Journalism, Literature, Society and Identity

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Photo by Nitish Meena

By Ashley Henyan

While we can generally agree that realism fundamentally changed the way journalism as a writing form was practiced, clearly the lines that separate journalism, from non-fiction, from fiction have all but disappeared. There are so many media outlets today that, even within the genre of journalism, a distinction of validity generally must occur. In fact, recently, Special Counsel to the President of the United States, Kellyanne Conway, was interviewed on the same topic by TMZ, MSNBC, and Cosmopolitan Magazine. Do all three of these media outlets contain the same merit? Perhaps the bigger question here is, does it even matter? Isn’t information, just information? Or, is journalism the basis for the propaganda that we, as Americans, must inevitably absorb?  And, does journalistic propaganda provide identity for society?

Furthermore, as all journalism is duplicated, paraphrased, and re-circulated across media platforms, are we left with any validity— regardless of if literary elements were contained in the original piece? Or, does every slightly altered re-publication of journalistic content lose its place in the “journalism genre?”  If so, then, where is the threshold!? Where does journalism become non-fiction, and non-fiction become fiction? Perhaps most perplexing: since all media is, at the very minimum unconsciously, influenced by every writer or producer’s ideology, does pure non-fiction even exist?

While Riis’ work, How the Other Half Lives, contains key elements that could easily send this journalistic piece over the threshold toward the non-fiction realm, there is one essential element missing that keeps it from crossing into realistic fiction. That element is character. To highlight these differences and to help define journalism, non-fiction and fiction, we can compare Riis’ journalistic work with the non-fiction of Ernest Hemingway and the fiction of Mark Twain.

In How the Other Half Lives, Jacob Riis inserts his opinion using a first person narrative voice. This style makes his journalism appear literary. Riis writes, “I know of only one easier way, but, so far as I am informed, it has never been introduced in this country. It used to be practiced, if report spoke truly, in certain old-country towns” (Riis). Similarly, he highlights his observations of people that live in the tenements with a highly stylized use of dialect, “S’ppose your wifee bad, you no lickee her?” he asked, as if there could be no appeal from such a common-sense proposition as that…” (Riis). This technique also makes his journalism appear literary. In fact, it is very similar to the realistic style of dialect used by Mark Twain in, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. “Po’ little Lizabeth! po’ little Johnny! it’s might hard; I spec’ I ain’t ever gwyne to see you no mo’, no mo’!” (Twain). Finally, Riis uses a dramatic literary technique called “an aside,” in which the narrator speaks directly to the audience:

“What is truth?” to attempt to weary the reader by dragging him with me over that sterile and unprofitable ground. Nor are these pages the place for such a discussion. In it, let me confess it at once and have done with it, I should be like the blind leading the blind; between the real and apparent poverty, the hidden hoards and the unhesitating mendacity of these people, where they conceive their interests to be concerned in one way or another, the reader and I would fall together into the ditch of doubt and conjecture in which I have found company before” (Riis).

The missing element in Riis’ work that keeps his journalism non-fiction, is the omission or lack of character. Even his narrative voice appears to have none. In fact, his narrative style seems as if he is watching B-roll footage for days, and narrating right along with every frame. Whereas, in Hemingway’s work of non-fiction, “Camping Out,” even his informal main character, “He,” contains some sort of “star quality.”  Hemingway writes, “The call of the wild may be all right, but it’s a dog’s life. He’s heard the call of the tame with both ears. Waiter, bring him an order of milk toast” (Hemingway). I imagine Riis’ journalistic depiction of a similar scene would read more along the lines of, “Nature has set in and the Jew has no choice but to accept the hard facts of life. There is no milk available this morning to drink with the breakfast toast.” However, both authors infer economic realities in very similar ways. Riis writes, “He opened a sort of breakfast shop for the idle and unemployed in the region of Washington Square, offering to all who had no money a cup of coffee and a roll for nothing. (Riis). And Hemingway, “A pan of fried trout can’t be bettered and they don’t cost any more than ever. But there is a good and bad way of frying them” (Hemingway). Making it seemingly harder to differentiate between the two respective genres.

All this said, it is important to understand the cultural impact inherent from society’s willingness to accept journalism as truth. What shapes reality when journalism is coming in from so many different outlets?  More importantly, how does this reality impact society? In other words, does society form its own identity or, is the identity of society determined from the influence of media (journalism, non-fiction and fiction)?

Louis Althusser’s theory of ideology sparks a debate as to the multitude and magnitude of ways by which people absorb their assumptions from media. His theory provides that individuals’ identities stem from views placed upon us by culture (society). And, in 1987, John Fisk provided examples as to how modern television journalism enhances Althusser’s theory.“These meanings are not only meanings of social experience, but also meanings of self, that is constructions of social identity, that enable people living in industrial capitalist societies to make sense of themselves and their social relations. Meanings of experience and meanings of the subject (or self) who has that experience are finally party of the same cultural process” (Fiske).

This, taken into account with the (now expected) repetitive exposure to all media and, we are left to wonder if we are wasting our time seeking to define journalism. Instead, should we seek to define the identity of the American Media Entity where, “the repeated use… makes “America” into a living, breathing body (like the one “we” inhabit) …” (Fiske).  The latter may help to identify what roll, if any, writers have in shaping “reality.”

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Fiske, John. “Culture, Ideology, Interpellation.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. 2nd Edittion. 1998. Print.

Hemingway, Ernest.“Camping Out.” http://grammar.about.com/od/classicessays/a/campinghemingway.htm. 1920. Accessed 12 Feb. 2017.

Riis, Jacob. How the Other Half Lives. 1890. http://www.authentichistory.com/1898-1913/2-progressivism/2-riis/index.html Accessed 5 Feb 2017.

Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/76. EBOOK #76. Released 20 Aug. 2006. Accessed 2 Feb. 2017.

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