Public Art and The Entryway: What is a journalist, anyway?

Published on
May 27, 2010

When radio reporter Devin Browne began her foray to the edges of journalism, media commentators seized on her project quickly. Her multimedia journal uses prose, images and audio clips to tell a story about how she and a photographer moved into the cramped apartment of an immigrant family in MacArthur Park to learn Spanish. The Entryway, so called for the small space Browne rented, was quickly and harshly criticized for exoticizing Los Angeles' large Latino population. Media critic Daniel Hernandez called the project a "safari in Los Angeles" and an example of a "new-school-trained journalist" who is "first and foremost 'a voice' before a fact-gatherer."

"The Entryway is not about the immigrants living there but about how two 'white people' intrepidly enter an unknown space -- what I'd call the home of any regular working real-life Angeleno, nothing more, nothing less -- and manage to 'survive' there," Hernandez wrote in April. "It's evident in the authors' self-satisfied gloating up front."

Hernandez's critique started a firestorm of debate around not just race and media in Los Angeles, but the nature of journalism in a new media age. Emily Henry, a News21 fellow at USC's Annenberg School for Communication, wrote in The South Los Angeles Report that it was unfair to use the project, which Browne says is not journalism, to judge a new generation of journalists. Henry wrote that "it is wrong to assume that modern reporters are somehow less hard working than 'legacy' journalists. New media definitely does include experimenting with new mediums, but it is not a mindset."

Looking at the community here at ReportingonHealth, it is clear that there are many journalists -- by choice or circumstance -- who are working across fields. They are bloggers and reporters, advocates and consultants, sometimes all at once. So, the question is then, what does it mean for journalists to work across mediums? Is it possible for a journalist to also be an artist or an autobiographical storyteller?

I posed questions on this subject to Devin Browne and another ReportingonHealth member, Shatto Light. Light encountered a different kind of critique when she straddled the line between journalism and art. Health Talk, her monthly column in the journal ASIA, became fodder for a public art project of the same name, which she says was criticized for being "too journalistic." Health Talk, the exhibition, turned the act of reading a newspaper into a performance. Light's work was on display at the Santa Monica College Pete & Susan Barrett Art Gallery in April as part of her Masters in Fine Art program at the Otis Art Institute.

"The project is like a performance (in the public art sense) or unveiling a new paper (in the journalism sense) and presenting it to the public," Light explained in an email. "Examining their reactions and discussing the impact of the message is my intention in sending out health information in a different way."

What follows is the content of email conversations, edited for clarity only.


Do you consider your projects journalism? Does it matter?

Image removed.Shatto Light: This is the same question I was asked only asked in a different way: "Do you consider journalism, public art?" Frankly, I had to further understand the relationship of both fields. I got a question as an answer from academic advisors: "Who cares?" meaning journalism is documentation no matter what. I was a little confused when my project was labeled as "too journalistic." If I show my work to journalists, would they agree or disagree? I don't see it as too journalistic, though.

I have more experience in journalism and am quite new in public art. For me, public art is another form of communication, a medium where I can express my concerns about health to the public. I realized there are few journalists who would take the same path (and few artists who would address health in their work). Newspapers have a strong impact on society and a long-term relationship with the public, but how the public connects to newspapers is changing. My project [left] is another way of perhaps connecting newspapers to the public with emphasis on health and well-being.

Devin Browne: Sure, it matters. It matters when James Frey sells a memoir that turns out to be, in parts, fiction. When we name our work, we're letting people know our intention with it and this is a good first place to start the evaluation: Did the writer/artist do what they said they were going to do? In my case, when i first launched The Entryway, I wrote on the about page: "The Entryway is the story of two reporters who move in with a family from Mexico to learn Spanish ..." and from the beginning, for better or worse, this is the story I've told. Are there more interesting stories in the Macarthur Park area? Yes, absolutely. Are there under-reported perspectives here that should have more of a voice in media? Again, yes, absolutely. I started with this focus for MacArthur Park Media in 2009 -- profiled a wonderful Tamelero named Antonio, covered a possible charter school takeover, met everyone I could at the day laborer center, Caracen, Rampart police, etc -- then left for The Entryway, where the focus turned inward as I thought it really would help me be a better reporter here if I spoke fluent Spanish and understood how most families here live. I'm working now on a piece on bilingual education that I started almost three years ago and I am liking, a lot, heading back in this other direction, toward journalism.

When I report on an issue or a story and then put together the story using standard journalistic principles -- accuracy, fairness and balance -- I consider it journalism. For example, when I put together a story on coal plants in Kansas for the public radio program The Environment Report, I interviewed Sunflower Electric, the Sierra Club, engineers at the Environmental Protection Agency, and residents in Dodge City, where the plant was soon to go. Same for the charter school story: I talked to the head of the charter division at LAUSD, union leaders at traditional public schools and charter schools, parents, teachers, and administrators from both types of schools as well. I made an interactive where everyone's voice was included.


Has working outside the boundaries of hard news traditions given you better access to stories? Are there things you cannot do as an artist that you could do as a journalist?

