Battling overwhelm, numbness, and apathy with poetic journalism.
It’s not a long walk from this well-lit city street to a cold gaping grave: over 14 million acres of black water. Stepping over discarded food wrappers, I head across frozen sand dunes toward the oncoming waves and find a dry spot to sit down on the lake shore.
Stripping off my shoes and rolling up my pants, I place my toes into the damp sand at the water’s edge. The waves gather and lunge forward – licking at my bare soles before retreating. Gathering again, the water lunges toward me and stretches thin before slipping back into the lake or sinking down into the Earth.
My toes scream in agony, turning angry red and then growing pale in the waning moonlight. I smirk at the lake’s cold liquid tendrils seeking out my warmth, yet I crave the vast quietness within the depths of its magnitude.
Behind me, 2.7 million people crammed into 150,000 acres espouse 2.7 million different opinions about countless societal dilemmas. Streaming tragedies flicker across television screens, a barrage of bickering consumes social media, and protestors fill the street corners. Find out more by following this post about Online Journal of Christian Communication and Culture.
But out here on the fringe, who cares about all that? If we all floated away into Lake Michigan, we could each have 6 silent acres to ourselves. Instead of living in the chaos of so much noise and instead of being buried on top of one another when we die. Buried the same way we live, all crowded into one another’s space.
Here, on this edge of nothingness, I sit.
Time is a current. It sweeps us all along and leaves most of the details indiscriminately in the oblivion. Updates flash in my pocket about dozens of tragedies in live time.
Journalist Marcus Webb said, “In an effort to keep up with twitter and blogging, journalists have sped up to the point where they’re virtually redundant. Instead of telling people what’s happened and helping people understand it it’s just a lot of live stream. Telling people exactly what’s happening right now with no effort to help people comprehend it.”
Every competing news source clutters the airwaves with exclusive “facts” and half-churned analysis of the day: but it’s never long before today’s news is old news and tomorrow’s news becomes the next pressing issue.
When I turn on social media, bandwagon initiatives and misinformed opinions rule the day. With my eyes glazed and mouth agape, it is difficult to walk away from an hour spent with the news without feeling helpless and fragile.
It’s all too much. But it won’t stop.
Images of race rioting next to a story about ISIS next to footage of refugees flooding Greece next to a story about another teenage gun death next to an opinion about the Chicago minimum wage increase. It is all made equal in the appetite of the 24-hour news cycle. Yet it is more than any single person can consume and overwhelms the population to the point of paralysis.
How many gun deaths do we hear about in a month?
How many suicide bombers?
How many countries are undergoing revolutions?
How many ignorant comments will Donald Trump make?
How many opinions about gun control?
How much can we hear about before we just stop caring?
Our hearts frozen in cold apathy. Our limbs paralyzed in place. Our minds overrun with numbness.
Please, just make it stop.
Speak into the Chaos
It doesn’t stop. It won’t stop.
None of this matters anyway. Who do you think you are? You are incapable and worthless—all you do is hurt people. The world is broken, existence is meaningless and God is not real. You do not belong where you are, you do not belong anywhere. You are unbecoming and a stain in your community.
I will make it stop.
A small trickle of blood spills forth from the cut. I write “love” on my arm with the meager well and let it dry, no longer fresh and red but brown and hard after just a few minutes. Numbness crusts over my raw heart. Read more about Reflections on faith and art.
Letting the wound fester is an outward expression of my inner torment. The cut heals over, the scab peels off, and a scar remains. If only my mind had the same healing mechanisms as my body. Thoughts stay trapped and swirl in dark torment.
Self-medication and numbing is how I deal with overwhelm. But choosing not to feel does not solve any of the problems that face us. Nor will apathy lead to the productive use of my life.
It is into this chaos of confused meaning of both internal beliefs and external mass media messages that the journalist has the opportunity to speak. Rather than add to the jumbled chaos of messages—it is the task of the journalist to choose words carefully and to weave them together in a way that mediates the experience of others, and in so doing, illuminate meaning.
The average American will read two news articles per week.
But an average of 92,000 articles are published everyday.
Despite the limitless space of the internet, and despite news organization’s need to pay bills by cranking out fresh content, the world does not need another dozen articles about Ethan Renoe running shirtless in December.
Writing just to say something about anything is meaningless.
But writing something thoughtful, poetic, and succinct that not only informs but also brings dignity to human life… that is worth something.
NPR produced a series of stories about teenagers around the world. What they have to say is eye-opening, beautiful, and real. The truth of these narratives, and the courage of their subjects inspires my heart in a way that combats apathy and overwhelm. Not only is change possible, but it is happening. The best journalism connects readers to the human experience of others and helps us all find dignity and meaning.
