Minimize Harm

Monday, November 15, 2010
Minimize harm.

If I’m not mistaken, that’s bullet point number two in the journalistic code of ethics. It’s a commitment journalists at every level are supposed to take with them whenever they report a story. While lots of journalism is bound to cause discomfort, no reporting should go so far as to cause actual harm.

On Friday, we did something that got me thinking about that commitment. We watched The Lovely Bones. And it got me thinking that maybe that commitment should extend even to those who write things that aren’t true, aka, fiction.

I know that this book was a bestseller, so there are obviously a lot of people who feel differently about the book, who weren’t revolted. (Also, I have not read the book so what I say below is based solely on my impressions of the movie. So no offense meant Alice Sebold.) Frankly, I avoided reading the book. I knew it wouldn’t be my cup of tea.

I am a person who has led an immensely blessed life free of “yuckiness.” However, in my last two years of college, I mentored in a class called “Human Violence and Dignity.” I have held a bullet-torn textbook which helped save the life of woman whose boyfriend shot her in the head. I have sat in a classroom while a mother spoke of her daughter who was raped and murdered. As I watched The Lovely Bones’s story unfold, I just couldn’t figure out how this story wouldn’t be harmful to someone who actually has been a victim of violence. The concept of a dead child somehow guiding earthly actions from a limbo area between heaven and life just doesn’t seem really helpful to the healing process to me.

And I’m not just talking about The Lovely Bones here.

At my last book club meeting, one of the ladies talked about an author whose books she had been loving. She was cruising through the books. Until she came to the author’s latest work which contained graphic descriptions of torture methods.

“Every day I pray I will forget the images of things I read in this book,” she said.

These books are exposing things that we don’t like to talk about. Torture and violence are appalling realities in our world. Maybe these books caused someone sitting on their couch to get up and do something about changing torture policies or preventing violence in their community. Those are some really great outcomes from literature that gave me and my fellow book club member nightmares.

So where’s the line? Obviously we’re dealing with subjective material here. What is awful to me might be something you wouldn’t even sneeze at.

I mean, no way in heck am I going to go out and watch a gory horror movie. But some people love them. But then again, gory horror movies are meant as entertainment, not really as a form of truth. Horror films don’t take bits of truth from this life and mix them up with little bits of make-believe like The Lovely Bones or many, many other novels do. Therefore, sensationalizing shocking writing meant only for a “thrill” is exempt from this discussion.

But when it comes to a fictionalized story of something that might be true should that affect how we write? Do we have a commitment to minimize harm when dealing with material with a greater potential to disturb?

I’m not advocating censorship here. I believe in the freedom of speech as much as I believe in the journalistic code of ethics. I also believe in sensitivity: having a right doesn’t necessarily make it right.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember as a writer in situation like these is another thing I heard a lot in my budding collegiate journalism career: your words have power. . . . Use that power wisely.


  1. I'm feeling a little uncertain about this post. While I understand your point within its context, it almost feels like it's advocating censorship. I think something that you should also consider here is not only the possibility to disturb, but the intent to disturb. Words do have power, and sometimes a writer sets out to scar you.

    It's obvious with someone like William Burroughs, there is no doubt of malicious intent in Naked Lunch. I also think it's prevailing throughout Rimbaud. When Emily Dickinson wrote "She dealt her pretty words like Blades-" I have no doubt she was drawing attention to her own intent to hurt.

    We also need a certain amount of care in determining for ourselves what may be malicious, and the merits of that, opposed to simply obscene. When we start talking about obscenity, and moral harm we tread in dangerous grounds with loaded terms. A lot of brilliant writers have suffered for their, supposedly, obscene works and the potential for moral harm they might cause: Ginsberg, Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence.

    I enjoy and follow your blog, but for whatever reason this post compelled me to respond. You're absolutely right, we need to be careful where words have power. I don't think we can be afraid to go on the attack with them.

    Justin U.

  2. Justin,

    I agree about the whole uncertain feeling about this. I really don't want this post to come across as "If you have something disturbing to say please don't say it to me." I think literature's power to discomfit is one of its most laudable qualities. And "going too far" is a matter of personal opinion and also something that changes with the times.

    I think my issue, at least with The Lovely Bones was that it took something that was/is true (pedophiles, rapes, murder, pain) and the kind of distorts the "truth" of the matter by having these fantastical scenes with the main character in heaven limbo. To me, the concept of projecting thoughts and actions for a dead and missing child seemed like really slippery slope for a parent who has lost a child to murder to go down. No one knows what happens when we die. However if a book featured has an 86-year-old grandma who died in her sleep looking down from heaven, it probably wouldn't have bothered me at all.

    Hmmm. . . Tricky.

    Although maybe it *is* the heaven issue . . . "Five People You Meet in Heaven" mad me angry!

    P.S. How the heck are you?!

  3. I agree with you on sensitivity. And, I really think that a writer can be more creative and make something transformative without being indulgently scary. For example, I really like "Secret Window," a movie based on Stephen King's book about a writer's character killing someone. But the movie is just fantastical enough that I didn't feel creeped out. It was more like hearing a really good spooky story at a campfire.
    In my opinion, art of any kind should also uplift. BUT, I can acknowledge that I'm not so comfortable with leaving someone with a sense of hopelessness because I want people to be happy. That said, I really do believe that my job as a storyteller and writer is to call attention to what is beautiful. That can be something that is also painful, but for me, there must be some kind of transformation/redemption/beauty.

    "Five People You Meet in Heaven." Well, as I recall I found this to be about as emotionally manipulative (purely for the sake of lots of emotions) as some creepy-scary movie. Hmm, but I really like "Life of Pi," and Yann Martel's other stuff, which is very emotional...
    Well, there are my thoughts.


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