The one thing you learn as a journalist is that you are never going to make everyone happy. The other is that tactfulness can lead to a boring read. This doesn’t mean we should be unbalanced in our presentation of a story just for effect, but that pushing the boundaries of language and tact sometimes provides a much needed injection of interest for the reader. Sometimes, you just need to say it how it is; and yet sometimes, it is better to strike a balance.
The article I have in mind is a feature piece I wrote for the Express and Echo on a young Flybe pilot Kate Moran. It was the last in a series of documentary style articles I had written on the airline company – a sort of day in the life. The last one followed Kate’s ambition to become a pilot after being invited to sit in the cockpit of an aeroplane at the age of nine. The article was very positive commenting on the fact that Kate is one of Britain’s youngest airline pilots and has carved herself a carer where fewer than five per cent of pilots are women. It was picked up by the Daily Mail, The Sun, The Star, The Express and various bloggers (and given a new byline).
The problem came with the first paragraph where I had described Kate (something which was left out of the national publications). I wrote: “Kate’s thickly painted black eyelash extensions and peroxide blonde hair provide a stark contrast to her androgynous pilot’s uniform – but her achievements in a male dominated industry prove she’s more substance than style.” Kate complained and Flybe’s head of PR complained (rather rudely, I might add). Interestingly, hundreds of comments were posted on the Mail’s website largely praising her achievements, but also commenting on her make-up and appearance – even though my initial paragraph had been left out. The reason being, the article was accompanied by three photographs.
Ironically, it is these very images and Kate’s very appearance which make this story so newsworthy. Some argued that her trolley-dolly appearance belies her profession – perhaps just as Susan Doyle’s dowdy appearance belied her beautiful voice. Kate, like a lot of women, made a conscious decision to dye her hair and wear fake eyelashes – and that is absolutely her prerogative. The question is, can she then get upset about people noticing these purposefully emphasised features? The article was meant to be a lesson in the pitfalls of judging a book by its cover, but what it actually did was highlight – even in journalism – the importance of striking a balance between artistic license and tact.