Thursday, June 23, 2011

Journalism as if Earth mattered

I can’t resist this one, so let me say something about the matter before I proceed to the intended subject of today’s column.

When another round of fishkill occurred in Taal Lake a few days ago, was it a fisheries official who said that it was not a fishkill but “fish mortality”? A grouchy copy editor would have red-penciled it were it not a direct quote, an example of jargon, euphemism, even obfuscation, that could be a story in itself.

In a how-to-write monograph that I often use when speaking about writing, veteran editor Edward T. Thomson, presents basic guidelines. One of them is “avoid jargon.” He advises: “Don’t use words, expressions, phrases known only to people with specific knowledge or interests. Example: a scientist, using scientific jargon, wrote, ‘The biota exhibited a 100 percent mortality response.’ He could have written: ‘All the fish died.’”

Another advice: Choose short words instead of long ones. “Kill” is four letters while “mortality” is…

In his “How to write with style,” best-selling novelist Kurt Vonnegut points out that the longest word in Hamlet’s “to be or not to be?” (by Shakespeare) is three letters. Imagine Hamlet saying instead: “Should I act upon the urgings that I feel, or remain passive and thus cease to exist?”

Vonnegut adds: “James Joyce, when he was frisky, could put together a sentence as intricate and as glittering as a necklace for Cleopatra, but my favorite sentence in his short story ‘Eveline’ is this one: ‘She was tired.’ At that point in the story, no other words could break the heart of a reader as those three words do.”

And so, with hearts breaking, let us say, “All the fish died.”

“Fish mortality” isn’t exactly scientific jargon, but I can’t see how different it is from a fishkill, unless it is explained why. I think the explanation given was that the recent fishkill was not so bad when compared with the previous one.

It’s still a fishkill if you ask me, (“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” Shakespeare said) and this recent one, any way you call it, stank just as bad. Blame overstocking in fish cages, overfeeding to hasten growth and greed for profit. It’s hitting not only Taal Lake, (home of the indigenous tawilis and to-die-for maliputo), but also Pangasinan and, recently, La Union.

Now, to get back to what I was writing before I got interrupted by “fish mortality.”

How can journalists cover stories on environment and development, on poverty and injustice, with professionalism, depth and authority? How can they relay the stories in a most effective, convincing, life-changing way? How deeply and passionately involved should they be in the events and issues they cover? Should they remain mere recorders and blow-by-blow storytellers?

Get hold of “Dateline Earth: Journalism as if the Planet Mattered” (2nd edition, 2010, Inter Press Service Asia-Pacific) by Kunda Dixit, an exciting must-read not only for career journalists but also for other carriers of news and information. It’s also for those who use news and information as they carry out their mission or vocation here on Planet Earth. For the so-called “citizen journalists,” too, who emerge from the woods with sometimes stunning reports.

My copy arrived during the fishkill and the flooding that swept away lives, livelihood, homes and people’s dreams. (Thanks to IPS Asia-Pacific director Johanna Son.)

A Nepalese, Dixit was stationed in the Philippines as IPS head for many years. He finished journalism in Columbia University. His book is not a crash course on environmental journalism as the title might suggest. It covers a lot more. The reference to Earth could be the author’s way of stressing how everything on our planet home is interconnected in small and big ways and in a fast way.

Dixit notes how the speed and ease of communications has improved, but the content has not changed. There are many stories still dying to be told. “This book is inspired by the ghosts of those untold stories.”

Television, radio and newspapers now have less time and space for serious analysis, Dixit laments. “What passes for ‘alternative’ is often mediocre journalism. If the cause is great enough, it seems, you don’t really have to be professional, or strive for credibility.”

But there is a way to do both, Dixit says. “Be committed and passionate while still upholding the accepted core values of journalism. In fact, being deeply involved in a story about the global environment crisis or the social injustices that keep people poor, actually helps enhance a reporter’s credibility and professionalism. Being outraged by war crimes is a good sign, it means a journalist still has some feelings for what is right.”

Dixit shows how journalists can and should be more attached to the story on conflict, environment, development, poverty deprivation or disasters.

Ask me. Total objectivity is a myth. Balanced and fair – would be more like it.

Dixit’s book provides real-life events that the media have covered, bungled or effectively reported. In the chapter “Mass Media and Mass Ignorance,” he cites the thousands of cotton farmers in India who committed suicide because of falling prices and indebtedness. “But each suicide is covered as an event by the reporter in the crime beat, and not investigated as a trend… How deep are journalists willing, or allowed, to dig for context?”

Dixit reminds: “Journalists should strive to cover deprivation and the causes of social injustice, not just their effects. It means each of us having a conscience and using it: by striving to be fair in an unfair world.”

There’s much more in “Dateline Earth” than could be taken up here. The title of Dixit’s last chapter asks: “Who, What, When, Where, Now What?” Read the book and find answers.

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Tags: Book , Earth , environment , Fishkill , Journalism , Kunda Dixit , Taal Lake , “Dateline Earth: Journalism as if the Planet Mattered”