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Study proposes that journalism is the main contemporary narrative

Almost 40 years ago, the then young reporter Luiz Gonzaga Motta was sent to the town of São João Nepomuceno, in the interior of the state of Minas Gerais, to investigate the case of a female vulture that was raising chicks as if they were its offspring – and, worse, they had been stolen. The journalist talked to local inhabitants, jotted everything he heard and saw down, and went back to Rio de Janeiro with the certainty that the material would yield at least one little oddity note. When he opened the Jornal do Brasil of November 19, 1967, he got a shock: the article on the mother vulture was the headline of page 21 of the issue. To this date, Motta keeps the cutting from the newspaper in a special corner of the drawer of his bedside table. But he confesses that he was intrigued: why had such an apparently banal subject conquered such prominence? “The episode gave a new direction to my intellectual life”, he admits.

After concluding his master’s degree, in 1973, at the University of Indiana, and his doctorate, in 1977, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, both in the United States, dived into the study of narratives. He finally was able to understand the hype caused by the material on the mother vulture: the text enchanted, because it was capable of telling a good story and of making a reference to dramas that could also be related to human anguishes, like the questions of blackness and motherhood. Satisfied for having found the way, he went ahead.

And after over 20 years poring over the theme, Motta has no hesitation in stating: journalism, an activity that has its specific identity marks and characteristics, has conquered the status of the main and most representative narrative of contemporaneity. “It is fundamentally through it that we get in touch with the stories and personages of the present-day world”, he explains. “But this supremacy brings a series of risks”, warns the researcher, who should make it official, before this half year is out, the creation of the Narratology Studies Nucleus at the University of Brasilia (UnB).

For the journalist, who is redeeming ideas already present in the Poetics of Aristotle, understanding narratives is important, because it is they that put us into contact with our own experiences, fears, virtues and weaknesses, causing cathartic and identifying effects and awakening sentiments that are often hidden. “When we read a text and recognize ourselves in it, we are transported to the story”, he explains. With the officialization of the nucleus, he intends to consolidate works that are already being carried out by the group from UnB for 12 years, besides expanding the lines of investigation and study.

At the moment, the team is working on four doctoral theses, three dissertations for master’s degrees, and another two researches of scientific initiation, addressing such themes as the media and cultural memory, journalism as a form of knowledge and social mediation, and the representation of politicians in the television news. All the studies follow the idea of journalism as a specific narrative, with intrinsic characteristics, and different, therefore, from other forms of narrative, like literature, cinema and history. According to Motta, there are at least four elements that guarantee journalism a life of its own. The first of them is bound up with the always conflictual relation that we establish with time.

Motta resorts to the theories of the French philosopher Paul Ricouer to claim that journalism is the form that contemporary man has found, not only for dealing with time, but also for trying to master it. This relationship arises from the sensation of appropriation. The researcher recalls that, by making actions present and presenting the idea that everything is happening here and now – a strategy even reinforced by the verbs used in its headlines and texts -, journalism fills time with content. “We have started to organize past and future from the present moment”, he explains.

Then there is the second element that points to journalism as a form of expression placed between history and literature. This is because, at the same time that it works with the intention of seeking the possible truth and is based on rational knowledge, in the logical organization of ideas, having to be sustained by concrete facts and documents, it makes use literary narrative resources to tell its stories. According to Motta, even in the journalism that intends to be totally objective, in the most arid and coldest texts, it is possible to find human dramas, plots, personages, dialogs, conflicts, rhythm, climax and stage settings. He uses as an example news that deals with the interest rates in the country. At first sight, they could be regarded as technical matters – hence less attractive.

However, they resort to discursive strategies that have the purpose of humanizing the narrative – the explanations of the Minister of the Treasury, the highlight on the impact of the increase or fall of the interest rates on popular consumption, the description of the meeting of the Monetary Policy Committee (Copom), the criticisms from the politicians of the opposition. Motta guarantees: there is no journalistic text without narrative, which may appear in greater or lesser intensity. And, if the intention is to create an identity and attract the reader’s attention, the researcher highlights another of the main strategies of journalistic narrative: the use of suspense.

“There is always a meaning that is not completed and keep alight answers like ‘what is going to happen tomorrow?'”, the professor points out. The explanation helps one to understand what is regarded as the third defining element – the sequence of chapters and episodes. Motta calls to mind that the beginning and the end of the stories told by journalism are just more or less defined – and never established with absolute precision. In general, a news item appears on account of a moment of rupture, winning prominence and generating repercussions in society, until a situation is arrived at when it is believed that it has been exhausted – and the fact disappears.

The recent invasion of a school in Beslam, in Russia, by Chechen separatist militants, taking more than a thousand hostages, the great majority children, illustrates the researcher’s claims. The occupation of the school marks rupture – the natural order of the facts was altered. From then onwards, transported to the story, we start accompanying, on a daily basis, the negotiations with the police, the suffering of the relatives, the imminent invasion of the place to try to set the hostages free.

