The “Facts” of El Salvador According to Objective and New Journalism

Professor Sandra Braman published in 1984:

Since the 1960s, each side in the debate over new journalism has accused the other of projecting a fictional view of reality. “Objective” journalists attack colleagues they call “new journalists” for distorting facts by refusing to adhere to normative procedure, while the latter accuse all who claim they are objective of inevitably skewing the facts because of biases built into the very procedures objective journalists use.

Both types of narrative, however, clearly fall within a single fact/fiction matrix that has dominated English-language discourse for the past 400 years. Where they have come to differ is in the methods used to discern what is fact, and in the claimed relationship of fact to reality. Objective and new journalism both depend on a notion of “fact” derived from Locke, for whom facts were boundary-defining techniques for loci of consciousness. Since objective and new journalism differ in the nature of the reporting locus of consciousness, they use fact in different ways.

* [John] Locke’s influence upon narrative form began with publication of his Essay Concerning Human Understanding in 1690 and grew in strength during the following centuries. His powerful theories described the relationship between text and the reality to which text refers. That relationship, Locke decided, turned on fact, a concept that has remained the basis of Western written narrative ever since…

* Facts are statements of simple ideas expressed in language. Once expressed, facts become aural, visual, or physical elements in a world shared with other loci of consciousness. Locke does not claim that facts are concrete, provable, and indisputable ; rather, they are the linguistic products of the interaction of loci of consciousness with their environments-loci that are concerned about their own continued survival, well-being, and growth.

Thus, fact is in essence a technique (Ellul, 1964) used by loci of consciousness for boundary definition. Disputes arise when loci of consciousness with shared contexts disagree about a fact or facts that mark their boundary. Consensual realities are formed when such loci negotiate a definition of fact tenable to all involved parties.
Since some types of loci of consciousness manifest themselves in characteristic narrative forms, a study of the interrelationships between genres may reveal relative characteristics of the reporting loci. Lennard Davis (1983) has argued that the lines distinguishing “fact” from “fiction” shift in response to legal pressures. Legal tools, such as fear of libel suits and treason charges, came to have political utility during the seventeenth century. In that era, “fact” came to be identified with correctness of ideological position, while “false” meant an unacceptable stance.

Over time, such forces first differentiated newspapers and novels out of the fact/fiction matrix, and then further distinguished among types of newspapers.

Thus early story-model newspapers and contemporary new journalism were separated out from the information-model newspapers of objective journalism (Davis, 1983; Schudson, 1978). A public locus of consciousness dominates the latter. The classic example of objective journalism, The New York Times, is linked to the government and multinational corporations; it spreads across the globe and has done so for over a hundred years. Individual loci of consciousness, on the other hand, report in the genre of new journalism.
Both types of journalism use fact as a technique to define the boundaries of the locus of consciousness from which each reports. For each, the facts that are deemed critical are those held essential to its own interests; information from the
multitudinous data of daily experience that is not deemed pertinent to the survival and well-being of the reporting locus of consciousness is ignored or rejected. But the ways in which the two forms of journalism wield fact are quite disparate…

Explanations of new journalism…may be grouped into four perspectives:
( 1 ) New journalism is the appropriate genre to describe a reality that won’t hold its shape. The concept that reality itself has become discontinuous, fragmented, chaotic, and fiction-like was particularly popular during the 1960s, but has continued to have proponents…
(2) The rise of new journalism is due to class-based motives. Class arguments for the appearance of this new literary form range from Marxist (Hollowell,1977; Podhoretz, 1974; Solotaroff, 1974; Wolfe, 1973), to simpler status-oriented approaches (Arlen, 1974; Dorfman, 1974; Schudson, 1978; Tuchman, 1978b), to disputes among literary classes (Schudson, 1978; Wolfe, 1973; Talese, 1974), to economic struggles among writers (Gold, 1974). Kaul (1982) describes the formation of journalists into a new class that plays the charismatic religious role in American society; from this point of view, new journalism would be confessional literature.
(3) New journalism is a response to new mass communication technologies. Proponents of this view include those who see a battle between the printed word and film and video media, as well as those who see journalism itself as part of the technological crisis
(Eason, 1977; Talese, 1974).
(4) New journalism is just a way of grouping together a lot of good writers who happened to come along at the same time…

* Facts that are a part of history describe faits accompli, whereas the events that news facts describe are still subject to effective intervention.

* The twentieth century public locus of consciousness in general believes that the notion of objectivity is valid. From this perspective, facts are “out there,” independent of the observing locus of consciousness. Schudson ( 1978) points out that this viewpoint defines ethical responsibility as separating facts from values, where by “values” Schudson means preferences for how the world should be. For Flippen, the newsman is a “neutral observer,” whose “impact on the outcomes of political controversy, it assumes, is nonexistent.”

* Facts for public loci of consciousness are determined by procedures that depend upon organizational descriptions of reality-a fact is so because someone (bureaucratically reliable) has said it is so. These facts are sharply limned, categorizable, and easily processed. They are valid because they are based on the bureaucratic manifestations of dominant policy decisions…

* Fact is a powerful boundary-defining technique for public loci of consciousness, for its own narrative expression, objective journalism, plays several key roles in sustenance of those bureaucracies themselves. These procedures are at the same time protective-Tuchman notes that newspapers “invoke” objectivity the way peasants use garlic to ward off evil spirits (Tuchman, 1972, p. 660)-and nutritive.

