I think there is a stereotype around newspaper journalists in that there is always suspicion over the motivation for getting a “story”. There is this concept of the “public good” which is often used to justify exposés and whilst it isn’t something I have researched whenever the term “public good” comes up, I usually think about whether my life has been improved by the revelation. Recently I was approached by a friend to discuss the privacy boundaries in my writings because he was uncomfortable about what I had written about a mutual friend.
I don’t want to get into specifics but it is a very good point and something that perhaps I don’t think enough about. I have written about the difficulty in losing my anonymity in writing this blog when I posted about it on my Facebook page before; though having just searched back over my previous posts only the one called “Battlegrounds” seems to mention anonymity, so it would seem I have only verbally discussed this issue before. Okay let’s go back to the beginning then.
When I first started writing my blog, I did so because I felt I needed to get in contact with my emotions. I was depressed and needed some way to move forward and as I had written before it felt like a good place to start. It soon became apparent that I also wanted to connect with other people in a similar situation so that I stopped feeling like I was so different from the society I live in. My style of writing is very much based on exploring my experiences with the world but primarily my interaction with other people. I wanted people to come to my writings without knowing me (was this a test?) so I kept the blog anonymous from everyone except my wife; this anonymity allowed me to write about anybody and anything (though at the time my focus was on the reasons behind the depression). After a while my wife encouraged me to let my friends know about my writing and so with some trepidation I came out about my depression and pointed my Facebook friends to my blog to find out more.
This had two unexpected consequences for me. First a lot of my friends told me about their own experiences of depression, they did this to be supportive but actually I felt worse. The other issue was that I have written about my kids and friends in a way that meant they could be easily identified now by my Facebook friends reading the blog. My friend pointed out the confidentiality issue back then with some of my posts and so I went back and tried to change the posts without changing the essence of what I had written. That same friend now wants to discuss what he sees as an ongoing issue of confidentiality.
My book group met last week and we discussed the book called “The Island Wife” which is an autobiographical story written by Judy Fairbairns. Judy and I write in a very similar way but in the book she changes the names of the characters and places. A lot of the book group felt that there was a missing depth to the book to which I responded that maybe she was trying to keep a balance between writing about the experiences and respecting the people she was writing about. Whilst you could read the book and enjoy it, it is very easy to work out the real names of the people and places from clues in the book but more easily still by looking at the author’s own blog and the pictures it contains. So whereas I stepped over the anonymity line with my Facebook post, Judy did it more blatantly by using her real name on the book.
I am not saying the scale of the loss of anonymity is the same, but the principal is; there is a shadowland where a group of people will know me, may read my blog posts, may know the people mentioned in the posts, and therefore may discover things that were mentioned to me but may not have been talked about if others where there. That is an awful lot of “mays”.
I have tried to set out the issue of confidentiality clearly here, I apologise if the issue is difficult to understand but I feel it is time to move onto the discussion.
Where to start? I started with my wife since is probably the single most mentioned person in my musings plus she is well aware of the ethical issues of confidentiality through her profession. I believe she thinks that on principal my blog is a good thing because I am writing about things that don’t necessarily get talked out and it is helping me explore my emotions but she is concerned when I write about my children because although I don’t mention names, it is easy to know who is who and the same could be said about any friends I write about.
On reflection I concede that although I do try to keep people’s anonymity in a thoughtful manner, it would be possible to write about what strikes me through the interaction without referring to the person at all. My concern with this approach though is about how well my writing would flow. I don’t want to have to think too hard about filtering and re-expressing my words and therefore lose the style of writing. I write as I think and I don’t really want that to change. When I spoke to my daughter about my blog she said that she can hear my voice in the words I have written. I treasure this because one of the secondary benefits of writing this blog is that my children will one day when they feel the need to, will get to read my posts and perhaps find comfort and understanding in them.
I would guess a professional writer will weigh every word they write. For instance if I wrote that someone “is a regular cyclist whom some people have problems relating to”, is the fact that a person is a regular cyclist adding anything to that sentence? You may not think this adds anything but I would probably argue that it does because cycling shows a concern for self plus a happiness to be on their own; whilst others may have an issue with the cyclist’s communication abilities, the cyclist herself may not. The strange thing is that I would intuitively write like that rather than analysing the phrase and coming to that conclusion. Background has a purpose then so it isn’t a solution to completely ignore the person identity when writing about interactions.
The people I have talked to so far have said that they recognise that I try to keep anonymity and are not worried about what I have written about them. This is reassuring but there are still others to talk to and I hope I will always be open to this discussion. I suspect that is no clear cut way to write as I write and keep everything anonymous, but I do and will continue to try. Please do be assured that I write to explore my feelings and to help understand myself better. I will never write to intentionally upset people but if you do think you have identified yourself in my blog and it concerns you, please contact me to help me understand where I went wrong. I may not agree with you, but I do want your opinion.