Keyhole Journalism

By Keith Kloor | September 13, 2010 7:34 am

Lawrence Wright has a short piece in The New Yorker this week–a commentary on America’s latest culture war. For those not familiar with Wright, he’s the the author of the masterful, 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning (for non-fiction) The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11.

I mention it because last night I happened to be rereading a 2003 Q & A with Wright, which was conducted while he was writing The Looming Tower).  Some parts of the 2003 interview strike me as relevant to larger discussions on this blog that have touched on the role of journalists in the climate debate.

Q: What elements do you look for in a story?

Wright: I like stories that are keyholes into a huge room. At first my stories often seem very small and confined. But when you put your eye down and look through it, it is a tiny window on an enormous universe.

Q: How would you describe your reportorial persona?

Wright: I think of a reporter as a professional witness. His job is to report on conflict, and then return to his community to tell them what is happening and what the community ought to do about it. But the default position for the reporter is usually impartial neutrality–at least for me.

Q: There’s an incredible moment in your profile of Walter Railey, the Methodist minister in Dallas who is suspected of killing his wife. You tell tell him, “I think you’re guilty…Confess or it will haunt you forever, it will drive you crazy.” That doesn’t sound very impartial or netural to me.

Wright: I just couldn’t maintain a dispassionate stance with him. But I don’t think a reporter should allow his humanity to be compromised. If you’re in a situation that’s fundamentally wrong you have to make a stand. Sure, you’re a “witness,” but you’re also a represenative of your community. You represent what the community wants to know, which means you sometimes have to abandon neutrality in order to elicit the response your reader is waiting to hear. In the case of Walter Railey, most people in Dallas knew, or believed, that he was guilty. By challenging him directly, I gave him an opportunity to respond to the question everyone wanted to ask.

Q: Do you believe that journalism can lead to truth?

Wright: Truth is one of those subjective terms that are pointless to get too tied up about. “Truth” has this absolute quality, and yet everybody hangs on to his own truth. A better word might be “understanding.” The whole point of a reporter is to sympathize with different perspectives. But I don’t think sympathy leads to truth.

For instance, in the recovered memory debate, there was more truth on the side of those who said, “This is an hysterical outbreak,” than on the side of those who said, “No, these people are suffering from real memories and experiences.” I felt obligated to report on what I believed, while trying to understand both camps.

Another example is the 9/11 book I’m working on. Three thousand people dead and two civilizations are locked in a violent conflict. Virtually everybody claims to have access to the “the truth,” and a number of them are even willing to die for it. I can’t presume to say that my truth is any truer than their truth. But I do have a stance, and I do think that as a journalist I can help the reader understand the conflicting beliefs.

The problem I have with the word “truth” is that it sounds very simple. And when things get simple, they get dangerous–they don’t get easier. We’re sliding toward an era of radical simplicity: good versus evil, us versus them, etc. The reporter’s job in such a situation is to complicate the issue because complexity leads to more understanding whereas simplicity creates stereotypes.

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  • Lazar

    “I can’t presume to say that my truth is any truer than their truth.”

    … that sounds like a rejection of empiricism? Wanna try walking off a tall building?


    How to square the above with

    “If you’re in a situation that’s fundamentally wrong”

    … he sounds confused.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Keith Kloor

    Lazar, you’re taking the “truth” comment out of context. Read the whole paragraph again and tell me if you think he’s referring to things like gravity.

  • Lady in Red

    <!– @page { margin: 0.79in } P { margin-bottom: 0.08in } –>
    No, Keith. Lazar is not taking truth out of context. You are.

    But. I will take up truth in my non-book club group tomorrow.

    We’ll discuss MadMen and lovely Joan and escaping the bullet of the life of the 1960′s. And Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Islam. And whether Geert Wilders is an “extremist” (or a truth teller?)

    The truth is subtle, Keith. But, there is a wall there. Every bit as powerful as gravity.
    “¦.Lady in Red

  • Lazar

    Keith,

    “you’re taking the “truth” comment out of context”


    I don’t think so. It sounds like an a priori claim. Care to expand?

    Wright…

    “I can’t presume to say that my truth is any truer than their truth.”


    Why not?

    Keith, maybe you could explain what you think he is saying and how you think it applies to climate science?

  • Lazar

    Keith,

    Something along the lines of…

    ‘Truth (capital T) exists… the world is real, but ‘truth’ as humans call their approximate understanding of the world, is a social construct which is always contingent and open to revision. However, some ‘truths’ are closer approximations to Truth than others, and through empiricism we can test which are which.’

