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Narrative and Journalism -- by Lucas Munson

Journalism is about real people doing real things. Often, those real things take them years to accomplish. For instance, I just finished an article about a woman who did some rather groundbreaking cancer research. She has been studying the same thing for over 20 years. That is the kind of dedication that makes journalistic narrative work. Persistence.

Fiction has a different time frame. I think of Ian McEwen’s Saturday, all of which takes place over the course of one day. It gives us a jolt of humanity, a quick bump to keep us going. It can transport us to other perspectives, other places, and give us an adventure over the course of a few hours. It can make us see wildly different perspectives from our own. Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid comes to mind. I’ve never been a black girl growing up in Antigua, but for a few hours while I soaked in a tub, Kincaid took me there.

A lot has been written about the power of literature to transport, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t note this difference between fiction and journalism. Sometimes, good journalism does transport us, but that is not its intent. It is supposed to inform, first and foremost. For people who have trouble doing more than one thing with their writing, as I do, this can make it wooden and totally uninteresting. For proof, go back and read the original article by Woodward and Bernstein about the Watergate break-in. It is toneless and boring, completely drab writing, free of sensationalism and completely devoid of editorialization. A far cry from the political reporting of today which has similar content, but the tone of a particular boozy cocktail party or the coverage of the U.S.S. Maine.

That kind of sensationalism exists because narrative has become a must. A piece must have drive and thrust in order to get read. You only need to turn to CNN’s full day of coverage of a weather balloon that may or may not have a child in it. They grab onto any narrative they can, no matter how flimsy.

Humans want to make sense of the world, so we turn to narrative whenever possible. It’s uncomfortable to think life makes no sense. Narrative in journalism reinforces the view that things do make sense, that everything is easily explainable and totally straightforward. Of course the country is screwed, the government is evil. Of course there’s widespread poverty and suffering, people are too stupid to get themselves out of it. Discomfort, and an attempt to dispel it, drives our news cycle. That’s why we find news outlets tailored to a specific viewpoint; we think we need them to survive.

David Lynch said  “I don’t think that people accept the fact that life doesn’t make sense. I think it makes people terribly uncomfortable. It seems like religion and myth were invented against that, trying to make sense out of it.” Which is both a knock against trying to make sense out of the world, and a really good advertisement for stories. 

So, maybe, instead of using the news as your narrative escapism, read a book. Pick up something and read it. Let yourself go to a place where everything does make sense, and does happen for a reason. Then, take a deep breath, hold it, and plunge back into the scary nonsensical world.  

Posted by Lucas Munson 22 Aug 2017 at 02:06
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Responses to this blog

Kcm 25 Aug 2017 at 05:53  

Kcm 25 Aug 2017 at 05:55  

Kcm 25 Aug 2017 at 05:58  
I apologize for those two operational failures above.

A thought- provoking, well-crafted treatise, methinks, Lucas.

What say you to the reader who craves information to that degree journalism strives to, but never will, sate; who grudgingly tolerates narrative in journalism and who, each time s/he escapes through the wide open door of his/her cell —to savor the artificial sense without—returns through that same door steeped in repentance for his/her unclean act?

You allude to such a one by elimination when you write,” Humans want to make sense of the world, so we turn to narrative whenever possible.” There live among humans, sad sorry-sots, who wax unable to abandon their search for sense in the world and so turn not to fiction, but rather to journalism and science. Are these to be called something other than human? A certain chief executive espouses the notion that some of this lot ought to be called “journalists” and hence be summarily dismissed for that patriotic cause. Makes sense; does it not?

I sense a few parts per billion of hypocrisy herein, Mr. Journalist.


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