Intimate Journalism

Reports as comments on society’s quirks

Intimate Journalism: The Art and Craft of Reporting Everyday Life by Walt Harrington. Sage Publications, New Delhi. Pages 325. $ 26.95.

Intimate Journalism: The Art and Craft of Reporting Everyday Life

Review by Roopinder Singh

There is a growing school of thought which holds that the linear transfer models of communication reflected particularly in print journalism — that “sources” create “messages” and “transmit” them through “channels” (media) with minimum “noise” (interference) to “receivers” — will fail our times and conditions; that journalism can no longer pretend to be a conduit of information to an uninformed public; and that it should reformulate itself as the informational commons where “people can learn, mature, agree, and disagree — and from which social change can grow.” (“The Conversation of Journalism” by Anderson, Dardenne and Killenberg, 1994)

As a communication discipline, journalism has to go beyond reporting and writing to assume “roles and responsibilities within a far broader context of communication”, without which “the profession risks further erosion of its influence and place in society’s conversation”.

It is maintained that “journalism actually must become a communication discipline” — a redefinition that is important because (a) its range of invitation will produce deeper and more comprehensive accounts of social issues; (b) its inclusion and empathy will be more suited to the needs and tensions of an era of multicultural diversity; and (c) its alignment with emerging and literary theories will encourage journalism’s full partnership in the academic and scholarly dialogue.

What is being sought by the proponents of similar schools of thought is not a complete replacement of traditional hard news reporting that has been the mainstay of newspapers all this while, but a recognition that there is need for other kind of reporting which does not fit into the traditional mould, one that has feeling, a narrative of everyday world that touches us.

This is what we see in the stories that have been published in this book. What sets these stories apart from what fills thousands of tonnes of newsprint every days is that “reading them is like reading a novel, seeing a movie or watching a play—they evoke the sensation of life happening before our eyes.” And it is a story we can all relate to, because it is from the leaves of everyday life.

The book starts with the story of “The Man Who Couldn’t Read”. It is just what the title says…and nobody knew about it, “not his old college professors, not the high school students he had taught for 18 years, not the business associates in his multimillion-dollar real estate development company, in Southern California. Only Kathy knew….”

As you read the story, you empathise with a man who lived a life of deceit…how he faced everyday situations living such a lie makes you want to read more and more.

Garry Smith makes you meet a man and almost feel his desperation, his life. Garry Smith’s story, “Shadow of a Nation,” is about Jonathan Takes Enemy, a great basketball Crowe Indian who, like his teammates Everette Walks, Miles Fighter, Jo Jo Pretty Paint, Darren Big Medicine… can shoot high and true, but are dealt a pretty low card by life. Their pride and isolation, the life on a reservation, drinking, story-telling and total morass. A situation where when Jonathan gets his high school graduation diploma, an assistant principal says: “I hope we are not looking at the first day of the end of his life.” His words are prophetic — but not quite.

Such stories require a lot of work, Smith recalls how he interviewed John Corcoran for five or six hours a day for a week, he interviewed 35 people, read five books about Crowe Indians, talked to people for three or four days on the phone and went to Montana for nine or 10 days….

These stories are crafted with care; they take time, and stay in the mind of the reader for long.

Madeline Blais, professor of journalism at the University of Massachusetts, gives us a totally different snapshot of the world of sports. “In these girls, hope is muscle,” is a story about the members of Amherst Regional High School girls’ basketball team and its quest for state championship. Here is a world where you can feel the punches, smell the sweat and share the triumph.

Susan Orlean depicts an unusual world view in “The American Man at 10.” Colin is a typical youngster, he plays ball, and the lottery, and spends hours in the backyard building evil-spider web trap. Orlean spends two weeks day and night with Colin to write this short piece for Esquire, and it took another 10 days to write. If the subject left the author trapped in his web, she leaves the reader trapped in the one she wove.

David Finkel’s account “The last housewife in America” is something many urban Indians would easily relate to, though one is not sure if someone would be able to pen a similar account as and when a similar situation comes up here too. As for watching “TV without guilt”, the goings on in Delmar house with its multiple TVs should not come as a surprise to anyone here.

You battle along with Dr Thomas Barbee Ducker, chief brain surgeon at the University of Maryland hospital as he struggles to tame “Mrs Kelly’s Monster”, a brain in Joe Franklin’s story, and empathise with Pete Earley as he takes a painful journey down to Fowler, Colorado, as he comes to terms with the death of his sister who had been dead for 19 years.

Madeline Blais in the story on Edward Zepp brings out the cussedness of someone who feel he has been wronged, uncommon commitment of a non-conformist to set the record straight, as she takes us along with Zepp for a journey into the past, into Pentagon’s bureaucratic battlefield, as a conscientious objector battles to remove the black mark of dishonourable discharge from the US army. She brings out the ironies of the story, and leaves some ambiguities that live on.

This is a book that comprises a fine collection of touching stories which make for what Walt Harrington calls “intimate journalism.” Journalism of everyday life is a way to repair the torn social fabric that journalism has undeniably helped to shred. It is a journalism that is needed today, as much as reporting on greed, corruption and social injustice was needed at the turn of the century, perhaps more.

This review was published in The Tribune on June 6, 1999