Tag Archive for 'journalism'

Reading McClelland Generously

I’ve been thinking a lot about this Mac McClelland thing.

McClelland is a journalist who wrote an article in GOOD Magazine about having PTSD after she experienced and reported on a wide range of horrifying atrocities, including a rape in Haiti, and how she used violent sex as a means to deal with the PTSD. The tile of that article is “How Violent Sex Helped Ease My PTSD.”

I read the article twice, first after I saw it on twitter and again after I saw it on Jezebel. I was really impressed with the piece–I found it honest and courageous, but mostly I was moved by the discussion of What It Is To Do Journalism, especially as a lady, in situations that are dangerous, complicated, difficult, and emotionally charged. I think about this a lot regarding the research that my academic friends and colleagues do–I am impressed that a friend who studies municipal anti-immigration legislation manages to seriously interview his subjects without displaying contempt for these folks’ racism. It seems even more important to think about this with regards to journalism, as we read and listen to these stories and reports every day.

So here I was, thinking about how exciting it was that this bold piece of writing was going to open up all sorts of avenues for discussion about feminism and work and news and the place for personal narratives. I noticed some negative comments about the way she described the violent sexual encounter, most of which were dismayed at the lack of details about how to make sure that it was the right idea, and how it was discussed and executed to be both helpful and safe. Those critiques felt right on.

But then a second round of criticism rose up, from those who felt that McClelland was sensationalizing and misrepresenting Haiti in order to tell her own, self-centered story. Jezebel printed an open letter from a group of female journalists and researches that cover Haiti, in which they write:

she paints Haiti as a heart-of-darkness dystopia, which serves only to highlight her own personal bravery for having gone there in the first place. She makes use of stereotypes about Haiti that would be better left in an earlier century: the savage men consumed by their own lust, the omnipresent violence and chaos, the danger encoded in a black republic’s DNA.

This didn’t feel quite right to me. It seemed to ignore the fact that this was McClelland’s personal story based on her experience; it seemed to undermine any solidarity that is so necessary among women in a field that has its own difficulties for women. (In McClelland’s original post she writes about CBS’s Lara Logan, who was raped while working in Egypt, and the disturbing fact that some people “blamed the reporter for putting herself in a risky situation, and for being reckless enough to enter one when she’s so hot.”). Mostly, though, I didn’t feel that McClelland’s piece did any terrible damage to the image I have of Haiti–I am aware of the horrific things she writes about, but have no illusions that that applies to all Hatians.

But then I notice that one of the signatories on the letter is a friend of mine, Susana Ferreira, who I had the immense pleasure of working with in Toronto in 2006, and who was in journalism school with Zach (finding friendship in the fact that they were both loud, mouthy, Canadians). I trust that Susana knows what she’s talking about–she is a journalist and I am not, she has spent time in Haiti and I have not, she is much more aware of the work of journalism and the situation in Haiti that I will ever be, so it sure isn’t my place to argue with her about these things.

This morning I read this piece on The Rumpus, titled “Still With the Scarlet Letters” by a Haitian American woman who manages to excellently articulate my thoughts on this, with a lot more acuity that I feel like I am able to manage. Go read it.

I still think that there are some questions that remain unaddressed, though.

1. The writers of the letter critiquing McLelland accuse her of taking the incidents she describes out of context. However, McLelland’s other writings on Haiti, her journalistic pieces, are available and easy to find. Here is the Mother Jones article she was writing in the backdrop to the GOOD piece. I’m sure that there are a great many people who read the exciting article about violent sex therapy and didn’t look at her other writing or anything else about Haiti, but I don’t think that’s McLelland’s fault. But I don’t know the way journalism works very well–do we consider each article individually? Ought we to look at a writer’s oeuvre? Or do we need the whole collection of writing about post-earthquake Haiti, from multiple voices, to get a picture of how things really are?

2. In academia, we talk about “reading generously.” That is, looking at a piece by what it is trying to do, and evaluating it based on whether or not it succeeds, before moving on to address whether we think it’s goals are valid at all. This is how I want to read McLelland’s article, and why I am satisfied with the comments that chide her lack of detail about her decision to deal with her PTSD in a certain way.  Do we read generously when we read journalism, or just uber-critically from the outset?

3. With that in mind, how and when do we talk about how to do the emotionally charged work of journalism (and, in some instances, academic research on the social world)? If McLelland is continuously slammed for misrepresenting Haiti, that just serves to distract us from talking about the issues she is trying to raise about her work. How do we talk about what it means to consume research and writing without understanding how that work is produced?

4. Finally, we can’t stop picking apart what “rape culture” means, and we can’t stop thinking the impacts of sexual violence on victims and well as observers and everyone who lives in a world where these things take place. When can we talk about fear, emotional damage, and the overwhelming horrificness of the world, and still work to make change in the ways that we know how?

Making Headlines

It totally drives me crazy when journalists–in print and on the radio–say that person/thing/event “made headlines.” As if they, the media, have nothing to do with what “makes headlines” and becomes part of the discourse.

Maybe they’re just giving a lot of respect to the late-night copy editors who actually make the headlines.