Nearly every scene I paint in the book I witnessed myself, and with those I didn’t, I filled in the gaps by speaking to others involved, as anyone at a newspaper would. But in general, I get to be my own arbiter about whom to trust, about distinguishing gossip from reality. This is a weighty burden, but it becomes manageable when you get to know people well over a year. I did not ask Autumn’s aunt if the girl was enrolled in school after she had been pulled out of Tyler Heights; I was not there when Reggie’s aunt told the principal that his father accused him of “acting white” when he started improving in school; I did not confirm with the police that one mother instructed her youngsters how to steal diapers from Rite Aid; and I didn’t actually see Cairo choke his pre-K classmate. These are all mentioned in Tested, and I had no qualms about passing them on, because I was around when staff members discussed how to handle those events, and I calculated that they had no reason to make them up. Newspaper editors would be more cautious about passing on secondhand information, which makes sense. They have hundreds of reporters whose judgments they rely on. I have only myself.
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.