Posted by: Kristen Hicks | March 29, 2010

The Intersection of Journalism and Fiction

Let me just say, right off the bat, that I recognize that the terms “journalism” and “fiction” have (or should have) some inherent contradictions.  Anytime fiction creeps into serious journalism, it ceases to really be journalism (see: much of the current 24 hours news cycle).  The extraordinary piece of fiction I’d like to examine today, The Wire, tackles this subject in its 5th season, suggesting that our current system of journalism doesn’t make the effort it should (and that we the public expect it to) to properly police the distinction between the two concepts at hand, but that isn’t quite the side of things I’m interesting in talking about right now.

As a great lover of fiction, I’ve been a staunch defender of the idea that fiction has something to teach us that nothing else quite can.  Great storytelling via literature, film and television has the ability to take us temporarily out of our own personal way of viewing the world around us and allow us to see and feel things through the experience of characters in wildly different contexts than our own.  It provides us the opportunity to broaden our perspective and better empathize with people that might otherwise feel foreign to us.  It breaks down the idea of “us vs them” that contributes to most (if not all) of the world’s big conflicts, not to mention many of the smaller ones.

In a society where journalism is often starting to sometimes feel like more of a joke than a necessary field (see this and this and the vast majority of the Daily Show’s media coverage), a show like The Wire shows that really great fiction can step in to fill in some of the gaps that “serious” journalism is leaving open.

It seems so obvious to suggest that the “American experience” differs completely for a middle class Texan than an African American born into poverty in Baltimore (or a white family in poverty in the Midwest, or a second generation Mexican immigrant and etc., really the idea of any kind of unified “American experience” is just total bullshit), but as much as we all try to talk about the “issues facing America” and possible solutions, it can be a huge challenge to try to understand any of these issues from any of the possible American perspectives than the one we’re coming from.  Where does one turn if they have an genuine interest in better understanding what day to day life might be like for someone living in a completely different world within our own country?

By this point, the answer I’m working up to is pretty obvious.  Few news stories can really manage to reveal to us what poverty looks and feels like to the people experiencing it or the role the “war on drugs” plays in the lives of the people most directly affected by it, but a really well told story can.   The Wire singles in on a variety of characters living in the community of Baltimore and manages to teach us something about a side of America that many viewers hadn’t yet seen.

So many people have opinions on these issues without making a real effort to understand the human experiences they’re tied to (I can’t pretend I’ve never been guilty of this myself). What David Simon and Co. have managed to do with The Wire is to more successfuly accomplish what journalism should be making its goal: helping us, as a public, to be better informed about the experiences of our fellow citizens and how our political and institutional decision can affect them.

An important note:  This recent article in Salon makes a very interesting point about a notable omission made to the world we see in The Wire vs its real-world counterpart.  Apparently, rape is extremely common in the societies of drug gangs.  The article posits that this decision was made to help keep the characters, violent and destructive though many of them already are, more relatable.  It’s difficult to imagine how The Wire would be different had rape played a larger role in the stories (there would likely be more female characters, for one), but I think it would be hard to argue otherwise than that our culture as a whole (and myself as a feminist) has a greater aversion to seeing rape than other forms of violence in entertainment media.  It would irrevocably change my opinions of just about any character on the show were they to be shown as guilty of rape.  I don’t know what that says about the greater argument except for revealing something else great fiction can have in common with journalism: it’s always coming from a particular source making decisions about what parts of the story are the most important for inclusion, and thus should be taken with a grain of salt.

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