Journalists as chroniclers or tricksters? Two speakers offer much different versions of reporters

Journalists have a serious, serious PR problem.

I was thinking this as I listened to a speaker from a University of Wisconsin-Madison Go Big Read Event on. Oct. 19 when 180 high school and college English students came together to discuss the nonfiction novel, Enrique’s Journey. I was asked to launch the event with 15 minutes about literary journalism and how the book by Sonia Nazario worked as an example of that genre. (You can read my remarks here.)

Enrique’s Journey is the story of a boy whose mother had left him at the age of five to travel to the United States. Nazario, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, spent months documenting Enrique’s search for this mother, particularly the deadly immigrant path across the Texan border via train tops. She won a Pulitzer Prize for the series as it ran in the newspaper and turned the whole thing into a riveting book.

The cover of the book

In my talk to the high school students, I focused on how journalism can be broken down into myth, chronicle and story (which comes from several scholars but most notably Bird & Dardenne’s seminal work in the Social Construction of News). I talked about why stories are often framed the way they are, and how news accounts are woven using mythic qualities and chronicling motivations. I emphasized how good literary journalism teaches, that we can grow from a good story about the truth, and that we can vow to be better people because of it.

After the students spent an hour discussing the book in Socratic groups, the final speaker took the microphone to caution students about the power of media and specifically, how journalists often misrepresent or completely ignore the plights of immigrants.

Some quotes from her talk:

“By understanding the role of the media, we can create our own ideas about what is real.”

Media apparently give us a “package reality” that is “often false.”

“We have to make our own realities.”

“The news only tells you part of the story.”

“Be media literate so nobody can fool you.”

She ended with this last. I was interested in this in particular. I agreed that students need to learn how to be media literate. I agreed that reporters can only tell part of any story (it’s hard to include every part of every event in just a few words or minutes of video).

But a whole lot of questions buzzed around in my head: Why did she think journalists were trying to fool her? Is she conflating “media” with “journalism?” How would people go about “making their own realities,” exactly? (And a press theorist cannot help but be reminded of Walter Lippmann’s “picture in our heads” essay that described how the press is responsible for forming people’s view of the world they could not see).

I saw students nodding during her talk, and I hoped they would not go away thinking about journalism along the same lines. I understood the frustration, particularly for minorities who are often portrayed as stereotypes or completely absent in news accountings. But journalists like Nazario, who travelled on those trains to relay Enrique’s journey across the border, risk their lives to tell stories so people can learn and understand others’ experiences. And there are some great ones out there.

And then I heard the students’ takeaways from the book, the discussions, and the event:

“I will be more willing to understand why people are willing to take risks,”

“I will be more grateful for the parents that I have because Enrique did not have that opportunity.”

“I hope we take what we learned here and we do not forget about it so that we can apply it to our lives one day and to the lives of our parents.”

“I think it’s important to remember we don’t know people’s background and not judging a book by its cover.”

“I learned how much risk someone will take to come here.”

“I learned to be thankful for what I have.”

These students were nobody’s fools. And they learned all of this from a journalist.


  1. hshah

    Of all the take out quotes from the other speaker’s talk, it’s hard to disagree with any of them except perhaps the idea that the media are “often false.” I’m thinking by media she does mean “news media.” Not Journalists per se, but the process that leads to the stories consumers read. Do you disagree with the speaker that the news gives us only part of the story? That readers do, in fact, construct their own reality based in part on what they read? And that news IS sometimes false in that it never presents (and it shouldn’t be expected to) a full picture of any topic and yet news organizations have slogans like “all the news that’s fit to print.”

    • mediatrope

      Oh I have heard these criticisms of the press ever since I started reporting, and of course there is some basis to them (though for much more complicated reasons than the notion that journalists are liars or intentionally trying to fool people). I didn’t take a ton of notes from her talk and so don’t have other quotes. But her basic premise centered on the idea that journalists misrepresent the plight of the immigrants. I don’t agree that just because the news can never present a full picture of a situation that is therefore FALSE. As for the slogan, “all the news that’s fit to print,” I think we need to consider definitions and conceptions of what news IS and what it SHOULD be and also, realistically, what it CAN be.

  2. Amy Karon

    Great post. I wonder if our society has higher standards for journalists than it does other professions that don’t get as much public exposure. There are top journalists out there, seeking out balanced, nuanced and important stories to tell and telling them masterfully, and there are incompetent journalists who routinely skim the surface, exaggerate or worse, and then there’s a whole spectrum of folks in between. That’s true for any profession.

    And journalism can only be as intelligent and nuanced as those who consume it — sensationalist, celebrity-obsessed journalism exists to feed a consumer market, for example, and would largely cease to exist were people to stop consuming it. So when someone critiques ‘Journalism’ as a profession (which is in itself illogical to me, since there’s no ‘Journalism’ – only ‘journalisms’) I’d simply ask him or her to look at the social context in which that journalism is occurring. One mirrors the other, after all.


  3. liminalprint

    Sue, thanks for providing the link to your introductory remarks. I liked how you recognized the challenge of presenting a compelling story and character (using the tools of fiction) while being held to journalistic standards (no poetic license allowed). What a task and responsibility Nazario and other literary journalists face as chroniclers.

    This reminded me of the extensive care Rebecca Skloot took in explaining how she sourced dialogue and historical facts at the beginning of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” Skloot goes by the book, though she does admit to deducing some of Henrietta’s dialogue from written records. My guess is she made that choice to match the narrative tone of the rest of the book, where she used verifiable dialogue extensively, and to bring Henrietta’s character alive.

    Sara Soka

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