Every now and then, I read a piece of investigative journalism. I should have learnt, I know, not to expect rigour in these accounts. Most recently I’ve read a few articles from Longreads, some articles linked from the otherwise excellent site waxy.org as well as the books “The Psychopath Test” by Jon Ronson and “Diary of a Predator” by Amy Herdy.
I’m not sure if things have changed substantially since I was younger, but these works have similar flaws in common.
Stylistically, they enjoy a sense of the over-dramatic and histrionic. Even banal pieces of conversation or interview will be overblown. They will be momentous turning points in the understanding of the subject. Descriptions are similar. People are caricatures of themselves, sometimes unrecognisable caricatures (which seems to be missing the point?)
The journalist has a “journey”. A life-changing journey. The journalist, their anxieties and their personal life is inserted into the “story”. I suppose this comes from the school of thought that since all journalism has its subjective elements then naturally we need to “experience the journey” along with its subjective (read: unreliable) narrator.
Unreliable narrator is right. Often there is a fictionalisation, an exaggeration, and sometimes things are made up wholesale. Perhaps their “postmodern” interpretation of “postmodernism” is that since there is “no one truth” and there are multiple interpretations of the same series of events, that somehow this allows them to mix fiction and non-fiction and sell it somehow as being “truer than the truth”.
A book that I refuse to read but which became the belle of the literary wank ball in Australia that had this very set of properties is “The First Stone” by Helen Garner in which she, a first wave feminist, decides to tell the story of a young woman who was sexually assaulted by her college principal by changing 1 woman to 2, only interviewing the criminal in question and taking his word at face value, verbally assaulting all young females and their lack of feminism because they dare to involve the legal system to press criminal charges and generally “making shit up” as I like to call it.
This sort of “journalism” is very problematic. There is a difference between having an off-the-wall interpretation of an event and fiction. We live in a physical reality in which physical events occur. Sound is generated as words. Interactions between people happen as a physical phenomenon. Often these things are open to interpretation as to their meaning, but assuming that adequate records are kept, there is a definable truth there. If there are no adequate records then a process of reconstruction and theory occurs but this involves careful attention to detail and an almost scientific approach.
Historical events set some centuries or even decades in the past are often difficult or impossible to piece together exactly. However, when the information is from the present day or is generated in interviews or a matter of police record, there is no excuse. Read the records as they exist. Carry a tape recorder, or a video camera. Take notes. Make intelligent interpretations, think for yourself and back your observations up with fact. Dig deep.
And leave yourself and your predetermined fancies out of it. We’re not interested in the internal meanderings of a third rate journalist. We’re interested in the subject themselves. And lastly,
STOP MAKING SHIT UP.