May 5, 1968 The Trouble He's Seen By alfred kazin the Armies of Night

New Journalism and the question of truth

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New Journalism and the question of truth

As in traditional investigative reporting, writers in the genre immersed themselves in their subjects, at times spending months in the field gathering facts through research, interviews, and observation. Their finished works were very different, however, from the feature stories typically published in newspapers and magazines of the time. Instead of employing traditional journalistic story structures and an institutional voice, they constructed well-developed characters, sustained dialogue, vivid scenes, and strong plotlines marked with dramatic tension. They also wrote in voices that were distinctly their own. Their writing style became known as “nonfiction novels,” and many of those works became best sellers.

The New Journalists expanded the definition of journalism and of legitimate journalistic reporting and writing techniques. In so doing, they ignited a debate over how much like a novel or short story a journalistic piece could be before it began violating journalism’s commitment to truth and facts.

Some observers praised the New Journalists for writing well-crafted, complex, and compelling stories that revitalized readers’ interest in journalism and the topics covered, as well as inspiring other writers to join the profession. Others, however, worried that the New Journalism was replacing objectivity with a dangerous subjectivity that threatened to undermine the credibility of all journalism. They feared that reporters would be tempted to stray from the facts in order to write more dramatic stories, by, for example, creating composite characters (melding several real people into one fictional character), compressing dialogue, rearranging events, or even fabricating details. Some New Journalists freely admitted to using those techniques, arguing that they made their stories readable and publishable without sacrificing the essential truthfulness of the tale. Others adamantly opposed the use of those techniques, arguing that any departure from facts, however minor, discredited a story and moved it away from journalism into the realm of fiction.

In engaging in the debate over what counts as truth in journalism, the New Journalists were contributing to a wider discussion of the nature of truth and the ability to know and present it objectively in stories, paintings, photographs, and other representational arts. Their works challenged the ideology of objectivity and its related practices that had come to govern the profession. The New Journalists argued that objectivity does not guarantee truth and that so-called “objective” stories can be more misleading than stories told from a clearly presented personal point of view.

Mainstream news reporters echoed the New Journalists’ arguments as they began doubting the ability of “objective” journalism to arrive at truth—especially after more traditional reporting failed to convey the complex truth of events such as McCarthyism in the 1950s, the Vietnam War in the 1960s and ’70s, and the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s. By 1996 objectivity had been so crippled as a guiding principle that the Society of Professional Journalists dropped it from its ethics code, replacing it with other principles such as fairness and accuracy.

The playwright and novelist Truman Capote became a central figure in the New Journalism in 1965 when The New Yorker magazine serialized Capote’s nonfiction novel, In Cold Blood, about the murder of a family of four in their home near Holcomb, Kansas, in 1959. Capote spent six years reporting and writing the piece. His aim was to write about real-life events in a way that had the dramatic power, excitement, and intricate structure of a novel. Capote was interviewed extensively about his work in the major national media and, as he described what he did and how he did it, he introduced the idea of the nonfiction novel into popular discourse. He also triggered controversy as skeptical reporters, wary of his attempts to combine fiction and journalism, tried to discredit his claims to accuracy and questioned his assertion that a responsible journalist could write a true story that read like a novel.

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