Light: When I was developing my project, I had the tendency of leaning toward traditions. So I had to remind myself to look at it from a public art viewpoint. Journalism involves giving reliable and accurate facts to the public. Public art, on the other hand, is more about the relationship of the art to everything around it, which includes the people and public space. In public art, I can create a story, fact or conceptual, which should have an effect on the community it is serving.

From my short experience I've learned that public art lets my field or my art expand. Discussion is more unrestricted, more open and more engaged. This maybe is the reason why I chose to play a character, a regular "nagging mother" in this project. As this character, I can express my discomfort with how health and well being is being addressed in our society (abuse of plastic surgery, abuse of illegal or legal drugs, environment issues and how we view aging, for example) without changing who I am as a person. The public practice program lets me think in a different way, pushing the envelope. My whole way of telling a story journalistically will eventually change too.

Image removed.Browne: Well, there are things that I would like to write about that The Entryway has certainly complicated! It would be less than a good idea to write about a few of my neighbors who may or may not be actually found guilty of the very violent allegations the police have made against them when those neighbors know exactly where I live and what time I come home at night. I'm interested in slum lords and landlords and our landlord in particular but now, since I'm one of his tenants, I'm not going to profile him -- at least until I move out -- because there is a conflict of interest.

On the flip side, of course The Entryway gives me better access to stories. What happens at night, all the things I learn from sporadic interactions with my neighbors, the invitations to Guadalupe's fabrica to drop off her daughter, Virginia's baby shower, Hilario's birthday party -- these are things writers who commute home at five o'clock sometimes don't get. The problem is that once I have learned about and have access to a story I am always negotiating the place I'm starting from -- "I know you told me that as a neighbor, but I want to write about it as a reporter. Is that OK?" Of course, rightfully, some people are uncomfortable about this. Often now, when I introduce myself to neighbors I introduce myself at the same time as a reporter and a writer and a neighbor -- no surprises.


Is it possible to go back and forth between mediums and retain credibility?

Light: When I entered the Public Art program [at the Otis Art Institute], I tried to figure out where my position is as a journalist. When I exited, I felt that I was in a crossroad, still trying to figure out how these two fields can be one. It is not easy. Although I am now more comfortable being a journalist, art opens a new way of looking at and presenting my story or my image.

For health journalism, credibility is a serious characteristic. It's our responsibility to our readers to give them the facts. Health journalists should always be updated. In art, we can play around with irony, sarcasm, collages of images and text, caricature, almost unlimited art making, without anybody questioning our credibility. Public art, for example, can be bad or good but not necessarily credible. I'm not so sure if it is possible to go back and forth. I think, when you expand your field, your next work will be a little bit of both or will be influenced by both fields.

Browne: The most important part of this question is the back and forth part. Of course there are many professional journalists who also write fiction (my hero, Joan Didion, is one), and journalists who then go on to write for TV (my other heroes David Simon and Ed Burns do this brilliantly). I think what they have done and do well, that I have not, is work and publish on one subject in one medium at one time. David Simon didn't report on the culture of open-air drug market corners like Fayette and Mount in West Baltimore while also writing teleplays for The Wire, for example. And even if he would have, I am sure he would have known better then to publish them at the same time the fictional version was broadcast.

It's absolutely essential to trust the narrator in any medium (unless you're reading Ford Maddox Ford etc.) and especially in journalism, we want to believe that the reporter putting the story together is something of an authority, that they gave everyone a fair shot, that they're telling us the truth about what happened. In other mediums there's a bit of a different road to getting the reader's trust. For example, I would never have trusted Elizabeth Gilbert if she didn't occasionally doubt herself or her decisions, have regrets about past marriages, make mistakes, etc. but for a reporter to write openly about moments of failed judgment or misperceptions or bad assumptions very much colors the way we look at their reporting, if, after learning of their faults, we're willing to look at all.


What will you work on next? Or, more specifically, what medium will you pursue?

Light: I found myself doing more documentation of public art than doing the art itself. I learned videography in the course and have done a film about Nobi Nagasawa, the artist who did the art work at Soto station in Downtown L.A. It was my first 15 minute film. Although this is not a health related film, I have ideas for filming health topics in the future. I will also try to seek grants to display my Health Talk project at bus stop shelters or maybe in community health events or maybe in an art show and gather some feedback from people. I think I have done something different and hopefully some artists will consider adding 'health art' into their work. I think that will impact people to view health differently. Also, I will work more on my blog, which will definitely be more on health topics.

Browne: Next! I have a lot still left in front of me -- when we moved into The Entryway in January, we planned on staying and writing for the site for at least a year. This is still my plan. Almost every story I want to write for the site or for MacArthur Park Media is about a person or institution or underground economy in the neighborhood.

About the long run, well, I've always wanted to write a book. I have a background in radio and would very much like to work for a news or daily affairs show here or in another part of the country, in Colorado or North Carolina (my favorite part of journalism is actually not the writing, it's the interviewing). All I know for sure is that I don't want to be a blogger; I'm no where near as fast as the medium demands.