Journalism is a genre that does not receive the acclaim it deserves in writing circles. When I spoke to a journalist acquaintance recently, he told me that a prominent university in California did not teach journalism because it thought that the genre was “a craft” rather than an intellectual pursuit. This view could not be farther from the truth. Anyone who has read and enjoyed an article in a newspaper, magazine, or other journalistic venue knows that a truly talented journalist can take any subject, from global warming to government corruption, and turn it into an enthralling and informative piece of writing. It is a medium that requires writing of a vital and challenging nature, and it functions as a central component of our society’s access to knowledge and freedom of speech.

Although the definition of journalism often seems, as a cultural construct, fluid and changing, there are certain concrete claims that we can make about its nature. These mostly involve what journalism is not; at an elementary level, it is not fiction. Recently this distinction has become somewhat harder to discern. Shows like Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show and Stephen Colbert’s The Colbert Report, as well as pseudo-news websites like The Onion, challenge conventional notions of journalistic reporting as “true” or “false.” When Stewart’s program runs a segment that describes a voting demographic as “people whose heads get stuck in jars when they eat pickles,” his audience is not expected to accept this information as true, but the underlying point is taken: American elections are decided by a number of people whose intelligence is suspect. Because their intention is to impart information in an only partially truthful manner, we can classify sources like Stewart’s as social commentators rather than journalists.

We find that Stewart is entertaining in his ability to glean laughs and provide biting social commentary by filtering and reinterpreting ordinarily dry and dismal facts. However, the best journalistic writers are able to use accurate information to convey a different, and sometimes deeper sort of knowledge to their readers than one might find in the ironic or sarcastic approach exhibited by such commentators; these journalists do this while simultaneously drawing their reader into an article. This is not to say that the societal truths that Stewart confronts his viewers with are shallow or insignificant. He aims to present a condensed form of knowledge to his audience in order to identify the ironies and contradictions existing in our society’s most prevalent practices. We can differentiate both his techniques and his aims from those of journalism, which deploys reality in all its subtlety and detail to illustrate the significance of actual events and concepts. Authors Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel in their book The Elements of Journalism explain that “Journalism is storytelling with a purpose. That purpose is to provide people with information they need to understand the world.” Whereas social commentary consists of a limited number of facts that are ripe with material for a commentator to base opinion and satire on, journalism must encompass a wider, deeper, and more textured array of information while working to put this information into an appealing, interesting format. This makes the task of journalistic writing both daunting and enticing to those who like to write.

In their text, Kovach and Rosenstiel note that “People have an intrinsic need — an instinct — to know what is occurring beyond their direct experience.” Our thirst for information is not easily satisfied in the age of mixed media. High quality journalistic writing should prove to its audience that its topic is something to be concerned with. Especially when an article is part of a daily publication, it has to accomplish this task quickly, something that can be characterized as “reeling the audience in.” In a New York Times article titled “On Parched Farms, Using Intuition to Find Water,” journalist Jesse McKinley performs this feat while tackling the somewhat dry issue of the drought in California (no pun intended).

WATERFORD, Calif. — Phil Stine is not crazy, or possessed, or even that special, he says. He has no idea how he does what he does. From most accounts, he does it very well.
“Phil finds the water,” said Frank Assali, an almond farmer and convert. “No doubt about it.”
Mr. Stine, you see, is a “water witch,” one of a small band of believers for whom the ancient art of dowsing is alive and well.
Emphasis, of course, on well. Using nothing more than a Y-shaped willow stick, Mr. Stine has as his primary function determining where farmers should drill to slake their crops’ thirst, adding an element of the mystical to a business where the day-to-day can often be painfully plain.

Our attention is captured from the first line. In this particular article, the key to drawing the audience in is the reporter’s chosen diction, as well as the use of selective quotes and paraphrasing to heighten the element of characterization. We don’t expect to be led into a discussion of a drought by way of a “water witch,” but the writer does just that, and succeeds at fastening our interest. Through the individual Phil Stine, we are introduced to an unknown culture, one that even has its own language; this introduction is made in approximately eight sentences. The writer’s quick clarification of terms such as “dowsing” and his smooth laying out of context in the fourth paragraph ushers the audience from potential confusion to understanding in an incredibly short space.

