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July 3, 2017 by

End the Anecdotes

typewriter-1245894_1920It’s becoming a trend for publications to solicit reader stories. The New York Times has recently begun to fill my Facebook news feed with requests for comments from readers. An example: “Tell us a personal story about raising feminist boys, or ask us a question. We may publish a selection of the responses, and some experts in the field will respond to them.” The resulting article featured a selection of the anecdotes the paper received coupled with responses from “some experts in the field.” Early this month, the Forward put out a call on their website, asking “What makes a college perfect for Jewish students?…The Forward wants to hear from you.” The site provides a Google Form with a survey for students, parents, and professionals to fill out, asking respondents to share what was most and least important in their college selection process.

In a vacuum, it seems innocuous for newspapers to occasionally turn to their readership to gather information about current issues. What better way to learn about feminist parenting or Jewish college choices than to ask feminist parents or Jewish college students to share their stories? These choices by the media are only clearly harmful as they accumulate over time and become increasingly commonplace.

The New York Times and the Forward are both newspapers that typically compensate their writers. Whether a reported story or an opinion piece, content for print and for the web is the product of real work, time and energy invested by a writer that the publishing outlet then benefits from. When outlets publish content without paying the writer who produced it, they are benefitting from the work of persons who themselves sees no benefit. This is, of course, an unethical practice, but it is made even worse because of the people the work most often springs from: women and young people.

When I was 17, I wrote a response piece to an article in a major Jewish newspaper. The paper had published a woman’s essay about why she didn’t think it was necessary for Jewish women to wear tefillin — I disagreed, and pitched an editor with a piece explaining why. They published my post, but the editor apologetically told me that they wouldn’t be able to offer me compensation, as they hadn’t budgeted for an extra essay. At the time, I was so delighted to be published that it did not even cross my mind to be troubled by this, much less to consider seeking out an alternate venue to publish the product of my hard work. The thrill of seeing my words in print was enough.

It is this thrill that is exploited when newspapers solicit reader stories in lieu of paying writers and reporters to do serious journalism. As a young woman, I had internalized that it was exciting to simply be heard. When I was offered a platform, I jumped at the opportunity—it was more than I expected, and so it did not cross my mind that I was doing work on behalf of a publication. I was lucky, I thought, that people wanted to hear what I had to say, and so to be compensated beyond the opportunity to speak was excessive.

When established media outlets that normally pay reporters (independent blogs that never pay writers are a different project) seek crowdsourced content from young people and women, they offer “exposure” to people who are taught to expect that simply being heard is a gift. By aggregating anecdotes from the subjects of, say, an article about college, newspapers devalue the ideas and opinions of the college students they write about. Outlets that want to feature content about mothers, or students, or any other population that is more often talked about than listened to, ought to seek out individuals to write whole articles, and compensate them appropriately.

A collection of Facebook comments by mothers or a survey of Jewish college students treats people as mere article fodder, rather than themselves powerful thinkers with compelling ideas to share about their own experiences. Taking these people seriously means offering them the opportunity to produce and publish work themselves, rather than offering “the chance to see your name in print” as a substitute for a true byline.

Editor’s note: Lilith offers a $25 honorarium for each post to bloggers. Submit your pitches to 

Avigayil Halpern is a rising junior at Yale. Follow her on Twitter at @avigayiln.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.