You can use first person. The writer doesn’t have to rejigger or omit an anecdote just because he (and not “a reporter”) was involved in it. Some things are too awkward to put into third person but worth mentioning, like the warnings the black children gave me about visiting their housing project, or which of my long-ago teachers (some bad, some great) would have had trouble making it in today’s standardized classrooms. When I speak around the country about my first book, I am always asked why I chose the school I did. In Tested, I decided to explain directly why I wrote about Tyler Heights, because people always wanted to know. Newspapers sometimes include sidebars with this kind of explanation, but not always.
You don’t have to use the typical journalistic shortcuts in your field. When writing in the popular media about testing, a certain trope applies, in which phrases like “improving student learning,” “raising achievement,” and “closing the gap” are all merely synonyms for scores on state standardized tests. If I were still at the Post, I suspect that refusing to use those phrases as synonyms for test scores and introducing caveats to the numbers might have been seen as some sort of political statement on my part. In Tested, I avoid phrases like “test scores rose” when the truth is “the percentage of children who passed the test rose, though because the test changes every year, you can’t really draw a strong comparison.” In a book, I can choose to say “test scores rose” only when I mean test scores rose, and I can show how “gaps” and “achievement” have many more meanings than can be expressed numerically.
You don’t have to give equal (or any) time to arguments you think are baseless. Newspaper journalists don’t have that luxury, which is why articles about global warming usually include quotes from the rare scientist who doesn’t believe it exists.
You can change names. Both of the schools that allowed me to write my books conditioned permission on changing children’s names—a practice not allowed at the Post and many other papers yet often encouraged by the lawyers at publishing houses. Newspapers want to be considered the ultimate record of fact, and they gain more credibility as institutions by being able to insist that no matter what section, no matter what reporter, we have made nothing up. I always liked this about the Post. I would rather not change names. But the book reader and I both know there are truths that can be had only at this cost, and I’m glad I have the freedom to pay it. I stand only for myself, and people can judge my credibility as they wish; newspapers, collective endeavors after all, must be more careful.
You can risk offending people. The third graders featured in Tested were a particularly nasty bunch. Quite often they didn’t seem to want to learn, and they carried a lot of anger with them from home; it was hard to imagine children so consistently mean to each other holding a job one day, no matter how well they did on their math tests. So I said that. I also explained, in ways I knew never would be allowed into the Post, where their parents fell short. When I reported long ago for the Post about the growing behavior problems of elementary schoolchildren, everyone I interviewed, from the teachers to the administrators to the social scientists, implicated parents in some way, a point of view I passed along in the story. My editors let me know that I was being “too hard on parents,” and that part of the story was excised considerably.
You can be sarcastic. “You’re not going to be a scientist if you can’t read,” I quote a superintendent as saying, in defense of a pared-down curriculum. Well, I respond, you can’t be a scientist if you never learn science either; you can’t be a lawyer if you don’t learn critical-thinking skills; you can’t be a politician if you never get to speak in front of a group. When the principal went to a conference and heard about one way to build enthusiasm among her staff, I wrote, “I couldn’t wait to see the look on Miss Johnson’s face when she would be told to ‘clap fireworks’ when a colleague presented a good idea.” About the Bush administration’s inclination to call anyone who criticizes No Child Left Behind a racist, I wrote, “One suspects that if you suggested 90 percent might be a more reasonable proficiency goal than one hundred, you’d be asked why you hate 10 percent of America’s children.”