A friend asked me what topics would I want to see covered at a conference on narrative journalism later this year (at which I will present). I came up with:
1. "When the press is driven by commercial aims instead of a public service ethic, do journalists become entertainers?"
The Iraq war coverage is the extreme example of the moment but only one among thousands. You would think that narrative technique is the one chance journalists have to bring home the grisly reality of the war, to hit home, to punch the gut.
But instead even the longer narratives from Iraq (and from Little Town USA where the death tolls keep rising) are not being read in this way. Probably they are being written with one hope and purpose in mind by well-meaning reporters, but they are being read and interpreted entirely differently, and having only little sobering effect on the public.
Why is this happening? To some degree it is the fault of the system, but part of it is the writers' fault. If they understood more about themselves, about narrative, and about the system in which they worked, they'd be able to choose and create narratives that had the impact they wanted.
Example: a recent New York Times extended narrative about soldiers preparing to storm an insurgent holdout in Baghdad. The reporter interviewed several soldiers who all basically said "We came here to do a job and we want to do it. The waiting is the worst part, I can't wait to start the fighting."
There's no doubt that the reporter could also have found a soldier retching in the corner out of pure fear, who would have said "I'm afraid, I'm sick, I miss my Momma, and I wonder if I am doing the right thing?"
Now, how come Narrative #1 always gets written and published, and Narrative #2 doesn't? Is it a coincidence that Narrative #1 feeds the media maw for comforting stories for consumption back home, for stories that allay the conscience of an invading nation?
How should scenes, characters, and voice be chosen so that that socially responsible and politically potent narratives are created? How can the reporter ensure that the narrative he or she creates is read and interpreted in a way that is at least close to what he or she intended, and is not co-opted for commercial consumption?
I used the example of the Iraq War here but of course the same questions can be asked across all categories of journalistic writing.
2. The democratization of journalism and of the narrative journalistic style.
The biggest thing in journalism now is the democratization of mass media technology, which is leading to the democratization of journalism itself. All kinds of newbies with no journalism experience are jumping on the bandwagon, interviewing their neighbors and local leaders and putting the results up on community news sites, personal blogs, etc.
These folks are learning the tricks of the trade so very soon they'll learn how to do long-form narrative, i.e. "set scenes, characters, plot, voice," etc. What are the implications of all this?
Narrative writing is really powerful stuff when done with skill. Will this power be used responsibly or not? How will this affect working professional journalists?
What role should professional journalists play in this rapid democratization-of-journalism that is going on? Should they be teaching the new citizen journalists how to do narrative writing responsibly as opposed to irresponsibly by pointing out good examples, bad ones, tips & techniques, etc? Who are the best narrative citizen journalists now?
3. Can journalism be Right Speech?
What makes a moral and socially useful story? What is the responsibility of a journalist to create narratives of this sort, as opposed to ones that promote undesirable states of mind, modes of conduct, and social conditions?
As a practicing Buddhist, these questions are tops on my hit parade. Narratives -- the stories of our lives and of society that keep us busy mentally throughout most of our days -- is a major no-no in Buddhist practice. One meditates expressly to let these narratives go, to escape their clutches, to be free of the determinism they impose on our lives.
It's pretty disturbing to think that as a journalist one may, if one isn't careful, be deeply complicit in the manufacture of these entrapping narratives. From a Buddhist perspective then, the next question is, how can we write a new kind of narrative that gives us as a people a new vision of ourselves, one that is morally skilfull and wholesome and wise?
Once we learn to write these kinds of emancipating narratives, how can we get them widely read and accepted and distributed into the commercial media stream?
"Right Speech" is the first of the three modes of ethical conduct that the Buddha prescribed, which leads naturally to "Right Action" and "Right Livelihood." It means speech that never knowingly lies or passes on the lies of others, is not slanderous or malicious, harsh, idle, or lacks purpose or depth.
If this is an impossible or near-impossble standard for daily journalistic narratives, what is to be done?