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.

Monday, April 14, 2014

No Strangers To Tragedy

Courtesy CBS News


Two recent stories continue to haunt me, as I’m sure they haunt the rest of the nation.

At a Pennsylvania high school, young Alex Hribal, age 16, greeted his fellow students one morning last week by stabbing 21 of them with a set of kitchen knives.  He also attacked a school security officer.  Four of his victims remain in critical condition.

Tomorrow, the school will reopen so parents and students can do a walk-through.  The school plant has been cleaned and sanitized of the blood and gore, but the fear, I’m afraid, will be much harder to clean away.  Classes begin on Wednesday, but it is safe to say no one in the community will be the same again.

Hribal did not stand out as a troubled teen before the rampage.  Mental illness does not necessarily broadcast its presence to the world before bullets fly or steel flashes, bloodstained and corroded, in a school hallway.  There are sleepers out there, psychologists warn us.  Some of them sleep in our homes with us.  They are the children we thought we knew, until the day without warning when they rise up and act out.  Then we are left to wonder why.  I still cannot believe there were no signs from Alex before the morning of the knives.

Maybe his signs were not so obvious, as they were with Sandy Hook school shooter Adam Lanza.  He refused to communicate with his parents except through email even when they were in the next room.  He blacked out his bedroom windows with trash bags and duct tape.  One would think that was evidence enough that the dam was about to break.  We don’t know what his mother was thinking because she was his first victim.  In this latest knife attack, the perpetrator did not give the kind of warnings Lanza did.

Post-attack, it is clear that Hribal will face the consequence of his actions, if he even comprehends what he has done.  If convicted, he faces 585 years in prison, which is a long time to think about things, or he may be institutionalized to simmer away in his madness.  Whatever happens, it is doubtful he will ever see freedom.

The second tragedy befell students about to graduate this spring, and was not the fault of an insane kid carrying a gun or a knife.  On board buses headed for California State University at Humboldt in northern California, five students and three chaperones were killed when a Fed Ex tractor-trailer crossed the center median and struck one of the buses head on.  This is a tragedy without a clear evil intent, but it is a horrific tragedy nonetheless, and equally nonsensical.  Many of these victims, only a few months away from starting a new chapter in their lives, were severely burned in the inferno, leaving both physical and mental scars that will last a lifetime.

Graduation.  The cusp of the rest of your life.  Death should come for us in old age and include a celebration around the casket for a life well-lived.  Now we mourn what never will be, a life aborted in its infancy.  These kids never had a chance to bud, much less flower in this burgeoning spring of their lives.

We have become inured to the horror.  The phone call from the school administration, the state police, the county coroner, has become the expected, not the exception.  Tragedies happen and we prepare for when, not if.

It is na├»ve to wish events like stabbings and shootings and car crashes would never happen, or to wish those lost souls alive once more.  I’d be happy to go back to the days when such events happened so infrequently as to be the aberration they should be, the horrific anomaly instead of the more commonplace events they have become.  Now we stagger, from tragedy to tragedy, anticipating this nightmare that has become our reality.  And we try to go on.