Toward a new poetics of journalism

We remain in the fray of a painful, destructive, and generative period. Journalism is fragile. We can point to a barrage of political and institutional failures, corruption, technology’s vulnerability to manipulation, greed. Consider that truth itself
— the stock in trade of journalism — has become a weapon in an exhausting blood sport, driving division, violence, and fear. Weaponizing good journalism, and the complicated truths it seeks, presents serious structural challenges for the profession the world over.

In this bleak landscape, where is opportunity?  At the end of an evolutionary cycle of consolidation and commodification of journalism, the industry is ready to give way to fresh, inspired forms of experimentation.

Let’s consider a new poetics of journalism.

Like  journalists, poets are keen observers of daily life. A good poet searches for the unknown, waiting for a turn toward expansive uncertainty, a cue to describe for a reader an abiding mystery, to capture the wonder and bewilderment of day to day living. Both journalists and poets cultivate awareness: Poets listening for what isn’t easily perceived in the present moment, while a good journalist concretizes perception; crafts details to be checked for accuracy, clear of bias. A disciplined journalist seek facts, counts words, seeks conclusion. The quality of a piece of writing is determined by a set of proscribed rules and constraints. A good poet is disciplined, too, but with greater freedom to use words and formations to follow an inspiration.

Are there lessons today’s beleaguered  journalists can glean from the poets? Is it possible for mainstream journalism to loosen the tether of certainty to reflect the chaos of what we don’t know, can’t see, or yet understand? Could this be an antidote to the world of fear we now live in?

Three seeds toward a new poetics of journalism:

Find the “human tempo.” Trappist monk and writer Thomas Merton wrote that, to really listen, we must slow down, find a different rhythm. He called it the “human tempo.” The pandemic opened way to experience the meaning of his words. Listening begins at the start of typical news day. Some small number of people gather to hear one another out, form consensus on the most important news, and create the day’s news agenda. Reporters are dispatched to capture elements needed to construct pre-determined stories. What if there were a different approach to journalistic listening, the pipeline reversed to allow people in a community to inform the news agenda? Imagine a coordinated network of individuals who are not traditional reporters or journalists, but who walk the rhythm of the streets. Together, they comprise a democratic system, feeding back up to those who can dispatch a journalist who would be led deeper into the beat of a community.  An antiphonal, call and response relationship between citizens and the journalists who want to support them.
Future news. At its inception, public radio’s “thoughtful” daily news magazine, All Things Considered, presented yesterday’s story today. There are many reasons this form has given way — technology, competition, habits of consumption. Bill Siemering, who created the program, spoke to me once about a new idea for a news magazine based on the “future news.” I can hear what it might sound like. What would a news team of Octavia Butlers look like?  A scientist, librarian or data specialist, someone to transcribe and edit the conversations, a teenager or child, an elder. Imagination-infused, fact-based reporting.
The problem of vs. Journalism of good vs. evil, right vs. wrong, ascending vs. descending, him vs. her is limited and fails to capture the nuance of the world. I recently read Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō’s travel journals, The Narrow Road to the Deep North. He and his 17th-century traveling companions would record impressions of their 1500 mile walk in haikai no renga, a form of “linked verse” poetry. In one instance, Bashō’s companion, Sora, becomes incurably sick on their journey and must return home. Sora writes of the “flowering bush-clovers” that will cover the ground where he’s buried. Bashō’s response captures the “sorrow of one that goes and the grief of one who remains.” They pull together on a thread to elaborate and expand on feelings, reactions, descriptions of their separation. Not a singular impression, but an account based on a simple and effective collaborative writing technique. It’s worthwhile to explore this and other forms of collaborative reporting to expand journalism beyond two-sided, binary reporting.

I’ve been thinking about what endures. In 125 years, when someone comes looking for us, what will they find?  The hardscape — granite monuments, bridges, even mountains and rivers — eventually dissolve or give way to something unrecognizable, unverifiable. Journalists as anthropologists, social scientists, forensic experts, and poets leave a discoverable trace for those want to understand where they’ve come from. Let’s be generous with what we leave for them.

I hope for a unitive journalism, grounded in the known and open to the unknown. Brought together by this new journalism, people may have less fear, share more wonderment at the abiding mystery of being alive.

The vanguards of a new journalism are already at work in local public media newsrooms, as independent film and audio makers, at organizations and schools intent on expanding representation of whose stories are told and how. We must encourage them to experiment, to challenge the normative standards of journalism, and affirm their incalculably important role in discovering new forms to express the human experience long after we are gone.

Sue Schardt‘s transformative work in public media, as a DJ and musician, aims for the greater good. She’s anticipating release of a new film in 2023.

Leave a Reply