Furthermore, hard facts are provided in the next few paragraphs to persuade us that this is not a marginal, irrelevant subject; the phenomenon of “water witch[es]” directly reflects the situation in drought-ridden California. “The state estimates nearly $260 million in crop damages through August…Statewide, farmers have left nearly 80,000 acres fallow rather than struggle — and pay handsomely — to keep them irrigated.” Using the story of a quirky or somehow distinct individual to lead into potentially dull but newsworthy factual evidence is a hallmark of narrative journalism.

A problem that articles like this one can run into is a loss of momentum after starting out strong. Although we wouldn’t want an article without any substance or evidence, we also want our interest to be piqued throughout a piece. If a writer begins with a fascinating depiction of an individual like Phil Stine, but then descends into numerical data without looking back, we’re sure to be disappointed. This is where controversy comes in. Any story worth writing about will be accompanied by several viewpoints, and these can be used to keep an article afloat. As my journalist acquaintance defined them, these are know as “tension points…the best pieces exhibit tension, sometimes excruciating tension…or the threat of danger and/or disaster right around the corner.” In this drought article, the conflict between the “water witch” tradition and scientific beliefs functions as a tension point. The passage here, which comes in the middle of the article, is skillfully rendered in that it not only presents an opposing viewpoint, but it posits a reason that water witches might be used instead of modern technology:

Thomas Harter, a hydrologist at the University of California, Davis, who runs workshops with farmers looking to drill wells, said there was no scientific evidence that dowsers had special talent at finding water. They are, however, usually much cheaper than the various scientific tools, like electromagnetic imaging or seismic studies, that can help find aquifers.

When an article uses controversy, it not only continues to hold the audience’s attention, it also takes a step towards larger relevance by including themes that can be seen as widely applicable. The conflict between tradition and science is one that most people recognize as manifesting itself widely. With its inclusion, a piece on the drought in California is also a piece on a general human predicament. Journalists should beware of reaching for universal themes with every article, however. If there is a fire in a building that kills two people, it does not necessarily reflect the entire human condition. Writers have to be careful not to exaggerate a story’s importance. The choicest stories will invariably possess greater significance than others, but a good journalist aims for consistently strong, interesting writing, no matter the topic. I would like to point out that one of the skills required of a journalist is the ability to discern whether or not a story is worth telling. There is, after all, some information that is not fit to be shared; it may be too specialized, trivial, or unfounded to merit acknowledgment.

But to return to our source: the best thing about the McKinley article is its angle on an issue. By looking at an odd cultural phenomenon that is associated with the California drought, instead of diving directly into the drought itself, the article escapes data spewing. It consistently intersperses fact with character description and opinions on a controversy; in the paragraphs following the introduction of the viewpoint of the scientific community, other sources attest to the success of water witches, while the writer goes into deeper detail about Mr. Stine. Therefore the article maintains the momentum that it built up in its introduction.

William Finnegan’s New Yorker article “The Last Tour” is a different model of journalistic storytelling than McKinley’s. The New Yorker is a monthly publication, and Finnegan’s story, at seven pages in length and covering a large span of time, has obviously been researched with care. Whereas an analysis of McKinley’s article stresses the writer’s ability to overcome the potential triviality or dullness of an issue by making wise stylistic choices, Finnegan’s article presents an achievement in its manipulation and presentation of emotion and detail within the frame of a topic that could swallow many a story: the war in Iraq.

Another piece of advice from The Elements of Journalism: “‘Good stories lead you to the truth; they don’t tell you the truth.’” Finnegan’s writing embodies this mantra. He is dealing with subject matter of great weight; not only is his primary focus an Iraq war veteran, Travis Twiggs, but this particular veteran suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (P.T.S.D.) and commits suicide before the article is over. Instead of forcing these facts on the reader and searching them for political or war-related truths, Finnegan allows the actual people whose lives have been altered by Twiggs’ actions to come to life, vividly, through his reporting. Describing Travis’ wife, Kellee, Finnegan writes:

Her right foot and ankle carry a huge tattoo, “Travis,” in Gothic script. She noticed me studying it. “He had my name all over him,” she said. “On the top of his left foot. On dog tags off his shoulder…” On his right forearm, she said, Travis had “Gladiator”; on his left, “Spartan.” “My husband was my everything,” she said. “He was my hero.”

