Features of virtue
Exploring the common virtues of award-winning feature writing to analyse how journalists make us feel something when we read their work.
It’s a funny thing about virtues. Once you see them you can’t pretend they don’t exist or that they don’t matter. And when you see that they are missing altogether the realisation can land like a blow across the head, leaving you disorientated and disturbed, casting about for your moral compass. I blame journalism for this. Australian journalists in particular, but not exclusively. Why? Because it is journalists who, through bringing the full force of their considerable writing and reporting skills to the issues that define a society, help us to see who we are, how we got there and where we are heading next.
I did not reach this conclusion lightly. I’ve worked as a reporter for 20 years; I’ve taught journalism to tertiary students for the past decade and I’ve devoted the past eight years to writing a doctoral thesis and publishing a book: Emotions and Virtues in Feature Writing: The Alchemy of Creating Prize-Winning Stories. My book is based upon a deceptively simple question, which is: how do journalists make us feel something when we read their work?
To figure out the answer I first took a deep dive into the archive of the Walkley Award-winning longform category, which, since the Walkleys began in 1956, has morphed between being a separate prize for features published in a newspaper or a magazine, to a dedicated feature prize, to its latest incarnation as ‘Feature writing long (over 4,000 words)’.
I take it as a national badge of honour that the Walkleys had a prize for feature writing a full twenty-two years before the US Pulitzers gave their equivalent award to Jon Franklin for ‘Mrs. Kelly’s Monster’, a story about a woman living with a brain tumour and the operation she underwent. More than forty years later Franklin’s story rightly remains a triumph of form and function, delivering readers a devastating final blow with his narrative nous.
But nearly twenty years earlier, Australia’s Graham Perkin, won the 1959 Walkley for his feature about a girl who had open-heart surgery. Perkin’s described her lungs as ‘animate, off-white objects like supercharged dumplings that slide from view into the outraged privacy of the chest, then pulsate into sight again past the rim of the surgeon’s incision’. Glorious imagery that lights up the page every bit as brightly as Franklin. Yes, in Perkin’s case, the prevailing patriarchal attitudes toward women were on full display, with him noting how, without surgery, the girl would ‘have been unequal to motherhood, incapable of strenuous exercise and inadequate for a normal life’. But I still hold that Perkin’s writing is equal to Franklin’s. Perhaps even more impressive, considering Perkin wrote his article before the birth of the so-called ‘New Journalism’, when, with much fanfare, American writers such as Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, Truman Capote and Gay Talese used fictional techniques in their articles. But, as Wolfe made clear in his 1973 essay on the topic, there was really nothing ‘new’ about New Journalism. Australia’s own heavy-weight of journalism, the late Evan Whitton, wrote that ‘Since this [new journalism] was invented by Caius Suetonius Tranquillus about 120AD’, he ‘preferred the term neo–journalism’.
As my book is about virtues it is fitting that I open with a confession. When I undertook my doctoral thesis in 2014 as a 46-year-old single mother of three school-aged children I was less fuelled by virtue than the hard-headed reality that I needed to get my ‘licence to drive’ — a PhD — in order to get a full-time job in the world of academia. Based upon my journalism experience I had been teaching the craft as a sessional, and then as a part-timer on short term contracts. Years earlier, before getting my first job as a reporter in suburban newspapers, I had completed an Honours degree in History, which left me with the quiet conviction that the skills needed to tell the stories of the dead and the living were not dissimilar. I knew enough to know that a PhD would consume me and I took the sage advice of an academic that if I was going to dedicate three years of my life to one topic I best make sure it was on something I loved. So I chose feature writing. And not just any feature writing. Walkley Award-winning feature articles. I wanted to soak in writing that had been judged by journalists as among the best in the nation.
So where to begin? There were limits to how much I could pour into a PhD or a book. Thankfully, John Hurst, the author of the unofficial Walkley Bible, The Walkley Awards: Australia’s Best Journalists in Action, had already documented features up until 1988. So that is where I began for my PhD, in which I examined 23 Walkley-winning feature articles from 1988 (which was also the year in which the Walkley Awards combined with the news and magazine feature award into the ‘Best Feature’ category) to 2014. I ventured even further for my book, including examples of international, multimedia journalism, such as Hannah Drier’s 2018 Pulitzer prize-winning article, ‘The Betrayal’, that included embedded recordings and animations as well as a ‘Twitter film’ to convey her story about the plight of a boy in the United States who was caught up in the notorious MS-13 gang.
My journey began with me immersing myself in stories such as Michael Gawenda’s 1988 feature about Australia establishing its own war tribunal; Helen Garner’s gut-wrenching insights in her 1993 article about the death of two-year-old Daniel Valerio at the hands of his mother’s defacto; Gary Tippet’s 1997 article about the Indigenous man, Tony Lock, ‘the gentlest of axe-murders’, who killed his childhood abuser and Kate Legge’s 2002 profile of a family court judge and the devastating consequences of one of his decisions.
Did I underestimate the emotional storm that these stories would plunge me into? Absolutely.
