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Why Journalism Needs Specificity

Ian Marcus Corbin’s excellent book review [1] on Albert Camus brought to mind some important—and easily forgotten—truths on the intersection between the abstract and the particular, specifically as they apply to the realm of writing. One of my favorite parts from the article:

There is no way for a thinker—or indeed, a user of language—to eschew abstraction entirely, of course, but Camus was deeply attuned to the dangers of excessive abstraction. This may not sound particularly heroic, but it can be, and it certainly was in Camus’s day. Camus’s peers, mid-century French intellectuals, were all too susceptible to the raptures of abstraction. The Left Bank bien pensants were, with few exceptions, stalwart armchair Marxists, obliquely aware that the divine dream of the worker’s paradise was exacting a brutal toll on the actual humans of the Soviet bloc, but blissfully unmoved by this fact. Camus publicly, angrily, charged that their fixation on beautiful ideas made them insensate to the ugly cost such ideas imposed on the much-beloved proletariat. And indeed, it is now difficult—impossible—to think Camus wrong.

In contrast to other philosophers of his day, Camus couldn’t turn a blind eye to the pain—and beauty—of his world. Corbin notes that he travelled to executions and wrote about them in “excruciating detail.” He was a man “entranced” by the real—a man who once wrote, “There are, before our eyes, realities stronger than we ourselves are. Our ideas will bend and become adapted to them.”

These descriptions of Camus’ focused writing and living reminded me of a New Yorker piece [2] I read yesterday about Nellie Bly—a groundbreaking female journalist who, in her perhaps most well-known feat, pretended to be mentally ill in order to report on maltreatment and abuse in a mental asylum. The sheer grit required for her feat amazes me. Bly’s undercover journalism required courage, persistence, and a deep love of humanity.

But long, person-focused stories like hers seem to dominate the media less and less, unfortunately. And though it’s true that shrinking newspaper budgets may place some part in this, I think technology, nationalization, and “datafication” of the news are primary culprits.

First: it’s becoming increasingly easy for journalists (myself included) to work primarily in front of a computer all day. While some may still go out into the world and interview real people, interviews are increasingly easy to do over the phone or email. And the web is a machine that can dangerously curate our experience of the world: Google weeds out news stories and websites that it thinks users won’t want. While we may interact with people who defy our stereotypical vision of the world, it becomes increasingly difficult to do so. We deal mostly in trends, blog stories, and click bait. It’s much easier to lose the human face in this world.

The primary realm of on-the-ground reporting remains the small town newspaper—and sadly, these newspapers are suffering most in our current economy. I think it’s vital that these small-town presses stay alive. They play an important role in the life of their citizens, and do much of the work that newspapers were principally created for. National newspapers, while still offering us valuable information, focus more on the aggregate than the individual by design. They’ll cover a person, occasionally—but only if the person is notorious, or emblematic of a larger trend or movement.

It is true that there are still beautiful news features that focus on the human person, as an individual. But it often seems more useful, pragmatic, and precise to measure the human species (or voter bloc, or nationality, or gender) as a whole, and write about that. Thus, our stories change—rather than writing about a local single mom, we write about “Why America’s Single Mothers Struggle With So-And-So.” Instead of writing about a young woman struggling to find a good job, we write about “The Confidence Gap.” Instead of discussing gentrification in Seattle or San Francisco, we write about “How Gentrification Hurts People” (complete with pretty graphs).

This rebuke isn’t just for websites like Vox, which focuses perhaps more than most on the quantified news story. Many journalists nationalize and abstract our news stories. After all, we’re told to—the news cycle and commenters reinforce, and even demand, our abstraction and quantification. A writer who speaks from experience, or tells a singular story, may receive the retort, “Well that may be true for you/your source. But where are the numbers? This seems like an isolated incident.” We begin to realize that personal stories no longer matter—unless they fit within a well-known trend or datafied truism.

David Brooks made some excellent observations on this tendency in his Thursday New York Times column [3]:

…[A]cademic research offers a look at general tendencies within groups. The research helps you to make informed generalizations about how categories of people are behaving. If you use it correctly, you can even make snappy generalizations about classes of people that are fun and useful up to a point.

