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Why Do Journalists Describe What Story Subjects Look Like?

Do those descriptions help readers? Or do they reveal our biases?

Last year, we asked ProPublica Illinois readers what they wanted to know about how we do our work. Thoughtful, challenging questions have been rolling in ever since, and we’ve been answering them in an occasional series of columns. In this one, engagement reporter Logan Jaffe and deputy editor Steve Mills answer a question about using descriptions of characters in stories.

Lots of print news articles contain data about what an interviewee or story subject looks like. Is there any data anywhere showing that readers want or appreciate such data? My own experience in reading such stories, in media such as The New Yorker or NYT, is that stories that include that data almost always fail to include data that would tell me much more about an interviewee or story subject, such as the individual’s education. What is ProPublica’s position on this? —Howard Karten

Characters are frequently boiled down to fundamentals that help us identify them and put them in context: name, age, hometown and, when applicable, their work. In some instances, reporters add some physical description. She was tall, with long hair and an easy smile. Or: He had a narrow nose, broad forehead and a baleful glare.

Karten wonders if we have any evidence that this kind of detail resonates with readers. Truth be told, we have no idea. And, at ProPublica Illinois, the regional newsroom for ProPublica, we have no “position” on it either. Some stories have character description; others don’t.

But writers have always used description to help subjects come alive for readers. Done well, those details add more than texture — they add useful information about a person’s character. And sometimes, descriptions are a necessary writing tool in stories where a subject isn’t pictured because of concerns about their privacy or safety.

In Hannah Dreier’s Pulitzer Prize-winning story “A Betrayal,” about a young MS-13 gang member who cooperates with police, the ProPublica reporter doesn’t use the young man’s full name to protect his identity. A silhouetted photo accompanies the story; you can’t see his face clearly.

So Dreier describes him as “a skinny kid with a shaggy haircut.” Along with the settings that show him wearing a hoodie and headphones as he is “hunched over his notebook” writing about gang violence, the readers see a young man in increasing peril.

But do quick sketches make a difference? How should journalists use description in their stories? We threw those questions out to our Twitter followers. And we got some interesting answers, including some responses from writers and other journalists.

Emma Marris, an author who writes about nature, said she uses “telling details” to help readers see her characters. Those details, she said, often reflect choices characters have made — rather than just what they look like. “So a tough field scientist might have dirty fingernails. That is telling,” she tweeted. “They also might be skinny or bald, but that isn’t telling.”

Matt Hallauer, a journalism teacher at Saint Thomas Aquinas High School in Overland Park, Kansas, also weighed in: “What I want from you is information I can’t get myself,” he tweeted. “Keep giving us firsthand accounts (can he actually answer a tough question on his own?) …”

Karten’s question also invites writers to examine why they choose the words they do to describe story characters, which we raised on Twitter when we asked people to weigh in:

Cass Herrington, a reporter and anchor at Blue Ridge Public Radio in Asheville, North Carolina, responded she likes to use “second-hand accounts of things they’ve done. Told by family, friends, colleagues — or adversaries — who know them best.”

WBEZ education reporter Sarah Karp weighed in on our reader’s question about including the level of education in a character description. She cautioned she “would be careful about mentioning someone’s educational background, esp. their school bc that often speaks more about privilege than ability or passion.”

Herrington and Karp raise good questions about what subjective descriptions say about the reporters who use them and whether issues of gender, race and class influence those descriptions.

Readers have criticized articles that include descriptions about how women dress, when men in those same stories — or other stories, for that matter — aren’t given similar scrutiny. And women seem far more likely than men to be described in relation to how many children they have.

Land mines surround all sorts of descriptions. If a reporter describes a character in a story as well-spoken, for instance, are they suggesting that being well-spoken is somehow surprising? The Root got at that very question, suggesting the use of the word “articulate” is tinged with racial overtones.

All that said, we don’t have data that shows if readers want or appreciate this kind of detail, as Karten wonders. As writers and as readers ourselves, though, we find that it adds texture to stories and make them more interesting — when done right.

But in choosing how to write that description, it’s important for writers to question and be aware of their own potential biases and points of view, too.

Clearly, Karten’s question opens up a larger conversation: What kinds of details do readers want about a person? We’d like to explore that more. So, please share your thoughts with us and feel free to send in some examples, too — good or bad. Tweet us at @ProPublicaIL or email us at [email protected].

And if you have questions about how we do our jobs, reach us there, too.

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