The procedures of objectivity are believed to steer a newspaper clear of libel while meeting its metabolic needs for consumption and digestion of set quantities of material regularly, continuously, and in a timely manner. The sources of information for a public locus of consciousness are as a consequence almost exclusively bureaucratic. The result is a moral division of labor: Reporters aren’t allowed to know what their sources will not or do not tell them…

* The space boundaries of facts as used by public loci of consciousness are delineated by the rounds of bureaucracies and the geographic limits thus defined-what is commonly described as the beat system. These news sources tend to view capital cities as the center of the universe from which all action flows, and assume that bureaucratic mechanisms are the only possible sources of effective action.

* The time boundaries of fact as determined by the public locus of consciousness are also bureaucratically defined. Thus events are predictable and yield a limited, predetermined set of outcomes; movement of an event from one phase to another signals a news peg (Fishman, 1980; Flippen, 1974).

Reports from a public locus of consciousness claim to be context free. The implicit context, however, derives from the bureaucratic reification of prevailing political, economic, and social thought.

* Individual loci of consciousness of this era also insist that the facts they report are true. But for individual loci of consciousness, ethical responsibility is defined as explicit recognition of the reporter’s role in the shaping of reported facts, both as an actor in the reality being described, and as selector and framer of what is being communicated.

The procedures used by new journalists are idiosyncratic in detail from person to person, based on a method described well by Sontag: “To understand is to interpret. And to interpret is to restate the phenomenon, in effect to find an equivalent for it.” (1966, p. 7).

Procedures are used to record and interpret the daily sensory experience of the writer. Events become newsworthy when they have an impact upon the reporting locus of consciousness.

* New journalists work out of the human need to make sense out of the rush of experience, and to describe a world to which as a writer he or she can testify. As a boundary-defining technique, fact for an individual locus of consciousness thus demands coherence and places a high value upon the specific. It is concerned about the survival of a single personality. The very act of reporting becomes in and of itself sustenance for the personality. “We tell stories in order to live,” says Joan Didion.
Facts may come from any direction, and source of information, at any time, and whatever one is doing. They are considered valid because of their ground in personal experience.

* Most breaking news in Latin America is of little real significance. This is because in this area the forms-the elections, the drawing up of constitutions, family life, the words used in political doctrine-are highly observed and cherished but often do not mirror the substantive life of the society.

* Procedurally, The New York Times generally followed the methods identified with the narrative form of a public locus of consciousness, objective journalism. Bonner’s routine beat took him through governmental bureaucracies, collecting official statements for translation for the mass audience of the paper. Almost all information sources cited are formal bureaucratic sources in the capital city. In contrast, Didion embodied the methods of a reporter who writes from an individual locus of consciousness. Her procedure can be summarized as an attempt to put herself into as many different situations as possible; her information sources included facts as received by any of her senses from any direction. Though she did use official information sources, they were not considered the most reliable, comments at the corner drugstore were considered as valuable as
governmental pronouncements, if not more so.

The New York Times’ identification of news pegs derives from the passage of bureaucratically recognized events through administrative procedures. Thus the paper focused on such formal events as the March 28 elections and changes in land distribution plans. Didion remarks, however, that phrases such as “land reform” and “the initialization of a democratic political process”; are “so remote in situ as to render them hallucinatory” (1982, p. 38); elsewhere she comments about the importance to everyone of maintaining such symbolic forms for the sake of the United States. For her, attention is focused on the nonexistence of any solid reality and the ubiquitousness of death and terror. What The New York Times limned as the important events in El Salvador, Didion describes as illusory symbols.

* In this case study, Raymond Bonner of The New York Times displayed a dual allegiance-he wrote from both his own individual locus of consciousness and from the public locus of consciousness of The New York Times He did so by describing the physical horrors and social and political chaos which were the facts of his own experience as well as the procedural viewpoint of his employer and the Salvadoran and the U.S. governments. In the latter case, however, his reporting revealed the failures of normative bureaucratic processes. With the subsequent removal of Bonner from El Salvador, NYT reporting from that country has reported those bureaucratic processes as successes, adhering completely to the procedures of objective journalism in reports of administrative events (Massing, 1983).

Joan Didion, on the other hand, wrote solely from her own individual locus of consciousness about a society which wouldn’t resolve into a sensible pattern. This report is strengthened by her own history as a new journalist-Didion’s reputation was largely built on her ability to clarify the myriad ambiguities of the 1960s. The keynote of her writing about El Salvador is terror and the desperation that results from dissolution of tenable social forms.

* The many accusations flung back and forth between objective and new journalists sidetrack and obstruct what should be a reflective and maturing development of narrative form. It cannot be said that creators of narrative within one journalistic genre are telling lies while those within the other are telling the truth. Both are reporting the facts as understood-and needed-by their respective loci of consciousness.

But the public locus is ultimately comprised of distinct human beings; any individual writer may choose from which locus of consciousness to report. The fact determining methods of public and individual loci of consciousness, and their narrative expressions in objective and new journalism, yield quite different versions of reality. In the texts compared here, the objective journalism of The New York Times and Raymond Bonner depicted a society that may be understood by and controlled through normative bureaucratic procedures that appear to be aligned with U.S. interests in El Salvador, even if sometimes those procedures don’t work. The new journalism of Joan Didion, on the other hand, described El Salvador as a perpetual frontier where there appears to be no appropriate role for U.S. involvement.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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