The narrator voice: boundaries in between ethnography and journalism

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Catalina Gayà

These 13 points are summarized by the Argentinian journalist and editor Leila Guerriero and they summarize very well what is the role of journalists in the journalistic process. These points generate some methodological boundaries with regards to the narrative as well as implying the search for information.

1. Take fiction resources to tell a true story and use an attractive architecture such as that you would find in a good novel.
2. Construct based on the art of looking.
3. It is the opposite of objectivity. It is a look, a world view, an honest subjectivity. Each piece of journalism is an edition of reality.
4. To see you don’t just have to be there, you have to become invisible.
5. The only way to know is by being in a place. Just by being in the place you can understand. Just by knowing and understanding you begin to see. And only when you begin to see, can you write.
6. In this new form of journalism the work is not about the fact, but the scene.
7. We must have something to say.
8. You have to know the reality you are about to recount. Knowing what we are writing about.
9. You have to find out what is the best way to tell the story.
10. It is an instrument to think, create and help. The journalist writes to cause an effect.
11. We write about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances and absolutely extraordinary people in ordinary circumstances.
12. The key to narrative journalism is that writing about others tells us about ourselves.
13. Of all the fiction resources that journalism can use, there is one that is forbidden: invention.
Those spots link to Gabriel García Márquez and how he summarized journalism or the profession of journalist. García Marquez stated that journalism is Go, live it, and tell it. These three imperatives encapsulate a methodology, a way of approaching the other and then producing a narrative about it. Let’s talk about the journalist in this double movement go and live and the boundaries in between journalism and ethnography.

He/She is a subject, a journalist, who will go, who will understand and who will then explain what they have lived in such a way that the reader will be able to understand. They will be able to understand the social complexity and to take decisions on issues that affect them. Being a journalist is, in my view, being responsible for explaining social interest stories (stories that are a portrait of our time) and helping us to understand our world.
Guerriero says that journalism:
10 It is an instrument to think, create and help. The journalist writes to cause an effect.
12 The key to narrative journalism is that writing about others tells us about ourselves.
We should add that journalism is making the invisible visible and putting the focus on that part of society that is not seen, either because the establishment wants it to be invisible or because it has been normalized so much that it has just become part of the landscape.

How can journalism visibilize that picture? How do we create a narrative? The answers to these two questions can be found through journalistic methodology. Again, Go, live it, and write it: García Márquez.

What does ‘go and live it’ imply?
Guerriero says (and she’s right) narrative journalism is:
2. Constructing, based on the art of looking.
How do we do it? I think that this is where a bridge between journalism and social qualitative methodology appears. It is a bridge that already exists and we can only point out some aspects that can advance the journalistic process. It is important to remember that the father of modern sociology is Robert Park from the University of Chicago. He constructed the principles of modern sociology, but he has been a muckraker.
First, a comprehensive documentation of an issue of which we have asked one or more questions, an issue about which we want to know more and an issue that will involve a journey. From the very beginning, we need to ask ourselves why we want to write something about that issue. If we do not know why, we cannot write about it.
A methodological approach to the investigation of the information is:
• going to the scene
• experiencing the context
• contacting the different otherness, voices, that explain a fact
• gathering those facts in order to explain them.

We understand that social qualitative methodology has tools that help us to deepen the understanding of the other and to narrate it competently. When we define exhaustive reporting, we mean fieldwork, interviews, data, documentation, analysis and interpretation. We start from the empirical with the intention of creating a holistic narrative. We go to meet others and these others explain the facts through their social context and their place within it. Journalism describes a system of relationships and shows how things are connected.

First stage
All reporting has a preparation phase: questions, a process of reflexivity as a constant dialogue with journalistic praxis, and the visibility of the frames of reference.
Tiziano Terzani said:
“My way of working is to read a lot, read a lot of history […] what happens today has to be placed in context otherwise we are unable to understand anything. Therefore it is very important to prepare. If you do not understand history, you do not understand today. If you write about current events, you are reporting lies. You are reporting what you are seeing through a microscope, when what you actually need is a telescope […]. We must understand what lies behind the facts in order to report them” (2006).

Second stage
Fieldwork: access to the field, the field is where we find the others.
Access to the field.
The encounter with the other.
The role of the journalist in the encounter with the other.
Journalism techniques: observation and interviews.

Janet Malcolm says in The journalist and murderer that the journalist will always betray his interviewees. Personally, I disagree. I think that through being honest and understanding the ethical standards in the field of journalism, the other’s voice becomes part of a holistic balanced narrative born of a social field with certain rules.
• How do we narrate the voice of the other or others using the omniscient narrative technique? And how do we continue working under the umbrella of non-fiction?

