. So do nonfiction writers.

To make things more complicated, writers of fiction use fact to make their work believable. They do research to create authentic settings into which we enter. They return us to historical periods and places that can be accurately chronicled and described: the battlefield at Gettysburg, the Museum of Natural History in New York City, a jazz club in Detroit. They use detail to make us see, to suspend our disbelief, to persuade us it was “really like that.”

For centuries writers of nonfiction have borrowed the tools of novelists to reveal truths that could be exposed and rendered in no better way. They place characters in scenes and settings, have them speak to each other in dialogue, reveal limited points of view, and move through time over conflicts and toward resolutions.

In spite of occasional journalism scandals that hit the national landscape like plane crashes, our standards are higher than ever. Historical examples of nonfiction contain lots of made-up stuff. It appears as if, 50 years ago, many columnists, sports writers and crime reporters—to name the obvious categories—were licensed to invent. The term piping—making up quotes or inventing sources—came from the idea that the reporter was high from covering the police busts of opium dens.

Testimony on our shady past comes from Stanley Walker, the legendary city editor of the New York Herald Tribune. In 1934 he wrote about the “monumental fakes” that were part of the history of journalism and offered:

It is true that, among the better papers, there is a general professional condemnation of fakers. And yet it is strange that so many of the younger men, just coming into the business, appear to feel that a little faking here and there is a mark of distinction. One young man, who had written a good story, replete with direct quotation and description, was asked by the city desk how he could have obtained such detail, as most of the action had been completed before he had been assigned to the story.

“Well,” said the young man, “I thought that since the main facts were correct it wouldn’t do any harm to invent the conversation as I thought it must have taken place.” The young man was soon disabused.

In more recent times and into the present, influential writers have worked in hybrid forms with names such as “creative nonfiction” or the “nonfiction novel.” Tom Rosenstiel catalogues the confusion:

The line between fact and fiction in America, between what is real and made up, is blurring. The move in journalism toward infotainment invites just such confusion, as news becomes entertainment and entertainment becomes news. Deals in which editor Tina Brown joins the forces of a news company, Hearst, with a movie studio, Miramax, to create a magazine that would blend reporting and script writing are only the latest headlines signaling the blending of cultures. Prime time news magazines, featuring soap opera stories or heroic rescue videos, are developing a growing resemblance to reality entertainment shows such as “Cops,” or Fox programs about daring rescues or wild animal attack videos. Book authors such as John Berendt condense events and use “composite” characters in supposedly nonfiction work, offering only a brief allusion in an authors note to help clarify what might be real and what might not. Newspaper columnists are found out, and later removed, from the Boston Globe for confusing journalism and literature. A writer at the New Republic gains fame for material that is too good to be true. A federal court in the case of Janet Malcolm rules that journalists can make up quotes if they somehow are true to the spirit of what someone might have said. Writer Richard Reeves sees a deepening threat beyond journalism to society more generally, a threat he calls evocatively the “Oliver Stoning” of American culture.

The controversies continue. Edmund Morris creates fictional characters in his authorized biography of Ronald Reagan; CBS News uses digital technology to alter the sign of a competitor in Times Square during the coverage of the millennium celebration; a purported memoir of a wife of Wyatt Earp, published by a university press, turns out to contain fiction. Its author, Glenn G. Boyer, defends his book as a work of “creative nonfiction.”

To make things more complicated, scholars have demonstrated the essential fictive nature of all memory. The way we remember things is not necessarily the way they were. This makes memoir, by definition, a problematic form in which reality and imagination blur into what its proponents describe as a “fourth genre.” The problems of memory also infect journalism when reporters—in describing the memories of sources and witnesses—wind up lending authority to a kind of fiction.

The post-modernist might think all this irrelevant, arguing that there are no facts, only points of view, only “takes” on reality, influenced by our personal histories, our cultures, our race and gender, our social class. The best journalists can do in such a world is to offer multiple frames through which events and issues can be seen. Report the truth? they ask. Whose truth?

Caught in the web of such complexity, one is tempted to find some simple escape routes before the spider bites. If there were only a set of basic principles to help journalists navigate the waters between fact and fiction, especially those areas between the rocks. Such principles exist. They can be drawn from the collective experience of many journalists, from our conversations, debates and forums, from the work of writers such as John Hersey and Anna Quindlen, from stylebooks and codes of ethics, standards and practices.

Hersey made an unambiguous case for drawing a bold line between fiction and nonfiction, that the legend on the journalists license should read “None of this was made up.” The author of Hiroshima, Hersey used a composite character in at least one early work, but by 1980 he expressed polite indignation that his work had become a model for the so-called New Journalists. His essay in the Yale Review questioned the writing strategies of Truman Capote, Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe.

