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January 24, 2006

Notes on Journalism

Today in our narrative non-fiction seminar we continued with our debate of free expression. Basically, I think the line I am now drawing with respect to free expression is between free expression itself and the way in which people execise it. Free expression MUST exist for a democracy to function, and must not be limited in order to punish people who abuse that right. No matter how free expression is limited there will always be people who insite violence or hatred in reaction to beliefs or opinions that they disagree with. Forcing these people underground by limiting their public expression will not solve the matter, it will only infuse it. Instead of looking into how to limit free speech or expression, we should look to the reasons for people insiting hatred or violence, and also the reasons for people feeling the need for protection from the power of words.

In the second half of the seminar we had a talk and brief question-answer discussion with foreign correspondant journalist Andrew Finckle, who has written for many publications incluing the Time Magazine, The Times, The Economist and various Turkish-language publications. He made a few interesting and thought-proviking comments about journalism and here are some of the notes I made on his talk:

Journalist as witness: the journalist's story is an eye witness account and therefore presents a truth that not many others can convey.

As a journalist you have to "struggle with yourself to represent something" because it is you who has witnessed, judged and taken something from the experience.

Jounalist must make people visualise what (s)he has seen. English journalism makes the switch between micro and macro well: start with a small instance which ultimately represents the whole.

Like a movie maker, the journalist must "jiggle the elements" that (s)he's collected and formulate a logical progression of paragraphs that flow into each other seamlessly. They must get the read from the first to the last word without breaking the logic so that the reader has no opportunity to stop and think. This is how to write a convincing article – if an editor cannot find any way in which the article can be cut without losing a vital piece in the jigsaw, it is a convincing argument.

The most important part of an article is the leading sentence. It attracts the reader, sets the tone of the piece, introduces the journalist's experience (and therefore the reliability of their words), and makes the reader HAVE to know what comes next. It is like a seed planted in the readers mind that allows the story to grow and unfold before them.

A jounalistic insult is to be "too much of a writer" – to care more about the language than the story. BUT! Language has to be approprated to the story to an extent so that people/editors will take interest in stories and current affairs which they would not have otherwise read.

We all think in terms of stereotypes and cliches, so, to appear familiar and accessible to readership jounralists must use stereotypes and cliches, but proceed to shatter them apart in the body of their article. A vague exmple is that of the Turkish PM, Tansu Ciller, shattering the stereotype of Turkish PMs preceeding her being all male with fat black moustaches. She seemed like a breath of fresh air with her gorgeous looks and botoxed lips, an unlikely leader for an Islamic state. However, she turned out to be just as stereotypically corrupt as her predecessors.

A problem with the Journalist as a witness statement is that the journalist is also a judge. Essentially you are recieving someone's personal truth on the situation, not necessarily the whole truth. Ontop of that is the editor as judge. Journalists don't decide on their headlines, cuts to their articles, location in the paper etc so they must write their arguments seamlessly in order to preserve them from the red pen of their looming editors.

I will no doubt look back on these when writing my future articles for this course. At least I don't have to worry about some editor chopping up what I have to say (for now anyway!)...

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