I’d naively thought I could nonchalantly place myself in the hands of gifted writers telling honest stories that transported me into worlds where crimes went unpunished, where children were beaten and killed, where Indigenous Australians were abused and discarded and where our ability as a nation to refuse to see how our government policies were causing real harm to real people. I was wrong. And the moment I understood that the storm was the point, I began to appreciate how each story was a boat captained by a writer who I had to trust would get me back to dry land. Safe, yes. But also changed by the journey. I started to see and feel, sometimes subtly and at other times with the force of a wave dunking me, how the journalists used their writing and reporting skills to leave me awash with emotion. I saw how they pulled different narrative levers, shifting between first, second and third-person voice, constructing vivid scenes, inserting electrifying quotes and seeding their stories with forensic details.
Slowly, I began to have my suspicions that there was something else at play between these pages of award-winning prose. These writers were conjuring virtues. At first the pragmatic journalist in me rebelled. Surely that was sentimental tosh on my part? But I looked again. And again. And there they were. Threaded through the narratives were virtues such as courage, empathy, honesty, resilience and responsibility. And beyond this there was a sixth virtue, ‘phronesis’, which the fifth century philosopher Aristotle described as the ‘master’ intellectual virtue. Phronesis is often defined as ‘prudence’ but it is more accurately described as ‘practical wisdom’.
Now let’s be clear. The society that Aristotle lived in, one in which power was held securely by a select group of men of a particular race and social and economic standing, one where women were considered either dangerous or simply too dim-witted to be any use outside of breeding, is not one to aspire to. His world is not ours. But his notion of virtue, this idea of the master virtue of phronesis, captured me. So I borrowed it and bent it and stretched it to see if I could make it fit my idea of what journalism — at its best — could be.
This is how I came to argue the concept of phronesis, of practical wisdom, and of how it encapsulates two, seemingly conflicting sides of what it means to be a journalist. Firstly there is the pragmatic imperative of reporting the facts, and secondly, there is the knowledge that journalism can change hearts and minds and influence society.
In my book I argue that phronetic journalism is journalism that strives to make a difference to society through providing readers with the opportunity to consider important issues and perhaps even change their world view. I began to map the virtues that illuminated stories about courage, justice, truth and hope.
Within my small sample of 23 features I found the articles touched on these virtues:
- honesty (in all 23 articles)
- responsibility (in all 23)
- resilience (in 20)
- empathy (in 19)
- courage (in 15)
- phronesis (in 14).
Among the stories that, sadly, remain all too relevant is Bonita Mason’s 1997 article written for HQ magazine, The Girl in Cell 4’ about Janet Beetson, a 30-year-old Indigenous woman who, in 1994, died in custody for want of heart medication. Mason’s story marked ten years since the announcement in 1987 that a Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in the justice system would be held, delivering its findings in 1991. When Janet Beetson was found dead on the floor of her cell on June 3, 1994, she was the 61st Aboriginal person to die in custody. At the time of writing, according to a report by the Australian Institute of Criminology released in December last year, a total of 489 Indigenous people have died in custody, including four in youth detention.
When Garry Linnell wrote his story, ‘Hope Lives Here’, which won the 1998 Walkley for ‘Best Feature Writing’, it was because no other journalist wanted to. So he made it a part of his routine to drop into the cancer ward, ‘6-East’ at Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital until he became ‘a part of the furniture’, speaking with doctors, nurses, parents and children. From its haunting opening paragraph, cast in the second-person voice so that the reader is transported into the mind of a grieving father, the defining virtue of Linnell’s story is courage. The courage of parents with a terminally ill child, the courage of the medical team caring for the patients on the ‘6-East’ ward, and finally the courage of the children themselves. It is a triumph of a piece that reminds us of our ability to stay the course, to support those we love, and to look, unflinchingly, at what we do not want to see.
But perhaps among the most striking stories are those that remind us of our failings. Of how we can ignore our humanity for the sake of political expediency, profit, personal gain or indifference.
Affecting stories such as Paul Toohey’s 2014 investigation into asylum seekers, or Russell Jackson’s searing article about the treatment of Indigenous footballer Robert Muir during his years playing for St. Kilda in the VFL. And then there is this year’s worthy Walkley winner, Andrew Quilty, for his investigation of accusations of war crimes against Australians in Afghanistan.
So my journey continues, beyond my PhD, beyond my book. Those early days rummaging through the Walkley archives at the New South Wales Mitchell Library, have led me to being a part of a Deakin University team, working with the Walkley Foundation to help digitise the winning entries. The hope is to make these examples of the nation’s best journalism available to the Australian public so that we can all have a stronger appreciation of why an honest story, well told, remains one of the best keys to unlocking who we are and who we aspire to be. And in the meantime, I can be reassured of many more stories to read and research, as Australian journalists continue to strive to shine a light into those dark places that we need to see.
Dr. Jennifer Martin is a senior lecturer in journalism at Deakin University. Dr. Martin has more than 25 years experience working as a journalist in print, radio and online and is a past winner of the United Nations Association of Australia Media Peace Prize. Her research interests include the role of emotion in literary journalism, the role of women in society and the history of journalism in Australia. Dr Martin has been teaching journalism, with a focus on feature writing, for the past 14 years and is dedicated to helping prepare the next generation of journalists for the task of telling honest stories and holding power to account. Her book, Emotions and Virtues in Feature Writing: The Alchemy of Creating Prize-Winning Stories is published by Palgrave Macmillan.