May 24, 2005

Textual analysis is a beautiful thing…

Stu Bykofsky knows a little bit about textual analysis. And he demonstrates how to use it as a bullshit detector in regard to sniffing out fiction writers masquerading as legitimate columnists employed by legitimate news organizations. He says:

Columnists don’t agree on much, but if we write two or more times a week, here’s one thing we do agree on: No one can report out a string of perfect, glistening columns. There are always clunkers – columns that don’t pull together, that lack some desired details, or color, or oomph. When that happens, you go with what you got, with your imperfections on display.

What you don’t do is invent stuff to “improve” your column. That’s a betrayal of what you are supposed to be, of your craft, of your peers.

If the columnist you read always reports events that play out like James Michener, if characters are always Damon Runyon, if they always say the most perfect things, if columns always end with a perfect O. Henry twist… that columnist is writing fiction.

Here we have a perfect example of one problem caused by the narrative bias of journalism. We humans tend to see situations in the world as an unfolding plot populated by antagonists and protagonists. We who teach journalism teach our students to look for these structures. Those of us who teach it well, however, teach our students that such structures do not exist in nature. Instead, we apply these narrative structures to what we see as a way to make sense of the world–so be careful!

What Bykofsky identifies here is the over-application of narrative structure to make one’s work conform to what editors expect (and what readers find enjoyable): a good story. Some cases of over-application certainly demonstrate fraud of a nefarious sort.

Readers should always be skeptical of narrative structures. Narrative denies its own rhetoricity, which is academic jargon for: stories persuade without seeming to persuade. Bykofsky’s advice boils down to this: When you encounter a neatly tied plot and well-formed characters, be skeptical.

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2 Responses

  1. JPEarl 

    I agree with what your saying about the natural existencity of narrative structure: that there is none. It seems as though the journalists are one form of what James Burke and Robert Ornstein called Axemakers (in their book “The Axemaker’s Gift”).

    When creating these narrative structures jouranlists are using a technique that can be traced back as far (possibly further but not confirmable) as the Sophists. With the inception and proper application of the alphabet the Sophists, and most exemplarly Georgias, could “cut-up” concepts(hence an Axemaker’s gift)and arrange the sequence in whatever manner desired. Burke and Ornstein describe the emerging linguistic philosophy behind this process well when they say

    …this emphasis that Georgias and the other Sophists placed on rhetoric was not just related to swaying political opinion. It came from a realization that the relatioinship between speech and “truth” is far from simple. Speech is not just a matter of presenting the facts, since considerable reorganization of the “facts” is involved in the way they are selected and sequenced.

    It seems as though the average journalist fails to realize (or rather chooses to ignore) the implications that this selection and reorginization process imposes upon what he/she would present as the “truth.” The best journalists know it and see it as both a barrier and potential supplement for enhancement. The worst ones know it as well but yoke it as a supplement to content.

  2. acline 

    JP- Yes…and well stated. Thank you.

    Part of the problem is that journalists never encounter the idea that language use is about more than getting the grammar and usage “right.” Some of them come to understand that there’s a lot they do not understand. This understanding — or lack of it :-) — is what sent my wife and I to grad school–to find out more about what we were discovering through professional practice.

    I introduce all of my j-students to rhetoric and linguistics. And I am developing a class in these disciplines for journalists.