In defense of ‘fun’ journalism

May 15, 2013

On Tuesday night, we posted a piece on the Fix telling the story of White House Press Secretary Jay Carney's day through a series of seven close-up pictures of his face.

The reaction from some quarters -- mostly Democratic -- was swift.  Cheap shot!  Not up to the Washington Post's standards! Beneath you! (Carney, to his credit, had some fun with our post at the White House briefing today.)


Balloons=Fun. EPA photo.

This is not a new critique.  But it's one I think is worth responding to in a fuller way than I have in the past.

Journalism is changing. This is not breaking news. That change has been spurred by drastic changes in the way people consume information.  Mobile devices are the preferred medium by which the young (and not so young) get their news fix.  Twitter and Facebook have altered the way news is broken and covered. And so on and so forth.

Journalists have to change with those times.  And that means looking for alternative storytelling paths. People like the Post's Ezra Klein, Nate Silver at 538 and sites like BuzzFeed have innovated by understanding that not every story or every bit of analysis needs to come in the form of a text-heavy piece of content that features a series of quotes from players on both sides of the aisle.

The web provides us with a multitude of story-telling tools -- from text to pictures to graphs to embedded tweets and beyond.  My goal -- and our goal at the Fix more broadly -- is to figure out the best way to tell each story, to match the story to the tool in hopes of telling it to as many people as possible.

That means that sometimes -- as we believe yesterday proved -- the story of Carney's day can be told in pictures rather than simply words. Looking at those seven pictures of a clearly anguished Carney told the story of his day (and the White House's day) in a unique and, I thought, compelling way. That's why I did it.

There is another element to all of this "not serious enough" line of thinking. And that is the idea that you can either be a "serious" journalist or a "fun" journalist -- and never the twain shall meet.

That seems to be a false choice to me.  Is any person always serious or always funny? Is politics always best covered -- or best understood -- by focusing only on the "business" aspects of the job or is there a richer understanding that comes from seeing both the sublime AND the ridiculous in it?

I've always thought of Walt Whitman when I think of my approach to journalism. (And, before you mock, no, I am not comparing myself to Whitman. Just remembering his quote.)  In his poem "Song of Myself", Whitman wrote: "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes."

As in, I -- and every one -- see humor in some things, gravity in others. Now, it's absolutely true that we all can (and will) disagree about what story benefits from a dollop of humor and what one doesn't -- that was the nub of the disagreement about the Carney post -- but we should all be able to agree that no one (including the reader) is served by adopting one coverage tone at all times.

The reality of writing a blog is that there are any number of angles (and tones) to take to a given subject.  So, on Tuesday, not only did I post on Carney's 7 faces but we also ran an in-the-room analysis piece on the press briefing from White House reporter David Nakamura, a look at Obama's record on civil liberties by White House bureau chief Scott Wilson and an analysis of Obama's difficult political week by yours truly. All were mostly text and would fall into the "serious" category. We also posted on a moment of bipartisanship between Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid over Washington Nationals star Bryce Harper.

The point is this: I -- and we -- will continue to explore alternative storytelling in this blog. I do so not to take cheap shots but rather to experiment with the best way to bring a story to our readership. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't.

And, to assume that journalists must fit into either a serious or a fun mode is to sell journalists (and people) short. We contain multitudes -- and I do my best every day in this blog to show those multitudes.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Sean Sullivan | May 15, 2013