Sunday, April 25, 2004

Operational Definitions

I've been doing a lot of writing this weekend about "journalism." Lots above, more below. But it occurs to me that I should present to my readers the distinction I make in my mind between "reporting" and "journalism."

Reporting is when someone is sent out to a person or location to gather information. Interviews and investigations, and eye-witness observation, are the primary tools used. The reporter returns to the office to create something like this:
Last night, Joe Blow was stabbed to death by his girlfriend, Jane Stabby. Blow, who lived at 123 Main Street, died at the scene police said. Stabby was taken into custody and will be charged this morning with Blow's murder.
It's the old "who, what, when, where, why" formula. The writer's hand is unseen. I'm told it's numbing stuff to write after a while, because the language is so repetitive.

Journalism is somewhat different. The writer may or may not go to the scene; calls are made, other media sources referenced. Facts are assembled, but other factors may take precedence. It results in something like this:
The stale smell of cigar smoke is still thick here, though it's now cut through with a sharp tang of bloody death, much as Joe Blow was cut through with a kitchen knife. Police say he was arguing with his girlfriend when she grabbed a knife and allegedly stabbed him. Police arrived, alerted by neighbors weary of the couple's frequent fighting, too late. Blow was pronouced dead at the hospital a short time later. Friends described the accused, Jane Stabby, as an argumentative sort, but not one prone to violence.
Fun to write and read, this stuff. Some facts, but a lot of scene-setting too, which allows for interpretive language and the possible entry of bias. It usually takes a few paragraphs for all the basic facts of the story to be laid out.

Reporting: dry, dull, concrete. Journalism: interpretive, author-driven. That's my distinction.

I've always assumed that's why so many reporters from the Seventies and before had the "great American novel" stuffed in the desk drawer. Editors beat all the non-factual stuff out of reporters' stories, so they needed some outlet for the more artistic language they had stored up without release. With "New Journalism" it was now alright for the reporter's voice to intrude, for artistic language to be employed; it was celebrated even.

Maybe that's why we see the flood of "insider tell-all" books from reporters these days. It's not a release of pent-up stuff, but an extension of what's already going on?

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