Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Academic Versus Journalistic--A Throwdown

tcs.cam.ac.uk



Lately, I seem to be coming up against a number of academics who hate the faintest whiff of journalism.

“Journalists are overly emotional,” one sniffed, nose resolutely in the air.  “The writing is too sensational and of dubious merit.”

“There is no careful reasoning in journalism,” another added.  “There’s not even a recognizable logic to it.  It’s all sensational idiocy written by lemmings.  They follow one another right over the cliff.”

It is the same disdain reserved for Wikipedia (Garbage, I tell you!) and Google searches (A plagiarist’s only friend!).

A quick search of much maligned Google yielded the following, courtesy of The Hong Kong Polytechnic University English Language Centre:

“Academic writing style:  writes to appeal to logical reasoning; ideas logically organized; longer structured paragraphs; longer sentences; sentences always grammatically correct; rhetorical questions are rarely used; abbreviated words are rarely used; informal words and phrases are rarely used; does not use exaggerated, emotive words; emphasis markings (exclamation marks) are not used; abstract terms are clearly defined; generalizations supported by evidence; draws heavily on outside reading and references are documented.”

That’s the recipe that gets us “The Post-Apocalyptic Milieu in the Financial Structure of Elizabethan Theatre,” or “I Tweet, Therefore I Believe:  Social Media and Latino/a Catholicism in the Global Village.”  A quick search of Google Earth turned up no hits for the “Global Village.”  Maybe I should try MapQuest.

Do academics design these titles so that no one will want to read the paper that follows?  The rule seems to be, the more obtuse the subject matter, the better.  Who wants to write for the four other people on the planet who have a passing interest in whatever jargonistic title you’re peddling from your ivory tower?

On that note, I must retitle this piece:  “Obtuse on Purpose:  An Examination of the Intricacies and Enthusiasms When The Cranial Structure Enters the Rectal-Sphincter Crevasse.”  To the academics out there who eschew journalism as the Dark Side, pull your head out!

And how do the snobs at Hong Kong Polytechnic describe journalism?

“Journalistic writing style:  writes to entertain or to arouse emotions; loosely organized; short paragraphs; shorter sentences; some sentences may not be grammatically correct; rhetorical questions are usually used; abbreviated words are usually used; informal words and phrases are usually used; use exaggerated emotive words; emphasis markings (exclamation marks) are used; abstract terms are used without definitions; generalizations are seldom supported by evidence; relies on verbal reporting rather than written references.”

Oh, the sin and debauchery of the daily scribe!  Journalists are the anti-Christs of the writing world.  They are the sacrilegious heathens roaming the earth telling stories using short sentences and exclamation points.  The horror!

Academics, the guardians of sanity and equilibrium, are so calm and unemotional, so intelligent, so, well, boring and irrelevant.  Never let having something vital to say to a worldwide audience get in the way of tenure!  And yes, I’ve been using exclamation marks, willy-nilly!

I’m hot on this subject because the 2014 Pulitzer Prizes were announced recently, and after glancing over the work of the winners and those who were nominated, I am struck by the quality of the writing and the necessity of the stories to be told.  Long before there were ivory towers and elitist attitudes, there was the story, the narrative, the thing that got us all gathered around the campfire to listen.

Journalists bring us the world.  (The New York Times—yes; TMZ—not so much!)  Seventy of them lost their lives bringing us the world in 2013.  This year, 14 have been murdered in the line of duty and we haven’t hit the halfway point yet.

How many academics lost their lives bringing us “Gender Issues:  Some Biosociopsychological Discussions?”

Give me the NYTimes reporters David Barstow and Lowell Bergman writing about death and injury among American workers and the employers who violated safety regulations (2004 Pulitzer).

Or, David Halberstam’s seminal reporting from Vietnam (1964 Pulitzer).

Or the weekly columns of wisdom brought to us by Russell Baker (1979), Rick Bragg (1996), Maureen Dowd (1999), and Nicholas D. Kristof (2006).  And those writers are just from the NYTimes.  There are hundreds more slaving away at newspapers, magazines, and media outlets across the country who are creating similar work embodying what Joseph Pulitzer deemed excellent back in 1917 when the award was first given.

Because in journalism, excellence is everywhere; it includes vital writing that is alive with compelling narratives and memorable characters, and the words of journalists demand to be read.  They do their work on impossible deadlines in dangerous places and at great personal cost.

“Too emotional,” the academic said?  Third person objective reporting strives to be clear, concise, and not emotional.  The emotion comes from the reader’s response to a well-told story.  The good stuff presents the facts and leaves it to the reader to decide what to think.

I was discussing using journalism in one of my classes with a colleague.  He asked what news media I’d be using, and I told him the school provided a subscription to The New York Times for each student, as well as a wealth of resources for teachers.  “I’m not going to use that liberal rag,” he said with more than a hint of bitterness.

Get with the program, dude.  A newspaper is the perfect confluence of teaching tools: a plethora of stories that will stimulate writing and debate for each and every class.  Why not use this valuable asset in the classroom?

“I want something less biased,” he added.

“Like?”

“I’ll use Fox News.”

I thought he was joking.  He was not.

All journalism has bias as all human beings have bias, and the best journalistic writing inspires strong emotions in the reader, as I’m sure researching and investigating the story evoked strong emotions in the journalist.  Bias can come simply from the facts that are included in the story, or even left out of the story.  Hell, bias can be introduced in the organization of the facts in the story—what comes first, and what is left to the last paragraph in the inverted pyramid structure of most journalistic writing.  However, even that can result in a teachable moment for students.  Have them try to detect, through critical and analytical reading, the reporter’s bias.

In the end, though, journalism is vital to our world, and I find it offensive the way such writing is denigrated by academics.  Hide in the ivory tower if you must, but in the real world, we need journalism to stay informed and connected to the stories that matter.  We need to read both sides of every issue, every angle, every narrative fractal we can find.  How much academic writing, outside of the academy truly matters?  That’s a rhetorical question, and I use it proudly.

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