We don’t need more coverage of gun deaths in Chicago, we need better coverage of gun deaths in Chicago. Reporting the facts of street violence certainly raises awareness but it does nothing to inspire change. Telling a story about Preston Perry witnessing his close friend’s death on the street and his subsequent journey to redemption might mean something though.
The best journalism should enable understanding—and in this world so oversaturated with information and distractions—journalism that slows down and pays attention to detail is essential. Readers are short on time and motivation. They need information, but they also need inspiration.
An explosion in a Turkish coal mine led to massive search for missing miners… then what?
Over 100 school girls were kidnapped in Nigeria… then what?
Most journalism today gives us the beginning of the story but moves on and leaves us without the end. Because of this, readers are left with an ever-increasing knowledge of the world’s problems and little idea of the eventual resolutions. This cycle doesn’t nourish or inspire our souls—and it never ends—leaving readers overwhelmed and ultimately apathetic.
And journalists who work daily to tell the biggest news first are breaking all kinds of ethical principles of journalism.
But besides the ethical quandaries of mobile journalism, slowing down and writing something beautiful with more reflection on meaning allows journalism to have much greater impact. Poetic journalism focuses on the meaning behind stories, not the shock value of breaking the story. Beautiful language actually helps to filter the noise instead of adding to it.
The ultimate concern of journalism is truth-telling. But truth devoid of meaning is worthless. Poetry is also primarily concerned with truth-telling. But truth wrapped in obscure language is inaccessible. At their best, both journalism and poetry attempt to state the truth. At their worst, both forms do the opposite. Irish journalist Olivia O’Leary says it this way, “The big difference [between journalism and poetry] is that so much journalism does the necessary job of reporting things as they happen. What poets can do is give us a distance, from events and from ourselves. They hold up a mirror in which we can safely look at ourselves.”
But there is much a journalist can apply from principles of poetry.
Because we are so overwhelmed with facts in the internet age, we are losing our human ability to feel them. In this way, the poem is needed to remind us of the feeling that attends the fact.
Where journalism lacks sensory detail, poetry adds sensation. Where poetry is obscure and confusing, journalism is strong in simple-stated truths. Together, poetry’s vivid and artistic language combined with journalism’s focus on accuracy and simplicity, can create something true and revolutionary.
Some journalists are experimenting with combining the forms and are coming up with interesting results. Poetry can find a place in narrative journalism. It can lend its evocative and precise language to the accuracy and truth telling of important stories. A story about women living in poverty in Troy, New York comes alive in a new way given the combination of these mediums.
Objectivity is a Myth
This combination of poetry and journalism, of course, requires a departure from traditional expectations of journalism. Many would argue a journalist adds much needed clarity by reporting facts as objectively as possible. Follow this link and read something about the world christian organization.
But the tension between ‘subjective’ poetry and ‘objective’ journalism is only illusory.
Journalistic objectivity is a myth.
Everyone wants to know what color the sky truly is, who really killed that man, and what that woman really said at that meeting… but “objectivity is fictional,” says anthropologist Ivan Brady. “All research necessarily starts with an observer moving through the world as a personally situated sensuous and intellectual being.”
PBS idea channel host Mike Rugnetta explores this idea of the fiction of journalistic objectivity further.
Rugnetta goes so far as to say, “perfectly objective basis is untenable. There is no foundation for gathering the facts that does not, in some way, rely on the subjective judgments of human beings.”
Objectivity is a wild goose chase for journalists. No knowledge can ever be fully separated from the knower’s own biases.
However, the mythical nature of objectivity does not mean that good journalism is unachievable. Rather it frees the journalist to speak alongside the facts. Objective journalism often seeks to separate the art from the craft in order to tell the simple truth of the story. Objectivity seeks to diminish the writing to emotionless prose divorced from the personality of the writer. This type of reporting may inform a populace, but it does not inspire.
Perhaps other styles of writing besides the literal news accounts devoid of emotion, bias, assumption, and fancy language could have a greater prophetic voice. Journalist Russ Rymer explored this line between the literal accounting of news-style writing and the poetic form. Rymer said, “by decoupling ‘literal’ from ‘objective’ (by, in fact, making literalness the enemy of objectivity) the poetic form freed me to engage a layer of story my careful prose obscured.”
The current media environment overwhelms and numbs us to reality. And while “numbness does not hurt like torture, in a quite parallel way, numbness robs us of our capacity for humanity,” says Walter Brueggemann. But the potential prophetic ministry of journalism is capable of evoking a better reality and disabling the lies that surround us. For more information please contact
“The task of prophetic ministry,” Brueggemann continues, “is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.”
For that reason, poetic journalism must be prophetic in its evoking of a better reality, but also starkly honest in its focus on truth-telling as reality is today. Facts must never be divorced from feelings and stories always need faces.
“Our words, like our silence, can foster life or death,” writes Quentin J. Shultze. So let us use our words to foster life, but first let us slow down, say less, and mean more.