One of the more difficult habits to break for beginning journalists is the use of second person in news stories. Although they tend to mix first, second and third person into their work, it’s usually easy to kick “I,” “We” and “Us” to the curb after a few sessions. Third person generally becomes the default option for them, based on the years of research papers that demand the detachment not found in first or second person. However, for some reason, second person seems to show up without rhyme or reason within news stories, particularly news features.
This concept took on new relevance for me this weekend when Terry Pluto of the Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote an epic story about his colleague, Mary Kay Cabot. Cabot has covered the Cleveland Browns for 31 years and was recently inducted into the The Press Club of Cleveland Journalism Hall of Fame. His story begins this way:
CLEVELAND, Ohio – Thirty-one years.
You’re Mary Kay Cabot, and you’ve been covering the Cleveland Browns for 31 years – the same team you watched on TV every Sunday while growing up in Lakewood.
Your dad was Joe Cabot, a Lakewood fireman and a Korean War veteran. He always had a game on of one of the local pro sports teams. But the Browns … the Browns were special. Your father “lived and died” with the Browns.
To see his daughter cover the Browns, that was as meaningful to him as if you had played quarterback for the orange helmets.
“If I ever run into that (Mike) Trivisonno, I’ll take care of him,” your father told you. He had heard the late WTAM talk show host rip you on the radio. To this day, you love that story.
Now, they’re your Browns, the team and the job that has loomed over you for three decades.
“It’s the Browns and our three kids,” is how you describe your life with Bill Murman, your husband of 29 years.
I’m not going to second-guess Terry Pluto, who has won more awards, published more books, covered more sports and done more amazing writing than I could ever hope to, when it comes to the use of a literary device. What I will say is that when I read this thing, I found the approach mentally jarring. It was like my brain was fighting against the way the whole “you” thing kept trying to make me a married, middle-age woman in Cleveland with a dead father.
The first time I ran into this kind of cognitive dissonance was when I was about 17 and I was going through an “’80s nihilistic authors phase” in my reading habits. Jay McInerney, a brilliant writer who has penned some of my favorite novels, used the second-person approach for the entirety of “Bright Lights, Big City,” which begins this way in a chapter titled: “It’s Six A.M. Do you know where you are?”
“You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a a girl with a shaved head. The club is either Heartbreak or the Lizard Lounge. All might become clear if you could just slip into the bathroom and do a little more Bolivian Marching Powder. Then again, it might not…”
So there I was, a teenager from the Midwest who had yet to take an illegal drink, trying to put myself into the shoes of a coked-up magazine copy editor who is trying to get laid in a New York City night club at the crack of dawn. It didn’t work out all that well, despite my best efforts.
In both cases, the writers were skilled professionals who were taking calculated risks, based on a variety of factors they seriously considered before stepping into the “you-niverse.” As we have said here before, if you learn the rules well enough, you can figure out when it’s best to break them. (In short, you earn the fungus on your shower shoes.)
That said, most of my students haven’t earned that right yet and tend to use second-person missives as a writing crutch.
To figure out if second person is the way to go, consider these questions:
- How will your audience respond to this? Like most things we talk about in media writing, the audience should be front and center when you decide if you should go with second person or not. If the readers aren’t at the forefront of the decision-making process, a lot can go wrong with second person. People don’t like being told what to do, especially if it seems like you’re coming at them from a higher moral position. Thus, telling them “You should give money” or “You should donate blood” or anything along those lines can feel off-putting. Second person is also something that readers aren’t used to in certain formats and platforms, so using it can be really jarring to some folks. In thinking about my experience with Pluto’s story, I would be really interested in what the general Cleveland sports audience thought about the Cabot piece and the use of “you,” especially because Cabot is such a rare gem in the field.
- What is the tone of your media outlet? “You” has become a staple of television news over the years, as has “I,” because broadcast is an interpersonal medium. When done well, broadcasters make viewers feel a one-on-one connection that is less like a news report, and more like shared information from a trusted friend. Columnists and bloggers often get away with “you” as well, in that the format is less formal and more conversational. To pretend to carry some sort of objective detachment feels fake or even snobby. More traditional or general-interest outlets still need that sense of detachment, primarily because the audience is so varied and the tone of formality has been ingrained over time.
- What is the tone of your piece? Standard news stories tend to have multiple angles and facets, thus it’s hard to know which one “you” the reader will connect with. Even a story about a landlord evicting poor tenants on Christmas Eve has multiple facets, and second person can make it look like you’re taking sides. Conversely, “how to” pieces on niche blogs or websites might need a lot of “you” moments to guide readers along and reassure them that they can fix the garbage disposal or Bedazzle a jean jacket.
- Are you just being lazy? In the case of the two authors noted above, the use of second person was a clear, conscious choice that they stuck with all the way through the piece. They decided to ride or die with second person. Most of the pieces I’ve read that contain second person don’t take things to this extreme with this kind of forethought. It’s a case of a writer shifting into second person because they don’t want to take the time to rewrite a sentence in third person. Using second person as a literary device is worth a shot here and there. Using it as a writing crutch is just plain lazy. If you can easily rewrite a sentence into third person and the majority of the piece is in third person, take the time to do it. If you have a clear and coherent reason to go into the “you-niverse,” take the risk if you have worked your way through the points above.
Like most tools in your writing toolbox, second person can be useful in certain situations. If you use it for the right reason, you can do a lot of good for your readers. If you use it for the wrong ones, you can undermine the value of your piece and annoy your audience.