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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

The Challenge of Journalism — For a Book Author

Last we spoke I was burning up the keyboard, working on a book about the Chile mine disaster and rescue. Well that is just as true and more, and I am seeing, first hand, one of the great challenges of journalism — which again may be of use to teachers training young people to do research reports. But first a pause — in the days before the ubiquity of the internet sports reporting banging into the time zone problem. If a New York team was on a West Coast swing, there was every chance I could not quickly find out the score in my morning paper. And even if a radio broadcast gave me the result, I would not find an article with any detail for another day. That began to change as reporters were able to to submit their articles to the paper as the game was going on — but it created a very odd kind of piece. The headline and opening paragraph might indeed give the result Yanks Beat Dodgers 5-4, say. But since the piece was being written as the game progressed, with only that result slapped on at the very end, the majority of the article often was about a stolen base in the second inning that clearly gave the Dodgers momentum — showing how the speed and defense game had replace the old Big Bomber home run quest — which had nothing to do with the actual outcome, say back to back homers in the 9th inning. Given the rush, the reporter had taken an event early in the game, applied a bit of narrative he had at hand and shaped the piece for what he expected to be the outcome — unfortunately for him, in the end the game took a very different course.

This is all by way of saying that the press of events which drives journalism makes it harder to step back and find the narrative. Journalism does a great job of giving you details — who, where, what, why, except that “why” is kind of tacked on, of the moment. Books cook more slowly so we can begin with Why? Why am I writing this? What is the theme behind these events? Where do I want to take readers? Then all those details, all that press of events, can be sifted through to engage readers with the themes. Stepping back that way is so much harder when your sources are the fragmentary accounts of what just happened. In a way it is the difference between a shopping list and a recipe. When all of your sources are articles from the net, you have a terrific list of deteails, you don’t yet have a plan for how they fit together into a dish, a meal.

One exercise would be to give one set of students a folder of news articles about an event, and another set a couple of books about the same event. As each group to then write their own account — then compare, what were they able to get from each kind of source? Very likely the news guys will have better details and a thinner story, the book people will have a deeper understanding with fewer eccentric or unfamiliar examples. The point is not that books are better, but rather that they are different, and that students need both — the flood of detail and the more distant reflection — to develop their own understanding. The challenge, of course, as in this Chile case, is when there is no book. So I have to plunge and pause at the same time — but that is a blog for another day.