Standards separate journalists from authors

By on October 17, 2007

During my time at Tunxis Community College, my creative writing professor asked me about the difference between authors and journalists. Originally, I thought that the answer was obvious: a journalist writes a recollection of facts while an author writes a story. I realize now that my answer was correct but only scratched the surface.

Of course, there is a primary difference between their works, but the intention is created by the outcome of the minute differences regarding word choices, objectivity, and expectations.

The journalist can use adjectives to help describe the story, but he or she must avoid adjectives that create a form of bias – possibly like an author (unless the author is writing the story using a first-person narrative). A journalist cannot write, “The plane crashed horrifically to the ground while the chill of death lingered in the air.” Nor can the journalist write, “The flash of the crash was blinding.” Unless the journalist has seen the crash himself, he or she cannot assume anything about the crash without distracting the reader.

As journalist and novelist Norman Mailer once said, “The adjective is the author’s opinion of what is going on, no more. If I write, ‘A strong man came into the room,’ that only means he is strong in relation to me. Unless I’ve established myself for the reader, I might be the only person who is impressed by the guy who just came in. It is better to say: ‘A man entered. He was holding a walking stick, and for some reason, he now broke it in two like a twig.’ Of course, this takes more time to narrate. So adjectives bring on quick tell-you-how-to-live writing.”

What John Gardner necessarily thinks is beautiful writing may not be considered beautiful writing to another person. You never know what somebody will think of a decision made by the author. In a world full of arbitrary reviews, it becomes the author’s judgment to determine in his work what is beautiful and what is not. The craft of writing a book is not unlike making decisions in the “real world” – sometimes it is better to trust your opinion than trusting another’s.

But journalists do not have this luxury when it comes to the evaluation of their works. When a journalist writes an article, he or she is expected to satisfy certain expectations (e.g., objectivity, accuracy, presentation). An author has no such expectations, creating an unrestrained writing environment that can overwhelm the amateur author.

But as for the sake of finding a starting point, the very same structures that limit journalists also guide them through times of hardship. This is why it is important for a journalist to not reject the “journalistic standards,” even though all journalists start off as authors of creative work.

Instead of giving life, a journalist must alter life. Through the use of preciously few adjectives, the journalist must turn the characters’ feelings into emotions, the setting into a world, the conflict into tension, and the climax into a resolution – all with the risk that one unapt adjective will distract the reader from reading the article as a story and redirect the reader into reading a set of facts. The journalist must give punch and attitude to the facts and use them in, out of all things, a summary.

Authors and journalists: united with literature, yet divided by the ambitious creation of the other’s bane.


About Chris Johnson