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Episodes: The freedom to not


Emily VanDerWerff

Nov 11 2015

6 min read



My first journalism job was at the small-town weekly newspaper my cousin operated. It was a place where the definition of "news" was about as elastic as you could possibly get, and it often included, say, photos of children lined up to show off being on the honor roll, the sorts of stuff that allowed a community to keep tabs on each other and feel more like a whole than a series of parts. We played a vital role in the community, I still believe, because we gave the sense of the community actually being something other than people closed off in their houses, living separate lives with little consequence on each other. It's hard to live in a city and feel truly alone, I think. You're always jostling. Out in the middle of nowhere, though, it's easy to feel like a speck.

One of the most popular features we ran were columns we called the "locals." They were basically social news, talking about who had coffee with whom after church, and who gathered for dinner on a Wednesday night. In the "larger" towns of the county, they were written by what people submitted for inclusion. But in the smaller towns, they were written by single people, who were heavily invested in what was happening and seemed to know people were getting together before anybody else did.

These columns were a.) immensely popular with readers and b.) often subject to angry recrimination from those who were featured in them without wanting to be. Nobody was going to sue us on this. Saying that John and Mary Smith had coffee with Bob and Sue Peterson after church on Sunday was perfectly legitimate reporting, particularly if you were the columnist in question (whose name was Viola) and would drive around, looking for cars parked in driveways or outside of houses. But it wasn't hard to understand those who were featured in the columns but didn't want to be, who had a certain expectation of privacy that was immediately torn away from them.

I've been thinking about this a lot lately, as we return to ideas about just when and where press coverage is wanted or needed. Yes, when you make a post on public Twitter, you're effectively saying something in the public square, but you're probably talking like you're in a private space. I think the fault here is on you (for the assumption of privacy in an area that doesn't promise such a thing) rather than on me, but I will freely admit that's kind of slimy. When things like, say, the Zola story become viral sensations, it's not hard to see this as a kind of free, mass appropriated labor. Please understand: I don't think that's actually what it is, but I get why some people would classify it as such.

I've also been thinking about this a lot in the wake of something my colleague Libby Nelson pulled out of a longer report on the so-called "new" political correctness, which seems to have suddenly swept America's college campuses out of nowhere, if you pay attention to media reporting on it. In reality, it's been around for ages, and it is the sort of valuable campus discussion (about who we are and what we value as Americans) that can be legitimately helpful when it comes to the public at large. But because of the rise of social media, we're seeing that discussion happening almost in real time, including all of the weird ideas or emotionally charged moments that will eventually fall away as we come to acknowledge certain things are Pretty Good Ideas.

The expectation of all of this playing out in private is one that I think most participants have had for a while, but it's, instead, become lurchingly, extremely public, over and over again, this year. And that means we're not just adjudicating what students are calling for but their process in asking for it. If you ask me, personally, I think trigger warnings, for instance, are probably a good idea online but have issues of practicality out in the physical world that will always struggle to pass the sniff test. But that's why we have college campuses to try them out on. If they're terrible ideas, they'll eventually be modified to good ones or abandoned altogether. We are not, no matter what the most alarmist among us might say, facing a future where you'll be expected to know the individual triggers of everybody around you, and if you don't, it'll be your ass on the line. That's just a ridiculous idea of how to run a society. Any time somebody's worst-case scenario sounds like dystopian science fiction, it's usually a good time to pump the brakes at least a little bit.

But I also look at all of this and think about those people who would come into our newspaper office and ask if they could just not be included in the locals column, because they didn't want their every move being tracked. And we could ask Viola to try to keep them out of future editions, but it didn't matter. She was a great reporter, of a sort, and she always knew what was going on. I believe in the strongest possible freedom of speech and freedom of the press that we can possibly have, but I can also see why there are so many people who wish to have the freedom to not. And I don't know how we get to the place where they can feel adequately served and protected, while keeping all of our other great freedoms as strong as possible. I don't have the answers. I suspect there are none.

Or, put another way, I think the U of Missouri students (and professors!) blocking journalists from doing their job are in the wrong. But I get the desire all the same to treat your life not as somebody else's narrative, but as your own, because you know that, inevitably, somebody will spot your car in someone else's driveway and squeeze you into a shape you simply don't fit.


Episodes is published daily, Monday through Friday, unless I don't feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox Dot Com.

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