How four outlets present news-centered issues through personal essays

by Dena Levitz
Oct 30, 2018 in Journalism Basics

There’s a personal essay boom happening in the world of media right now.

Publications from Refinery 29 to Vox to the Washington Post are having their staff writers and freelancers tell tales of experiences, places and phenomenon through a first-person lens. And they’re doing this by devoting special sections of their site and specific editors to manage this popular genre.

Many of these personal essays are evergreen in nature, giving the reader a sense of what it’s like to be afflicted with an illness or to work in a lesser-known professional field. Or the essays are pushing the envelopes with shock value around what the writers are willing to reveal: taboo romance, violence, crime and the list goes on.

Then there are the essays that are serving a different value -- shedding light on the bigger news of the day. As opposed to a standard news article or broadcast piece in which the bystander, victim or person involved in the news event is interviewed to form part of the resulting piece, they’re providing their own story in a fuller way. Alternately, some writers are using a timely happening or tragedy to relay their experiences with a similar or parallel incident.

Here’s a compilation of some of the best news-centered personal essays around and what makes them work:

Title: “The Things They Carry”

Publication: The New York Times’ Opinionator section; Sept. 24, 2015

The refugee crisis is arguably the biggest story of the summer and continuing into the fall. Straight news coverage of where the refugees are headed and the dangers they’re facing to get there is certainly crucial. But what this essay, by Marie Myung-Ok Lee, does so well is tap into the why. What makes someone leave behind what they know for a potential opportunity somewhere else, and as they do, what enters their mind? This is something the author explores by painting a picture of her mother’s escape from Korea post-World War II and in the midst of the country’s split. Then, she’s able to draw comparisons to what Syrians, Iraqis and others are going through now.

Title: “I’m a teenage Syrian refugee. Here’s why I left my family to reach Germany.”

Publication: Vox; Oct. 5, 2015

Certainly the title spells out what this essay will reveal. The writer, who is only identified by his first name, goes through his personal struggles to escape his Syrian homeland and, in a larger sense, how conditions devolved enough to force a massive fleeing. Hearing this from the mouth of someone actually taking part in what’s happening is powerful in a way that probably wouldn’t be possible with more standard reportage. Vox also used the posting of this meaningful essay to feature additional, related content alongside of it, which explains European countries’ struggles to take in refugees and the origins of the Syrian crisis.

Title: Why I’m Walking 100 Miles to See Pope Francis

Publication: TIME; Sept. 15, 2015

Pope Francis’ historic visit to the United States was a subject that captured global attention. From his Popemobile to live video of his many speeches and gatherings, the accounts of his time over those days was wall-to-wall. This essay provides a slightly different vantage point in which to glimpse his visit. It’s about a woman -- one of many -- who was desperate to be there and to provide a positive message about immigration to the Catholic Church’s leader. Why someone would go to all of this trouble sheds light on his reach and the sense that this pope is different than his predecessors.

Title: “Being a doctor who performs abortions means you always fear your life is in danger”

Publication: Washington Post’s PostEverything section; Oct. 29, 2015

As the presidential elections heat up in the United States, abortion is an issue that has stirred debate and been increasingly discussed, especially in relation to allegations by conservatives challenging Planned Parenthood. This essay stands out because it looks at the issue from a unique angle -- that of the abortion doctor who feels like a target of a political debate and, in her mind, is only doing her job. No matter where the reader stands on the issue of abortion, it’s eye-opening to hear things from the side of the person performing the controversial procedure.

Image CC-licensed on Flickr via Magic Madzik