Hersey draws an important distinction, a crucial one for our purposes. He admits that subjectivity and selectivity are necessary and inevitable in journalism. If you gather 10 facts but wind up using nine, subjectivity sets in. This process of subtraction can lead to distortion. Context can drop out, or history, or nuance, or qualification or alternative perspectives.

While subtraction may distort the reality the journalist is trying to represent, the result is still nonfiction, is still journalism. The addition of invented material, however, changes the nature of the beast. When we add a scene that did not occur or a quote that was never uttered, we cross the line into fiction. And we deceive the reader.

This distinction leads us to two cornerstone principles: Do not add. Do not deceive. Lets elaborate on each:

Do not add. This means that writers of nonfiction should not add to a report things that did not happen. To make news clear and comprehensible, it is often necessary to subtract or condense. Done without care or responsibility, even such subtraction can distort. We cross a more definite line into fiction, however, when we invent or add facts or images or sounds that were not there.

Do not deceive. This means that journalists should never mislead the public in reproducing events. The implied contract of all nonfiction is binding: The way it is represented here is, to the best of our knowledge, the way it happened. Anything that intentionally or unintentionally fools the audience violates that contract and the core purpose of journalism—to get at the truth. Thus, any exception to the implied contract—even a work of humor or satire—should be transparent or disclosed.

To make these cornerstone principles definitive, we have stated them in the simplest language. In so doing, we may cause confusion by failing to exemplify these rules persuasively or by not offering reasonable exceptions. For example, by saying “Do not deceive,” we are talking about the promise the journalist makes to the audience. A different argument concerns whether journalists can use deception as an investigative strategy. There is honest disagreement about that, but even if you go undercover to dig for news, you have a duty not to fool the public about what you discovered.

Because these two principles are stated negatively, we decided not to nag journalists with an endless list of “Thou shalt nots.” So we’ve expressed four supporting strategies in a positive manner.

Be unobtrusive. This guideline invites writers to work hard to gain access to people and events, to spend time, to hang around, to become such a part of the scenery that they can observe conditions in an unaltered state. This helps avoid the “Heisenberg effect,” a principle drawn from science, in which observing an event changes it. Even watchdogs can be alert without being obtrusive.

We realize that some circumstances require journalists to call attention to themselves and their processes. So we have nothing against Sam Donaldson for yelling questions at a president who turns a deaf ear to reporters. Go ahead and confront the greedy, the corrupt, the secret mongers; but the more reporters obtrude and intrude, especially when they are also obnoxious, the more they risk changing the behavior of those they are investigating.

Stories should not only be true, they should ring true. Reporters know by experience that truth can be stranger than fiction, that a man can walk into a convenience store in St. Petersburg, Fla., and shoot the clerk in the head and that the bullet can bounce off his head, ricochet off a ceiling beam, and puncture a box of cookies.

If we ruled the world of journalism—as if it could be ruled—we would ban the use of anonymous sources, except in cases where the source is especially vulnerable and the news is of great import. Some whistleblowers who expose great wrongdoing fall into this category. A person who has migrated illegally into America may want to share his or her experience without fear of deportation. But the journalist must make every effort to make this character real. An AIDS patient may want and deserve anonymity, but making public the name of his doctor and his clinic can help dispel any cloud of fiction.

Fired Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnicle writes:

I used my memory to tell true tales of the city, things that happened to real people who shared their own lives with me. They represented the music and flavor of the time. They were stories that sat on the shelf of my institutional memory and spoke to a larger point. The use of parables was not a technique I invented. It was established ages ago by other newspaper columnists, many more gifted than I, some long since dead.

A parable is defined as a “simple story with a moral lesson.” The problem is that we know them from religious literature or ancient beast fables. They were fictional forms, filled with hyperbole. Mike Barnicle was passing them off as truth, without doing the reporting that would give them the ring of truth.

In the Middle Ages, perhaps, it could be argued that the literal truth of a story was not important. More important were the higher levels of meaning: how stories reflected salvation history, moral truth or the New Jerusalem. Some contemporary nonfiction authors defend invention in the name of reaching for some higher truth. We deem such claims unjustifiable.

The next guideline is to make sure things check out. Stated with more muscle: Never put something in print or on the air that hasn’t checked out. The new media climate makes this exceedingly difficult. News cycles that once changed by the day, or maybe by the hour, now change by the minute or second. Cable news programs run 24 hours, greedy for content. And more and more stories have been broken on the Internet, in the middle of the night, when newspaper reporters and editors are tucked dreamily in their beds. The imperative to go live and to look live is stronger and stronger, creating the appearance that news is “up to the minute” or “up to the second.”

Time frenzy, however, is the enemy of clear judgment. Taking time allows for checking, for coverage that is proportional, for consultation and for sound decision-making that, in the long run, will avoid embarrassing mistakes and clumsy retractions.