But this work is insufficient for anyone seeking deep understanding. Unlike minnows, human beings don’t exist just as members of groups. We all know people whose lives are breathtakingly unpredictable: a Mormon leader who came out of the closet and became a gay dad; an investment banker who became a nun; a child with a wandering anthropologist mom who became president.

… By conducting sensitive interviews and by telling a specific story, the best journalism respects the infinite dignity of the individual, and the unique blend of thoughts and feelings that go into that real, breathing life.

Thus, Camus and Bly wrote about the individual. They still acknowledged the big picture, and made sure to write about it. But they didn’t forget the inconsistent, unpredictable beauty of the individual.

Neither should we: though we may (and perhaps still should) write stories about “Why Reading Is Important for Everyone Everywhere At All Times,” or “How Women Can Conquer the Inequality Gap,” we should also write stories about Tom, Harry, Mary, and Anne. Because theirs are the stories, says Camus, that are real.

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#1 Comment By BenSix On May 17, 2014 @ 11:43 am

The problem with person-focused stories nowadays is that they tend to involve journalists finding people who confirm their prejudices, and at least when people express their biases through the medium of statistics one can go back to the data and see how right they are.

A more human perspective is necessary, but I think that what is required from journalists who provide it is a greater interest in people than politics. Perhaps it’s my own aesthetic bias speaking, but I think that Werner Herzog is a good example.

#2 Comment By Dain On May 18, 2014 @ 3:17 am

This sentimenti is a better fit for movie producers than journalists The former is suited for vivid anecdotes.

#3 Comment By Tom Clark On May 18, 2014 @ 12:42 pm

I don’t have any problem with Ms. Olmstead’s point, but I have a somewhat different perspective. For me, all truth; journalistic, scientific, personal, or political; is established bottom-up through the examination of individual cases and the variability of individual characteristics in relation to norms. The enemy of truth is a top-down understanding based on anecdotal evidence and imaginative interpretation such as those of Malcolm Gladwell, TED Talks, and Faith Popcorn.

I understand concerns about the detachment of new mega-data-based methods, but over the past five years my socks have been knocked off time after time by the insight and understanding coming from the crunching of thousands and millions of digital data points. I think these methods have changed the meaning of truth in a good way. Real data are the friends of truth, whether they are gathered from twitter feeds or face to face dialogue.

#4 Comment By Jackson, Aidan, Sophia and Emma On May 18, 2014 @ 11:49 pm

“we should also write stories about Tom, Harry, Mary, and Anne”

But nobody ever heard of these people.

#5 Comment By cdugga On May 19, 2014 @ 11:16 am

About the rest, anecdote and hear-say have their place and the personalization of experience is important news. The personalization of people unable to get medical treatment because they were unable to get insurance went way beyond number crunching in moving enough americans and their representatives to want some kind of universal healthcare. Market based healthcare would simply be continuing the one where the rich stay healthy and the sick stay poor (until the sick make the rich sick as per current righteous discussion about the sexually overactive poor and queers being reservoirs for disease?).
My disagreement may come from limited experience, but the small town newspaper’s demise will not be missed by me. Most local newspaper and television news outlets just re-report what the larger national news reports and if they offer any personal or anecdotal information it just seems to represent the political bias of the organization. Like the president’s order that federal contract workers must be paid a higher minimum wage will result in veterans being kicked out of the facilities they are in and on to the street. We are given more than one local family and at least one vet complaining about Obama, not the president, kicking them out on to the street because their facility cannot pay their workers minimum wage. Of course the facility is the one that kicks them out on the street, and no veteran is actually being kicked out on to the street, and the ones that might have to locate to new facilities is less than 1%. So yes, personalization of the news and anecdote have their place, but isn’t that where political bias and prejudice is able to come to the forefront of what is supposed to be news and information? Oh, and by the way, the information that less than 1% of the housed veterans would be affected by the wage increase was in the same story, at the very end and after I was feeling perplexed about all these older veterans having to eek it out with reluctant and unprepared familiy members or out on street corners in urine soaked pants. Individual personalization does tend to overwhelm statistics and even reality in forming opinion in the public eye.