    … I would have no problem with. But if that’s what he’s saying, his communication is highly garbled, and I don’t see the relevance to climate science.

  • Lady in Red

    Pls. explain, Keith.  Pls go beyond hand-waving platitudes.

    We’re talking gravity, here:  truth.

    Run into Truth and it breaks your nose.  That kind of truth.
    ….Lady in Red
    PS:  I’m grappling with the “truth” of the life of the child from the documentary, Osama, about a girl, disguised as a boy, in Afghanistan.  It’s not the plucky story, I thought.

  • http://collide-a-scape.com Keith Kloor

    Lazar (4, 5):

    I never said the excerpted passages were releveant to climate science. Read that part of my post again. I said they were relevant to larger discussions on the role of journalists–how they cover the climate change debate. Interpret that as you wish. I believe there is enough fodder in what I provided for people to draw their own conclusions about any parallels.

  • Lazar

    “Interpret that as you wish.”

    … I’m not going looking for that pony. The author (Wright) sounds confused, the points are unclear, seemingly contradictory… how can anyone accurately guess at applications to another issue?

  • Lazar

    … I’m not necessarily against (or for) what you or he are saying… just want to know what it is.

  • harrywr2

    “We’re sliding toward an era of radical simplicity: good versus evil, us versus them, etc.”
    Our glorious leaders have always over-simplified for the masses and always will.
     

  • Zajko

    Journalists often run into the same issues as historians when trying to get at “the truth”. They are trying to get at the truth of events, situations, social causality etc. Then they have to construct a “true” account of that in a narrative format – imposing a beginning, middle, and end on a reality that does not always conform to our storytelling brains. I think Wright wants to point out that this is complicated, and just how many conflicting truths about “what happened” get carried about.

    Now, I think a naive scientific realist philosophy should be open to criticism along some related lines, but that’s not what this is about. There is no equivalent to the laws of physics in storytelling. Truth is especially complicated whenever we’re talking about events and experiences, and the various truths that people carry with them do help to explain their actions. If Wright sound confused it’s because language and common-sense thinking doesn’t easily accommodate these ideas, but they do ultimately lend to a better understanding of what happens in the world and why people behave as they do. As for the climate debate, I think there would be less rush to judge others as liars if we consider that they might actually believe in the ridiculous things that they say. The problem is that simple dichotomies are easy to digest, and usually it seems what people want to hear.

    (still waiting for someone to mention the Holocaust)

  • http://collide-a-scape.com Keith Kloor

    Zajko, well said.

  • Barry Woods

    Are Journalist the problem,

    NOT just the scientists, see the what the journalists said to Fiona Fox, at a Science and Media, post climategate briefing,
    where the scientists performed poorly…

    Fiona Fox chaired this debate:
    “ How to Report Change after Climategate.”
    http://media.podcasts.ox.ac.uk/ouce/eci_lectures/mediatalk-100226.mp3
    The audio is quite, long, but it might be worth Jeff’s AND Keith’s ,while to listen to it, to see how the UK, media/journalists think. (Fiona Harvey ““ Finacial Times, Fiona Fox, Richad Black ““ BBC, David Adam ““ Guardian)

    Fiona Fox – Director Science andMedia.
    http://www.sciencemediacentre.org/pages/

    In the audio of the debate, talking about the journalists attending a SMC meeting, where the scientists were being asking questions about climategate, IPCC, and refusing to answer some questions. ie should Pachauri resign, etc

    Q: What should the scientists be doing differently:

    A: “The journalists, ALL said to Fiona Fox, following the scientists poor media performance in the last few months and next few years,

    The Journalists present said:

    “The scientists have got to go FURTHER than the SCIENCE NOW, to WIN the argument with the public.”

    34 minutes in..

    So are the scientists the problem….in communicating uncertainty.

    Or is it REALLY the media.

    At the time, this debate got reported here,
    http://bishophill.squarespace.com/blog/2010/2/27/how-to-report-climate-change-after-climategate.html#comments
    http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/jamesdelingpole/100027956/what-the-liberal-elite-feel-you-should-know-about-climate-change/
    but a lot of the interesting stuff got missed.  Fiona Fox actually comes across much better if you listen to the whole debate…

  • Barry Woods

    Wonder what the media will make of this!!!!

    Andrew Montford’s (Bishop Hill)  report on the Inquiries.

    http://www.thegwpf.org/images/stories/gwpf-reports/Climategate-Inquiries.pdf

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Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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