In a culture of media bravado, there is plenty of room for a little strategic humility. This virtue teaches us that Truth—with a capital T—is unattainable, that even though you can never get it, that with hard work you can get at it you can gain on it. Humility leads to respect for points of view that differ from our own, attention to which enriches our reporting. It requires us to recognize the unhealthy influences of careerism and profiteering, forces that may tempt us to tweak a quote or bend a rule or snatch a phrase or even invent a source.

So lets restate these, using slightly different language. First the cornerstone principles: The journalist should not add to a story things that didn’t happen. And the journalist should not fool the public.

Then the supporting strategies: The journalist should try to get at stories without altering them. The reporting should dispel any sense of phoniness in the story. Journalists should check things out or leave them out. And, most important, a little humility about your ability to truly know something will make you work harder at getting it right.

These principles have meaning only in the light of a large idea, crucial to democratic life: that there is a world out there that is knowable. That the stories we create correspond to what exists in the world. That if we describe a velvet painting of John Wayne hanging in a barber shop, it was not really one of Elvis in a barbecue joint. That the words between quotation marks correspond to what was spoken. That the shoes in the photo were the ones worn by the man when the photo was taken and not added later. That what we are watching on television is real and not a staged re-enactment.

A tradition of verisimilitude and reliable sourcing can be traced to the first American newspapers. Three centuries before the recent scandals, a Boston newspaper called Publick Occurrences made this claim on September 25, 1690: “… nothing shall be entered, but what we have reason to believe is true, repairing to the best fountains for our Information.”

We assert, then, that the principles of “Do not add” and “Do not deceive” should apply to all nonfiction all the time, not just to written stories in newspapers. Adding color to a black-and-white photo—unless the technique is obvious or labeled—is a deception. Digitally removing an element in a photo, or adding one or shifting one or reproducing one—no matter how visually arresting—is a deception, completely different in kind from traditional photo cropping, although that, too, can be done irresponsibly.

In an effort to get at some difficult truths, reporters and writers have at times resorted to unconventional and controversial practices. These include such techniques as composite characters, conflation of time, and interior monologues. It may be helpful to test these techniques against our standards.

The use of composite characters, where the purpose is to deceive the reader into believing that several characters are one, is a technique of fiction that has no place in journalism or other works that purport to be nonfiction.

An absolute prohibition against composites seems necessary, given a history of abuse of this method in works that passed themselves off as real. Although considered one of the great nonfiction writers of his time, Joseph Mitchell would, late in life, label some of his past work as fiction because it depended on composites. Even John Hersey, who became known for drawing thick lines between fiction and nonfiction, used composites in “Joe Is Home Now,” a 1944 Life magazine story about wounded soldiers returning from war.

The practice has been continued, defended by some, into the 1990s. Mimi Schwartz acknowledges that she uses composites in her memoirs in order to protect the privacy of people who didn’t ask to be in her books. “I had three friends who were thinking about divorce, so in the book, I made a composite character, and we met for cappuccino.” While such considerations may be well-meaning, they violate the contract with the reader not to mislead. When the reader reads that Schwartz was drinking coffee with a friend and confidante, there is no expectation that there were really three friends. If the reader is expected to accept that possibility, then maybe that cappuccino was really a margarita. Maybe they discussed politics rather than divorce. Who knows?

Time and chronology are often difficult to manage in complicated stories. Time is sometimes imprecise, ambiguous or irrelevant. But the conflation of time that deceives readers into thinking a month was a week, a week a day, or a day an hour is unacceptable to works of journalism and nonfiction. In his authors note to the best-seller Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, John Berendt concedes:

Though this is a work of nonfiction, I have taken certain storytelling liberties, particularly having to do with the time of events. Where the narrative strays from strict nonfiction, my intention has been to remain faithful to the characters and to the essential drift of events as they really happened.

The second sentence is no justification for the first. Authors cannot have it both ways, using bits of fiction to liven up the story while desiring a spot on the New York Times nonfiction list.

Contrast Berendts vague statement to the one G. Wayne Miller offers at the beginning of King of Hearts, a book about the pioneers of open-heart surgery:

This is entirely a work of nonfiction; it contains no composite characters or scenes, and no names have been changed. Nothing has been invented. The author has used direct quotations only when he heard or saw (as in a letter) the words, and he paraphrased all other dialogues and statements—omitting quotations marks—once he was satisfied that these took place.

The interior monologue, in which the reporter seems to get into the head of a source, is a dangerous strategy but permissible in the most limited circumstances. It requires direct access to the source, who must be interviewed about his or her thoughts. Boston University writer-in-residence Mark Kramer suggests, “No attribution of thoughts to sources unless the sources have said they’d had those very thoughts.”

