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Ethics: Covering Tragedy

I had brunch with a well-known literary critic shortly after the Boston tragedy. He’s a retired academic who also writes fiction, but he is not a journalist, and I have to remember that as I tell this story. Fiction writers are different; they make things up. It’s no wonder that journalists often turn to fiction writing—Hemingway, Cather, Twain, so many others—as it is a great relief not to stick to the facts. I have turned to fiction myself. Nothing has to be corroborated and the only disclaimer that has to be written is one about “no resemblance” to people either living or dead.

“Are journalists honoring or exploiting the lives of victims by writing about them? Do survivors want to tell their stories or be left alone? Where, exactly, is the line between being a chronicler and being a vulture?” These are the profound questions that are being asked by ATAVIST, an online media platform, in an invitation to a seminar for nonfiction writers taking place this evening. Even Reddit is engaged in self-reflection after President Obama and others criticized the crowd source witch hunt perpetrated on their site after the Boston bombings. “Suspects” were mistakenly identified. Who is to blame? Who is responsible? The proprietors did take responsibility and are making some more changes on their threads. But we have to remain vigilant as internet users—so fast and ready it’s scary sometimes.

What about fiction writers? What if a retired academic and literary critic, who is also a writer of fictions, creates a website to promote his book? What if this website lures readers to a service similar to a “bucket list” for the terminally ill, but it is entirely false; it’s a hoax? What if the disclaimer is nearly invisible at the bottom of the site and all the photographs on the site are of real people—including this critic’s beautiful wife—with false names? And what is the difference between a “fiction” and a “hoax”? What if? That's the prompt fiction writers use to generate their stories.

“What a sweet idea this is to take terminally ill patients on tours,” I said, just minutes into our brunch.

"It's a fiction," the well known literary critic said.

"I am shocked, " I said. "Terminally ill patients are desperate. They will try anything.”

“My publisher wanted me to take it down.”

“I’m not surprised,” I said.

“Well, I suppose if anyone contacted me and really wanted to go on the tour, I’d take them.”

“That’s good,” I said, “but it doesn’t take care of the problem. Your site is a fiction, but people who go there are not told it is fiction. They read it as true.”

Silence. This pleased me, of course. Like all bloggers, I wanted to have the last true word.
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