Thursday, June 24, 2004[posted by jaed at 11:59 AM]
The seduction of narrative
Eugene Volokh, scourge of Slate's Bushism/Kerryism of the week feature, speculates on why these columns are often so laughable:
Part of the problem, I think, is precisely that these are regular columns, with constant plots -- not just constant subject matters (the war, the economy, or whatever else), but constant points (Bush misspoke, Kerry spoke in too complex a way, someone lied). This means that their authors are constantly looking for something that fits the plot.
He goes on to opine that this attitude - figure out what the story is, then go looking for facts or quotes to fit it - doesn't make for good journalism. I won't argue with that - but I suspect, both from listening to journalists talk and from looking at the result, that almost all journalism is done this way. You decide what the story is - then you go get the facts to illustrate it, and plug them into the story.
This doesn't necessarily mean the story is one-sided. If there's controversy, you will probably see a quote from the "opposing side" for balance. But the narrative frame of the story - what is this story about? what's the main point? who is considered to be the opposing side here? - will be determined before the reporter ever picks up the phone or fires up Lexis-Nexis.
I've seen this approach with stories I've been peripherally involved in, I saw it over and over with the Great Internet Censorship Controversy of the mid-90s - before journalists realized that the story was not "the Internet is all porn", but was instead "the Internet will make us all rich", and started writing that one instead. (And God knows I've seen it with the war. The NYT's approach to the recent 9/11 staff report is only one case in point.)