Soon after the outcome, which resulted in the death of people, when the situation comes back to normal, it ends up losing importance and does not take long to vanish from the news. “There is a succession of episodes connected between themselves that form the narrative”, stresses Motta. In spite of the apparently random – or even authoritarian – nature of the life cycle of news, the researcher makes a point of calling to mind that the relationship that the news establishes with the public is not an imposition. Redeeming the theories of thinkers like Robert Jauss and Wolfgang Iser, from the University of Konstanz, in the south of Germany, which talk of reception as a bold and creative act, he guarantees that it is the reader who converts texts into interpretations, introducing into it his reference marks and his prior comprehension of the world.

In his analysis, the researcher does not forget the ethical dimension of the activity – precisely the fourth and last key element. Motta claims that the stories told by journalism always have a moral backcloth, which establishes lessons of life, delineates the frontiers between good and evil, the permitted and the forbidden, the beautiful and the ugly, helping to consolidate values and principles and a web of tissues and meanings that guarantee the social order.

As the researcher defines it, it is close to the children’s fables, always concerned with moral ends. The case of the former advisor for Parliamentary Affairs of the Presidential Chief of Staff, Waldomiro Diniz, is remembered as one of the most recent and important situations that follow this path. For the professor from UnB, the risk is manifested when the journalistic narrative uses its ethical dimension in an exaggerated way, extrapolating the functions of the profession and coming to occupy roles that are for the police, as happens in cases of bugged telephones or with the anonymous dossiers that reach the editorial offices and are published or transmitted.

On the basis of these four characteristics, Motta has no doubts in claiming that journalism does not reproduce facts, but reveals possible versions about them. The proposal runs counter to one of the most ancient myths that mark the profession – the idea of neutrality and of journalism as a faithful and exact photograph of the reality. Known as the “mirror theory” and born in the United States, at the end of the 19th century, the thesis still finds backing today both in editorial offices and in university courses, including in Brazil.

To contest this perspective, Motta dialogs with authors like Eduardo Meditsch, from the Federal University of Santa Catarina (UFSC), who addresses journalistic singularity and its capacity for raising doubts and stimulating the critical spirit and the production of knowledge; with Cremilda Medina, from the Communications and Arts School of the University of São Paulo (ECA-USP), which deals with journalism as the art of weaving the present; and also with Alfredo Vizeu, from the Federal University of Pernambuco (UFPE), who classifies news as a social construction of reality and presents journalism as an explanatory learning.

In stressing the supremacy conquered by journalistic narrative and pointing out the space that it occupies in present-day societies, the researcher claims that it can be seen as a sort of heir to the Greek theater, which, in Antiquity, was responsible for making explicit and taking to the stage the tragedies and comedies of humanity. But in the age of globalization, the conquests and th9e conflicts are narrated by journalism – and it is by means of journalism that we carry out our modern catharsis.

From the war against Iraq to the municipal elections in Brazil, from the debate on stem cells and cloning to the discussion on interest rates, from the Kyoto Protocol to the rise in oil prices – the most diverse subjects appear only to gain significance and a concrete existence when published by the newspapers or transmitted by the radios, TVs and Internet. For Motta, the experience of reading, seeing or listening to news has transformed itself into a ritualistic act that repeats itself on a daily basis. It is the way we have found for maintaining contact with reality. “The story that remains is the journalistic one”, he stresses.

Raquel Paiva, the coordinator of the postgraduate program of the Communication School of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (ECO-UFRJ), agrees with the professor from UnB and says that it is journalism that points out the facts that are important, saying which subjects deserve to be known and which can be discarded. She calls attention, though, to a dilemma that is more than a danger: some of the principal marks of the present-day journalistic activity are the speed of its production and the rapidity of its circulation, which have been established, with serious damages for the quality of information.

“Volatility favors error and common sense discourse, which ends up reinforcing stereotypes, prejudices and exclusions”, warns the professor, who has also been studying narratives since the 1980’s. She cites as an example the image that journalism often constructs of women, as people merely concerned with their appearance and futility and gossip. “They are ideas that are hegemonically in force in society, regardless of their real pertinence in the historical context”, she adds.

Fragmentation and superficiality, other characteristics of journalism, are helping to compose an even more dangerous scenario. The greatest concern of the news is with the factual, the immediate and the partial, and the absence of contexts, causes, consequences and explanations leads to a very fragile and disconnected apprehension of reality. “We see only the tip of the iceberg”, compares Motta. The great risk, according to the researcher, is the formation of alienated and atomized subjects, incapable of establishing relationships and of understanding the complexity of situations, and without the repertoire necessary for taking part in public discussions. The language of the video clip anesthetizes and paralyzes. The Arab-Israeli conflict seems to be symptomatic of this situation: we know that there are military attacks and suicide bombers happening daily, but will we be able to really understand the reasons for so much hatred and the histories of these peoples?

As a counterpoint to fragmentation, Raquel suggests the need for constructing what she calls inclusive narratives – capable of going beyond the factual, of offering details and descriptions, and of encouraging reflections, thus promoting the democratization of knowledge. It would be the redemption of more exhaustive reporting, of in-depth narrative and of interpretative journalism – the kind that offers the largest possible number of relationships and information to the public, without slipping in its opinions or into sectarianism and partiality. Motta suggest that other narratives – history, literature, cinema – should join up with journalistic narrative to help to compose realities that are more complex and less imposed. “Journalism is an important narrative”, he stresses. “But it isn’t the absolute truth.”