Since the turn of the century, over 7,000 migrants have died on their journey from Mexico to the United States, and thousands more have attempted the crossing with varied success. As immigration becomes increasingly politicized and border control increases across the Southern states, by the president’s orders, many immigrants have stories to tell and lives worth documenting.
At the beginning of this year, novelist Jeanine Cummins published “American Dirt” — a fictional story surrounding a Mexican family who flees north to the United States to avoid the wrath of a drug cartel. But what intended to be a commentary on very real current political issues became an immense controversy. With a plethora of real life experiences, from countless people, past and present, crossing into the country, the novel was deemed untimely, inappropriate, and unrepresentative.
Journalism is about people, it is always human-driven and human-minded. Thinking about politics and human rights — the many lives at risk because of geographic border policies — it’s only right for journalists to share immigrants’ stories, conveying a real truth. Cummins sought to fictionalize an experience without lending readers the power of authenticity that a migrant could share.
Let’s discuss trauma porn and its implications in journalism and advocacy. “American Dirt” reviews accused Cummins of exploiting immigration and inaccurately portraying what illegal immigration looks like — what began as a quest to further her narrative and support Mexican migrants became a breeding ground for misinformation, a disenfranchisement of those she was attempting to uplift.
In terms of social injustice, journalism has a long-standing tradition of advocating for equality. Look at Ida Wells, Jacob Riis, Upton Sinclair, Nellie Bly, and the “muckrakers” who were emboldened by harsh, glaring societal ills, motivated to write and lead audiences to truth. Their work patched holes in the cracks of the political United States, and gave voice to the voiceless.
Journalism, in this case, is always advocacy, because there is always a spotlight on the victim and an unending connection with truth, and that’s powerful. Wells informed readers of rampanent lynchings in the South during Reconstruction. Riis photographed New York City tenement dwellers and their deplorable conditions. Sinclair published a gruesome account of the meat-packing industry in cities across the country and its dangerous policies. And Bly courageously institutionalized herself in a mental hospital to unearth the painful, questionable treatment of patients there.
First-hand accounts are sincere, and many journalists seek to experience these events themselves and live to tell the talel. But what would a journalist do in Cummins’ place? What could change when the subject of the story is in the hands of a stranger, a journalist with the authority to pillage for personal accounts and steal them for a byline? Could that happen?
Cummins committed an act of trauma porn — a phrase becoming more common in the last decade. People become encapsulated by scenes of violence or brutality, and the news media pushes those stories on viewers constantly. This consumption is harmful and addictive. We seek out videos of protests and insurrection, with photos displayed on our social media feed now more than ever.
“American Dirt” proves to us that journalism requires commitment and vigor, and that the world itself requires journalists — why fictionalize a traumatic experience when there are thousands who lived it, thousands who will live and die with their stories without a platform to pass it to. Journalists are responsible for propping up survivors and sharing their stories exactly how those individuals want to be heard. It’s a conversation about honesty and life, not about the violence itself. It’s about people, not trauma.