This technique should be practiced with the greatest care. Editors should always question reporters on the sources of knowledge as to what someone was thinking. Because, by definition, what goes on in the head is invisible, the reporting standards must be higher than usual. When in doubt, attribute.

Such guidelines should not be considered hostile to the devices of fiction that can be applied, after in-depth reporting, to journalism. These include, according to Tom Wolfe, setting scenes, using dialogue, finding details that reveal character and describing things from a character’s point of view. NBC News correspondent John Larson and Seattle Times editor Rick Zahler both encourage the reporter at times to convert the famous Five Ws into the raw material of storytelling, so that Who becomes Character, Where becomes Setting, and When becomes Chronology.

But the more we venture into that territory, the more we need a good map and an accurate compass. John McPhee, as quoted by Norman Sims, summarizes the key imperatives:

The nonfiction writer is communicating with the reader about real people in real places. So if those people talk, you say what those people said. You don’t say what the writer decides they said. You don’t make up dialogue. You don’t make a composite character. Where I came from, a composite character was a fiction. So when somebody makes a nonfiction character out of three people who are real, that is a fictional character in my opinion. And you don’t get inside their heads and think for them. You can’t interview the dead. You could make a list of the things you don’t do. Where writers abridge that, they hitchhike on the credibility of writers who don’t.

This leads us to the conviction that there should be a firm line, not a fuzzy one, between fiction and nonfiction and that all work that purports to be nonfiction should strive to achieve the standards of the most truthful journalism. Labels such as “nonfiction novel,” “real-life novel,” “creative nonfiction” and “docudrama” may not be useful to that end.

Such standards do not deny the value of storytelling in journalism, or of creativity or of pure fiction, when it is apparent or labeled. Which leads us to the Dave Barry exception, a plea for more creative humor in journalism, even when it leads to sentences such as “I did not make this up.”

We can find many interesting exceptions, gray areas that would test all of these standards. Howard Berkes of National Public Radio once interviewed a man who stuttered badly. The story was not about speech impediments. “How would you feel,” Berkes asked the man, “if I edited the tape to make you not stutter?” The man was delighted and the tape edited. Is this the creation of a fiction? A deception of the listener? Or is it the marriage of courtesy for the source and concern for the audience?

I come to these issues not as the rider of too high a horse but as a struggling equestrian with some distinctively writerly aspirations. I want to test conventions. I want to create new forms. I want to merge nonfiction genres. I want to create stories that are the center of the days conversation in the newsroom and in the community. 

In a 1996 series on AIDS, I tried to re-create in scene and dramatic dialogue the excruciating experiences of a woman whose husband had died of the disease. How do you describe a scene that took place years ago in a little hospital room in Spain, working from one person’s memory of the event?

In my 1997 series on growing up Catholic with a Jewish grandmother, I tried to combine memoir with reporting, oral history and some light theology to explore issues such as anti-Semitism, cultural identity and the Holocaust. But consider this problem: Along the way, I tell the story of a young boy I knew who grew up with a fascination with Nazis and constantly made fun of Jews. I have no idea what kind of man he became. For all I know, he is one of the relief workers in Kosovo. How do I create for him—and myself—a protective veil without turning him into a fictional character?

And finally, in 1999 I wrote my first novel, which was commissioned by the New York Times Regional Newspaper Group and distributed by the New York Times Syndicate. It appeared in about 25 newspapers. This 29-chapter serial novel about the millennium taught me from the inside out some of the distinctions between fiction and nonfiction.

There is certainly an argument to be made that fiction—even labeled fiction—has no place in the newspaper. I respect that. Thirty inches of novella a day may require a loss of precious newshole. But do we think less of John McPhee’s nonfiction in the New Yorker because it may sit next to a short story by John Updike?

It is not the fiction thats the problem, but the deception.

Hugh Kenner describes the language of journalism as:

… the artifice of seeming to be grounded outside language in what is called fact—the domain where a condemned man can be observed as he silently avoids a puddle and your prose will report the observation and no one will doubt it.

British scholar John Carey puts it this way:

Reportage may change its readers, may educate their sympathies, may extend—in both directions—their ideas about what it is to be a human being, may limit their capacity for the inhuman. These gains have traditionally been claimed for imaginative literature. But since reportage, unlike literature, lifts the screen from reality, its lessons are—and ought to be—more telling; and since it reaches millions untouched by literature, it has an incalculably greater potential.

So don’t add and don’t deceive. If you try something unconventional, let the public in on it. Gain on the truth. Be creative. Do your duty. Have some fun. Be humble. Spend your life thinking and talking about how to do all these well.

About the Author

Roy Peter Clark

Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists in St. Petersburg, Florida, for more than 30 years. He now serves Poynter as vice-president and senior scholar.

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