Shades of Fact and Fiction in American Journalism
Over the last couple of years, police shootings have become an all too prevalent story in American history—an all too pervasive theme in our cultural narrative. On July 22nd, it seemed just another page was turned as Ms. Damond, a 40-year-old Australian expat, was reportedly shot dead by a police officer in the alleyway behind her Minneapolis residence. The New York Times article which covered the story summed up the facts of the shooting as follows: “a black Somali-American cop, firing at a white Australian woman among the garages and green compost bins of an unremarkable strip of Midwestern concrete.”
Ms. Damond died on July 15th. Her story did not. It was logged and lives on in the digital archives of The New York Times, animated occasionally by the scrolling of fingers and text in what becomes a sort of topical puppet show—a tandem performance between reader and writer. There is something oddly showy about the way The New York Times article is written. It doesn’t read as the report of a shooting but more as a piece of fiction. The authors’ description of the place of Ms. Damond’s death, an “unremarkable strip of midwestern concrete,” doesn’t sound like a real location, but the setting for a scene in a tragedy—“the garages and green compost bins” read like props. And this is no mistake. The authors of The New York Times article openly use fictional devices throughout their writing. Scenes are set, characters are introduced, imagery occurs and reoccurs. Throughout the course of the piece, we become aware that we are not experiencing the facts, but reading their story.
When we finally come to the end of the narrative twists and turns in The New York Times article to realize that the subject of this story is a real-life police shooting, the fictional treatment of Ms. Damond’s case feels like the journalistic equivalent of cardinal sin. However, it’s more complicated than this. The practice of using fictional device in reporting, or “literary journalism” as it’s known, has a long tradition in American journalism. As early as the 19th century, fact and fiction have clinched in an epistemological war in which American journalists are still embroiled to this day. It’s not as simply as saying that on one side of the debate there are those who deal with “reality,” and on the other, those who deal with pure fabrication. Both conventional and “literary” journalism, essentially, share the same goal: the truth. No matter how you look at it, this is every journalist’s mechanical hare. But, how to snare it!? How to sink our teeth into it and leave it lying at the feet of our readers!? While conventional journalists use straight, candid facts, “literary” journalists choose to mix in a bit of color—sometimes, a bit of compost-bin green. This isn’t purely out of artistic fancy, but out of a desire to express the broader spectrum of how we experience facts as individuals—how we color them.
And yet, in choosing to color fact, the journalist has to be careful. The mixing of fact and fiction takes tact. And when dealing with a subject as sensitive as a police shooting, this tact better be flawless. So, is this the case in The New York Times article covering Ms. Damond’s death? Before we get to this question, we first need to look back at how the practice of mixing fact and fiction known as “literary journalism” began and continues to exist in American journalism.