Where brevity cripples and distorts reportage

Image courtesy eHow

Once upon a time, after I presented a public talk in Oslo courtesy of Kumar Rupesinghe, a Norwegian journalist provided me with a refreshing insight into the difference between academic essays and journalese. There is, to be sure, a considerable overlap between the two fields; but the lesson he taught me was that journalists usually place their conclusions and punch lines at the very start of their essay. Academic authors, in contrast, tend to end with a BANG so that they build up to a conclusion.

Journalists, my friend told me, adopt this course partly because it enables them to face editorial demands for a shorter piece by simply lopping off the end. So it is also time-saving. Given the demands on their time arising from the hop-skip-and-jump character of journalist duties in diverse arenas, this tactic is quite pragmatic.

Short reports also enable the story to be kept simple. Where the tale is sensational, the shorter it is the better. Sensationalism (and its market value) thrives on simplified presentations. No caveats. No qualifications, No elaboration of complexities to clutter the readers’ minds. Wham! Bang! Thud! Penetrate and leave the reader stunned … and purring in post-coital satisfaction.

There is also the force of reader capacity and newsworthiness. Newsworthiness calls for brevity. Be sharp. Be minimal. Hit the headlines. So, succinctness is a virtue.

Yes, precise prose is a virtue in most spheres of writing. BUT … there is a BUT. What if the topic and issue under survey is complex? What if it calls for the sorting and separation of many, many details? What if caveats must be attached to one’s exploration – caveats that themselves are complex and cannot be summarised in two sentences?

It is on such occasions that the inflexibility of editorial rigidity cripples. Where the problem is complex, succinctness can distort. This is where the academic approach outplays standardised journalism and sensationalist reportage (as distinct from solid journalese). The proof of a good academic analysis is in its detail. Unravelling minutiae is the stuff of social science empiricism. Minute details can address complexity so as to distil clarity.

Eelam War IV in Sri Lanka was one helluva of a complex topic. It remains one. Analysts and readers also have to work through the sturm und drang of a multifaceted propaganda war from every which way. Yet some editors insist on their rigid rule of 700 words maximum. From experience encountered in the recent past I am thinking here of Lanka Monthly Digest, ABC Unleashed and most Australian media outlets, but there must be many other examples.

In this manner they mute the pen-as-gun. They encourage sloppy reportage and simplified black and white pictures. It assists moral crusaders who like to see things in black and white. It also assists sensational story and carries commodity value. But does it do justice to the complexity of topic and the travails of the many, many (Sri Lankan) people caught up in the war? I say “Nay.”

The same argument can be made, mutatis mutandis, for essays on constitutional issues. The proof here is in the pudding.

Brevity just to please readers, the many readers, who do not wish to address a complex topic in all its complexity! Are all readers so inclined? The internet world suggests otherwise. DBS Jeyaraj of transcurrents frequently presents his readership in with long essays and draws plenty of blog-responses. Groundviews also permits longer articles and has even initiated a “long reads” section. In brief, the cyber-world is training a new public and eliciting citizen journalism. The old school of editors need to remove their finger from the dyke.

This essay, however, is short.