One of the better examples of the history of journalism, John Hersey, does that in Hiroshima, published by The New Yorker in 1948.

At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6th, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department at the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk. At that same moment, Dr. Masakazu Fuji was settling down cross-legged to read the Osaka Asahi on the porch of his private hospital, overhanging one of the seven deltaic rivers which divide Hiroshima; Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura, a tailor’s widow, stood by the window of her kitchen watching a neighbour tearing down his house because it lay in the path of an air-raid-defence fire lane; Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, a German priest of the Society of Jesus, reclined in his underwear on a cot on the top floor of his order’s three-storey mission house, reading a Jesuit magazine, Stimmen der Zeit; Dr. Terufumi Sasaki, a young member of the surgical staff of the city’s large, modern Red Cross Hospital, walked along one of the hospital corridors with a blood specimen for a Wassennann test in his hand; and the Reverend Mr. Kiyoshi Tammoto, pastor of the Hiroshima Methodist Church, paused at the door of a rich man’s house in Koi, the city’s western suburb, and prepared to unload a handcart full of things he had evacuated from town in fear of the massive B29 raid which everyone expected Hiroshima to suffer. A hundred thousand people were killed by the atomic bomb, and these six were among the survivors. They still wonder why they lived when so many others died. Each of them counts many small items of chance or volition -a step taken in time, a decision to go indoors, catching one street-car instead of the next that spared him. And now each knows that in the act of survival he lived a dozen lives and saw more death than he ever thought he would see. At the time none of them knew anything.

Hersey was only able to narrate this as he carried out exhaustive reporting involving interviews and ethnographic observations. Hersey used journalistic methodology to find the other, the voices of the fact, in order to write a piece of journalism that recreates an historical moment and challenges the official version.
Remember that there is a major agreement in journalism. This agreement is the basis of journalistic credibility. It is this: Everything that I will explain to you is true. It is not the truth, it is what I have understood after being there, experiencing the context, documenting, listening, asking. My writing is my version, that which I understood.
What I have just said is, with regards to objective journalism, a revolution. A journalist can no longer just be seen as a vehicle of transmission. A journalist has a point of view.
The journalist is a voice, a narrator subject. Therefore, every narrative is subjective. In journalism we focus on facts. However, we make choices about how we explain these facts – what we leave out, and what we include. These subjective decisions help us to build a social representation which is our story.

A chronicle is a way of looking that finds a style of narration.

Through exhaustive reporting using fieldwork, interviews, oral histories etc. Knowing how we look at things and knowing what is our narrative voice, we can create this kind of non-fiction narrative.

As said, this approach changes or revolutionizes the classical way of understanding the relationship between source and subject. Journalism is definitely an encounter between subjectivities.

Terzani laughs about the Anglo Saxon objectivity.
It explains the what, the how, and the why by describing the context or contexts of the fact. That description is the result of a methodological way of understanding. If we do an exhaustive description we are able to narrate a fact.

Then comes that lonely space: the narrative, which involves
having a point of view as a narrator with regards to the fact

In this form of storytelling, we cannot shield behind objectivity, we cannot really talk about truth. In journalism, we can only report facts that have been verified by multiple voices. Walking and retracing our steps through the contexts helps explain the fact. Asking uncomfortable questions in these contexts help us to make visible what is invisible.

Again Guerriero:
1. Take fiction resources to tell a true story and use an attractive architecture such as that you would find in a good novel.
9. You have to find out what is the best way to tell the story.
13. Of all the fiction resources that journalism can use, there is one that is forbidden: invention.

In the story, the voices of the others will be part of the skeleton narrative created by an author with a point of view. This author will know how to move from his/her voice to the voice of the other, sometimes quoting, sometimes recreating the context of the voice through multiple voices, and sometimes recreating the other from the description of the context.

García Márquez said: In journalism, just one fact that is false prejudices the entire work. In contrast, in fiction one single fact that is true gives legitimacy to the entire work. That’s the only difference and it lies in the commitment of the writer. A novelist can do anything he wants so long as he makes people believe in it. And he continues: “Journalism has helped my fiction because it has kept me in a close relationship with reality”.

Este es un resumen de la charla que en Julio del 2015, en el Rothermere American Institute de la Universidad de Oxford, dictó la doctora e investigadora de Comress-Incom UAB Catalina Gayà en las jornadas The Gift of the Gab: The Writer, The Artist and Their Words.

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