Journalism: A science, or an art?

In one of last week’s lectures, Katherine Reed asked a question I feel we should have dissected a bit deeper:

Should journalism be considered a science or an art?

I think the simple answer to this question is that it needs to be a bit of both. Journalism can’t be too much of an art because no one will understand what you’re writing about, and it can’t be too much of a science because no one will want to know what you’re writing about.

Here’s how I kept score:

On the art side:
  • Articles need to be written with a human voice so that the audience can be drawn in and really connect with the subject.
  • Creativity is a must because it makes stories stand out against one another, like paintings in a museum. Each work of art can be beautiful in its own way, just like every article can have some merit that sets it apart from another equally well-presented piece.
  • Choosing story format is like choosing the medium. A story can be presented thousands of different ways, just like an apple can be painted, sculpted or photographed; each way has its advantages. An interview with actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt could be presented as a Q&A, a feature story or a photo essay on his child-to-adult acting career. Each has its benefits and its drawbacks, and it’s up to the journalist to decide which would work best.
On the science side:
  • The information presented in an article needs to be concise, with hard data to support facts so you’re not just spewing your opinion or the opinion of a subject.
  • Sources must be portrayed exactly as they appear to the unbiased mind; there’s no abstract “Pablo Picasso” going on here. The journalist’s job is to present the source’s side of the story as accurately as possible, meaning that the quotes have to be exact and the facts have to be correct. You can’t simply put a nose where you feel it should go; if the source says the nose goes in the middle of the face, it goes in the middle of the face.
  • The interview process is an experiment. You have to go into it with a set of questions, many of which have answers already assumed because of prior research on the subject or source (the hypothesis). You ask the questions, see if what you already thought was going to be the answer is, and if you’re wrong, you learn from it and ask more questions. The article you end up with is your conclusion, and like in scientific research, it may trigger more questions and more investigations.

The final score: Art with 3, Science with 3. Looks like we have a stalemate.

Nothing in journalism is concrete; that’s why it’s both an art and a science. In art, everything is up for grabs. Monet, Picasso, LauTrec, Pollack, Liechtenstein. They all pushed boundaries and proved that the rules meant nothing — and in doing so, they proved art was nothing if not fluid and changing.

In science, theories get challenged and broken, and technologies continue to be improved. Just look at Apple: everyday it seems like they come out with something new and fabulous (and sometimes disappointing, like today’s announcement of the iPhone 4S). Sure, science can pretend to be the concrete force behind life, but in all reality it’s just as transient as art. Except for gravity — then again, I don’t see English grammar laws changing that much in the near future.

It’s good to have a formula set for those stories that require one, like updates on fires, previews for events and obituaries. But journalism is all about storytelling, even if it means telling the tale of The Big Bad Road Closure on College Avenue for the fifteenth time. The least we can do is make reading about the mundane clear and interesting for our readers, and fun for us to write.

Back to the paints and test tubes!
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