This passage is remarkable for several reasons. First of all, the author manages to capture elements of two central characters in his piece: Travis and Kellee Twiggs. We get the sense that Travis and Kellee, through the symbolic means of their tattoos, were equally devoted to one another. Furthermore, Kellee’s description of Travis’ tattoos that are army-like in nature — Gladiator and Spartan — develop the impression that Travis was devoted to his career in the Army as well as to his wife. Therefore the writer has subtly and skillfully conveyed a wealth of significant information through a short description of several tattoos that is given almost in entirety by Kellee Twiggs.

The subtlety and skill of this delivery cannot be emphasized enough. When we weave dialogue into writing, we often have a tendency to over-write, to embellish someone’s words with verbs and depictions of body language or setting details. Finnegan resists this urge completely, and the starkness of his presence allows the dialogue here to speak for itself; as we’ve seen, it has a lot to say without the author attempting to explicate it for us at all. He is unflinching in his use of the verb phrase “she said”; it is used three times in this passage. The repetition works perfectly in this case, offsetting the depth and poignancy of Kellee’s emotions, especially in the devastating last two lines.

Despite the subtlety characteristic of this article, which contains numerous examples of dialogue, imagery, and fact shared in as quiet a manner and with as powerful an effect as the above passage, Finnegan has a purpose beyond masterful storytelling. His use of facts gathered from neutral sources frame Travis Twiggs’ tragic experience as part of a larger phenomenon, one that affects numerous veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Finnegan states that P.T.S.D. “is best understood…as a psychic wound, one that can be crippling, even fatal, in its myriad complications”, then writes “A recent RAND Corporation study estimated that three hundred thousand veterans of America’s post-9/11 wars—nearly twenty percent of those who have served—are suffering from P.T.S.D. or major depression”. We have already learned of the results of P.T.S.D. in the case of Travis Twiggs, so the knowledge that there are potentially hundreds of thousands suffering from the same condition is staggering in its implications.

Furthermore, Finnegan’s depiction of the military’s treatment of Travis Twiggs indicates a system that is broken amid a culture that has long viewed mental illness as a sign of weakness. Twiggs was deployed five times, once to Afghanistan and four times to Iraq; his later deployments occurred even as he was suffering from P.T.S.D. Once his P.T.S.D. was identified, Twiggs was repeatedly overmedicated. Finnegan does not directly state that the military and more generally the government that facilitated the post-9/11 wars are to blame for Twiggs’ suicide. He does provide enough evidence and commentary from those he interviews for the article to lead his audience to this conclusion. Thus, Finnegan retains objectivity in his writing but all the same crafts a powerful piece with the purpose of illustrating the urgency of an issue and pointing out the necessity for a solution.

Having analyzed components of two pieces of high quality journalism, I want to once again emphasize the viability of journalism as a form of skilled writing. The task of the journalist is not so different from that of the novelist or poet. As my
acquaintance told me, journalists try to “get inside a phenomenon that most readers will never experience,” a statement that could be applied to the objective of writers in many genres. But because journalists deal with truth, and aim to present this truth thoroughly and with integrity, their ability to write with skill and appeal takes on a unique style. It is a style that deserves to be studied and appreciated so that “storytelling with a purpose” can continue to provide us with a better knowledge of our world.

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Comment

  1. SlyShy on 23 October 2008, 12:13 said:

    Great article, it was very informative. Are you going to show the newspaper staff? :P

  2. Rand on 11 November 2008, 18:58 said:

    I thought you were talking about writing in Journals.

    I think Journalists are scary. They can change the way I think of things.

  3. Zahano on 19 November 2008, 00:24 said:

    Nice job. All true. Might be worth mentioning the system of editing/publication as well as journalistic ethics, which are not anywhere near as much of a worry in fictional writing.

  4. tokenadult on 19 November 2008, 01:44 said:

    I’m glad you brought this up, Ty. I’ve been looking at my own reading habits recently, and I find that I spend the greater part of my day reading writings that are by journalists. (For this purpose, a journalist is defined as “a reporter who writes for an editor,” a definition designed intentionally to exclude most bloggers.) The best journalistic writing I have read is some of the best writing of any kind I have read.

  5. Dr. Leary on 11 May 2009, 00:12 said:

    Best book by a journalist I’ve ever read is AND THE BAND PLAYED ON by Randy Shilts, an early history of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.