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Feature section stories need not be important, just compelling

Filming for "Crack Whores of the Tenderloin" in Golden Gate
Park. (Chronicle photo by Christina Koci Hernandez.)

So I understand Grade the News found nothing of value in my story about the making of a porn movie. Apparently, I have received a failing grade. Not the first time that happened and surely not the last.

I’m not going to defend my story. It is what it is. Some people liked it and some didn’t. Those who didn’t were mostly upset by the fact that the paper is delivered to schools, and their children might read about sex.

Faulty assumptions

But Grade the News makes certain assumptions and pronouncement that I think need to be addressed. Mr. McManus writes: "Journalism's fundamental purpose is to help the public orient itself to reality, to make what's important interesting." I’m not sure how you define either of those, but I do know the difference between a news story and feature story. More importantly, there is a difference between news features and stories that appear in the Features section. A news feature is a longer, usually better written, story about something in the news. A story in the features section need not have any news value whatsoever. Some do. It's better if they do. But it's not the overriding concern.

I don’t want to dissect every story that has appeared in the Datebook section in the last two weeks. Some stories are reviews or analysis of events or people or situations. Others are just stories, written as well as possible, about the world around us. You can look at any one of a number of stories and ask what its purpose is. How does it "help the public orient itself to reality?" Just by being there, I would argue.

As for the Porn story, I saw the ad for the class, met the director and got myself invited along to watch the movie being made. I thought I could write a compelling and interesting story about these people who do this very strange work. The people are fascinating not only for what they do, but for how common and mundane they are when they're not having sex in front of a camera.

No commentary needed

My story was not meant to be commentary. Mr. McManus faults me for offering no comment, nor describing trends or significant changes in the industry. First off, there really is nothing to say on this subject, as it pertains to porn. And if there were, the topic would be so sexually charged as to be unpublishable. In any case, that’s not what I do. I try to go places where most people are not allowed, or invited, and give a bird’s-eye view of what’s happening. It could be inside a Humvee in Iraq or it could be from the set of a porn shoot.

As for the commentary itself, just a couple of comments:

The fact that it is the longest story in the paper has no relevance at all. I don’t even know how or why anyone would think or imagine such a thing. I write the story and my editor approves any length over 20 or 25 column inches. My stories often run long, but if they’re done well enough, they give me the extra space. The story was written weeks in advance, and laid out days in advance. No one looked at the pages and story length and said we should cut mine because it was longer than the Iraqi news on the front. The paper just doesn’t work that way.

What is the "new context of pornography?" I have read stories comparing photos of the abuse of Iraqi prisoners with some forms of amateur porn. I think the comparisons are ridiculous in the extreme. In any case, how would the story have been different? Should I have watched the porn movie being made and then contrasted it to the abuse of prisoners in Abu Ghraib? Um, no.

Ethics are no joke

And no, the journalistic ethics comment was not a joke. It, along with the rest of that vignette, was merely an attempt to humanize the story.

Mr. McManus points out several valid story ideas, all related to the intimate details of porn actors’ lives, such as drug use, HIV, how families are affected. All good ideas, but as I mention in the story, there is no mainstream porn made here. So these stories would have to be reported at great time and expense down in Southern California. That’s not to say we shouldn’t or wouldn’t do them. But what was in front of us was a standard story about the making of a porn movie, and that’s what we pursued.

What do you think? Discuss it in The Coffeehouse.


A project of the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at San Jose State University, Grade the News is affiliated with the Graduate Program in Journalism at Stanford University and KTEH, public television in Silicon Valley.

Monitoring the Bay Area's most popular news media:

Contra Costa Times

Knight Ridder

San Francisco Chronicle


San Jose Mercury News

Knight Ridder

KTVU, Oakland (FOX)

KTVU, Oakland (FOX)

KRON, San Francisco

KRON, San Francisco

KPIX, San Francisco (CBS)

KPIX, San Francisco (CBS)

KGO, San Francisco (ABC)

KGO, San Francisco (ABC)

KNTV, San Jose (NBC)

KNTV, San Jose (NBC)


Bay Area media advocates:

Media Alliance
Center for the Integration and Improvement of Journalism at SFSU
Maynard Institute
Youth Media Council
Project Censored
New California Media
Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California chapter
National Writers Union Bay Area chapter

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