Journalism Is Provocation

I was telling a group of journalism students about the dead guy in the driveway photo, and they were all horrified.

How could our paper run a photo of a body? You can’t DO that, one of them said.

Why not?

It’s emotional, another answered.

It’s upsetting!


It sure is.

That was the whole point. Somebody came home one day, the crime-ridden town we covered, and found a body in front of his house.

Lying there. Like it was no big deal.

We thought it was a pretty damn big deal. Not the least for the dead fellow, left to rot like garbage.

So we treated it like a big deal, like we’d treated all the homicides that summer, like big deals worthy of front-page photos and great big headlines.

Like something worthy of being upset about. Like something worthy of emotion. Like something that needed to get shoved in people’s faces until somebody DID something to solve the crime wave and put murderers behind bars. LOOK AT IT. If you don’t like it, don’t tell me not to show it to you. MAKE IT NOT EXIST.

I thought of that conversation during this week’s Rolling Stone cover freakout:


I thought of the flipout over the photos of the dead and wounded in Iraq a couple of years into that war, when conservatives screamed treason at photographers risking their lives to show Americans at home what they’d waved their flags and cheered for. I thought of the way we hid the coffins coming home, ostensibly out of respect for the dead, but mostly out of cowardice: Don’t make me look at what I’ve done. Don’t make me look at what I’ve allowed done in my name.

Journalism should be provocative. It should be upsetting. It should make you angry or outraged or scared. It should show you the world, in all its filth and glory, and if it doesn’t do that it is wasting your time. I don’t believe in shock value, by the way. If all you’re doing is showing off, seeing how many people you can offend, waving your e-penis around and asking people to look at how daring you are, you’re doing bad standup, not journalism. But ask yourself: Is that what this is?

Or is it making a point? Is it saying something? Is it a challenge to our sensibilities, to our ideas of what a terrorist is, to our assumptions that we can identify a danger on sight, and that such a person would never live next door to us, or go to our school? Why should that challenge be met with denial, and not searching, not thinking, not due consideration?

If you cannot look the world full in the face as it is, you can’t live in it, not really. And if you are unsettled by what you see, then you are obligated to change it, to work and push and grow and rage and speak until you are no longer ashamed when someone holds a mirror up to the place where you live and says this, this is what you are.

Journalism should push you, like every kind of art should push you. It should be profoundly disturbing to the status quo. At every turn it should take an agreed-upon assumption, a shrug of “that’s just how things are,” and yell in its face until the day-to-day is forced to take itself apart. It should ring in your head long after you put the magazine, the paper down and turn off the computer.

If not, if all it does is hide away the horror and sand off the rough edges of the world, tell you how to make the unthinkable palatable for yourself and your family, tell you how NOT to hear or think or speak or breathe the things that are true, it’s wasting your time.


5 thoughts on “Journalism Is Provocation

  1. I disagree somewhat. The Boston reaction to the bombing was varied, but a good chunk of it was “you bombers are a pair of idiots, screw you, I hope you rot in jail”, which is I think a fine attitude to take towards would-be terrorists. Not much in the way of hand-wringing, a lot in the way of take care of the hurt people, and try not to crank up the beat-up-the-Muslims jingoism too much. All of this subject to the normal variation in human behavior, of course.
    This sort of bombing is a low-probability event. It’s likely that the best way to reduce its incidence is the Boston reaction — catch, prosecute, jail, and forget, and don’t make a big deal about it. It’s almost certainly true that we will not learn anything useful (meaning, that will change future outcomes) from the Rolling Stone article just because this is such a rare event, and it’s possible, though not entirely likely, that the increased attention will make it slightly more likely.
    Look at what a pair of bozos these bombers were. They didn’t even think to note their “message” until one was dead and the other was badly hurt and bleeding in a boat.

  2. To me this is no worse than a magazine cover featuring Tim McVeigh, Ted Bundy…or Eichmann not wearing his SS uniform. I also read the article (available online) and Matt Taibbi’s post (which notes that the NY Times featured the same picture on its front page and no one blew a gasket).
    That’s what Tsarnaev looks like.
    Funny how the folks complaining tend towards the type that would otherwise say “DFH.” But now he’s somehow glamorized? Gimme a break.

  3. I have mixed feelings about the photo and the controversy. I think the controversy, like all right wing hissyfits, is absurd and ginned up. That being said I don’t think the photo as displayed on the cover is at all an invitation to a discussion or “meant to make us feel uncomfortable” or consider anything–from terrorism to public highschools–in a new light. Its soporific and sexy, anodyne and unsurprising. A basically glamor magazine with the odd bit of reportage chose to put on the cover a sexy picture–like they always do–because sex sells and putting something ugly on the cover doesn’t sell. They specifically avoided juxtaposing pictures of carnage with Tsarnaev because cluttered and visually ugly or complex pictures are not in their stylebook and might turn some readers away. To me its like putting a rape victim on the cover *only if she’s beautiful.* That’s not an invitation to “discuss” something that makes us uncomfortable. That is merely acceding to the US public’s demand that everything be fed to us, *even or especially difficult political or social issues* in a sexy, easy to digest way. To me the photo and the text bracket the event in a completely uninteresting and unthoughtful way. Like putting a tray of marshmellows down in front of a children’s “scary” ride to induce the children to climb on and knowing full well that the ride itself, though slightly uncomfortable, will return the children to the same place they started from.

  4. It should show you the world, in all its filth and glory, and if it doesn’t do that it is following the Lippman model, which was the prototype for all establishment journalism in this country.
    Certainly, such journalism is a waste of your time, but if all it does is hide away the horror and sand off the rough edges of the world, tell you how to make the unthinkable palatable for yourself and your family, tell you how NOT to hear or think or speak or breathe the things that are true, then that’s a feature, not a bug. That is exactly what such journalism is designed to do from its conception as a form of communication.

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