Literary Journalism

This post was originally written in June 24, 2009, as part of the original Reading in Between blog (which went a little off-track).

About a couple of weeks ago, one of my upperclassmen from college (thanks, Ate Karen) posted a link to an article about a most fascinating experiment by an Israeli newspaper. Essentially, what happened was that the editor of Haaretz – an influential Israeli newspaper – decided that for one day, the paper will be written almost entirely by the great poets and authors of Israel. The result, as I understood it, was nothing short of spectacular. It was well-received by the readers, and it was clear that the poets and authors themselves have quite enjoyed the exercise (the journalists thought the experiment interesting, but seemed to be defensive). The whole of the article shared can be found here.

I have to admit that while I was reading this, tears were literally forming in my eyes.  Granted, I’m a bit of a crybaby.  But this truly, honestly, and profoundly touched me. The articles and news items that appeared in the newspaper (based on the translated excerpts also found in the article linked above) were so beautifully-written that I can’t help but wonder if the world could be understood better if they were to read something that is so well-expressed. The thing about this particular edition of the Haaretz is that it had been written with a personal take on the story, and the fact that it was so personal made it so engaging. People were not only drawn to the stories because they were written in a way that people can connect with emotionally, the approaches to the stories were also relevant to the interests of ordinary people.

When I read a news item, I do, in fact, enjoy the story that’s being told.  However, there is a certain sense of brutality in the approach and the way it is written that prevents me from truly comprehending the event’s impact on people. The impartiality, and the tendency towards simplification in journalism sacrifices the more tender emotions and, in its own strange way, stunts empathy. Sure, I am outraged at the event – say, for example, the shooting of Neda in Iran – intellectually, and it was frightening in its own right. But this did not make me feel FOR the girl and her tragedy. It simply made me angry at a government out of principle. I could only feel the negativity of their world.

I observe that the journalists would simply share the facts of the horrifying event and examine and reexamine the socio-political ramifications of the event – in this case, everything will break down and become chaotic. The literary authors, on the other hand, would likely express the tragedy as not only a painful brutality but something transformative for the witnesses. And, in their own ways, they will try to find a nugget of beauty in it, a nugget of hope. They will likely say “it is horrible, and we are changed.” And by change, they would refer to how we would reach out more in times of fear, how we would hold each other’s hands to get through the darkness, how we would begin to understand the fragility of life and the endurance of compassion. We will see how it would inspire us to stand together and have strength.

What Haaretz has done is show us the version of truth that we need: there is hope. The world is a mess, but there is always hope. Don’t you think that’s a more productive mode of thought?

I don’t propose that the journalists should be replaced by the writers of fiction and poems. I merely wonder if it would be better if the news brought us dreams despite the nightmares.

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