“I have no idea what I’m going to talk about,” said Janet Reitman about her upcoming talk in Kresge Hall on April 15 at 7:30 p.m. A contributing editor at Rolling Stone magazine, Reitman’s talk is titled “Writing Against the Pack: A Rolling Stone Reporter’s Secret for Finding the Story Inside the Story.”
Reitman has reported from Iraq, Haiti and has also done narrative reporting pieces on the church of Scientology as well as the Duke University lacrosse case. She has a strong focus on narrative magazine writing.
“A story like Iraq is a story that’s particularly important for kids who might want to go freelance,” said Reitman. “You have to write your own byline, you find the story.”
She felt the same way about covering the Duke lacrosse case in 2006 and 2007, in which three lacrosse players at the school were accused of rape.
“That was a big story that everyone was all over, and when I got to North Carolina, there was no way I could cover the story and get to those athletes and those lawyers,” she said.
Instead, she found her own way of going about the story and followed the lives of women who attended Duke University and wrote about them.
“I basically found girls who were supportive of those boys and the story was about them and their view of feminism.”
Reitman also incorporated into her story the fact that the highest-achieving students at one of the top universities in the nation were still a huge example of the pressure that most women feel to be sexy and also sexual.
She talked a bit about how she felt as a woman in the reporting industry. Her thought? It shouldn’t matter.
“I can’t stand it when people say, ‘Oh, you’re a woman reporter, that’s so amazing.’ It’s all about are you a good reporter, not your gender. To me, that’s what feminism is supposed to be about,” she said.
After she came back to the United States, people gave her offers to write a book about her experience as a woman covering the war in Iraq.
“How embarrassing,” she said. “It would have pigeonholed me.”
Reitman began her journalism career as a freelance writer and worked for Professor of Journalism Marilyn Webb for a year before that. Webb eventually convinced Retiman to go to graduate school and she ended up earning a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University.
Reitman said that it takes awhile for younger writers experimenting with narrative journalism to understand that many times it is better if they leave themselves out of the story.
“One of the big mistakes that young people make in narrative writing is that they write about themselves,” she said. “You’re not that interesting. Some people can be funny, but it’s mostly a lot of drivel.”
She also cautioned that most people who will succeed at narrative writing are not in their 20s. “People say to me, ‘I didn’t even get started until I was 30,’ and that’s totally right. Your 20s are a time to take risks. Don’t take risks when you’re 35,” she said.
While Reitman says she is not interested in daily news stories and more interested in long-term magazine writing projects, she thinks it is a good thing for beginning journalists to work at a newspaper so they can learn the basics and the process of news writing.
“Hopefully you’ll have the right guidance so that you don’t break any rules,” she said.