On Story Telling in Journalism
We would all benefit from a little less story telling and a little more news from the world of journalism.
It is very difficult to tell someone in journalism how to do their job. It’s almost impossible. Any criticism is seen as an affront. Any suggestion is greeted with indignation. Alternate points of view about coverage decisions are dismissed as ill-informed, or the critic is told, the alternate approach was considered and rejected by editors who know better.
I know. As an independent journalist and in previous roles as an editor, I have been on the receiving end of criticism. I have listened earnestly and waited patiently for my opportunity to say, “we stand by our story.” As a public relations consultant, I have often told clients that it’s never a good idea to pick a fight with “someone who buys ink by the barrel.” Although technologically outdated, the quote is apt.
If any journalist reading this essay got to — or through — the first sentence in the second paragraph, their hackles are up, because the news business is resistant, at all levels, to criticism. I can hear the anecdotal arguments against this observation as I am writing but, I stand by my observation. It is with little hope for change that I raise an issue for consideration that has been trending in the world of journalism for the last decade or so, I believe, at the expense of the news audience.
The trend is; story telling.
You will often hear journalism school graduates, or working reporters changing jobs, describe how they are looking forward to “telling the stories” of the news market they are about to enter. At times, news organizations will promote themselves as “telling the stories” of their community. Story telling has over-taken covering the news as the primary purpose of many journalists and the institutions where they work.
The trend seems to stem from the growth of the internet as a news source and the fracturing of the news audience. With so many news organizations, large and small, competing for the attention of an audience of fixed size, the consensus means of breaking through seems to be to resort to story telling. Turning the news into something more entertaining. Turning news into content that competes with all other content. Just a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down.
There is a place for story telling in the news business, but it should not be the primary goal. Now, more than ever, we need fewer story tellers and more witnesses. We need fewer story tellers and more fact checkers. We need less story telling and more news reporters willing to hold people in power to account. Especially in a democracy, the role of journalism as an un-elected check and balance on the entire system is the primary purpose of reporting the news. Story telling is only a tool to be used when putting the finishing touches on the main project.
The war in Ukraine is the most pressing international story of the present moment. Facts on the ground change hourly, if not by the minute. All sides, but one side in particular, are using information to try to influence world opinion and in the case of the Russians, justify the invasion that started the war. Providing facts to the world should be the first priority. From those facts, the audience can formulate it’s own story about the battle and decide how to respond.
Yet in the chaos of war, amidst the daily loss of human life, many of the major news organizations covering the war have fallen toward the trend of story telling. It is not helpful to the audience and at times it can be exploitive.
Journalists will argue the telling of personal stories, humanizes the conflict and helps the audience better understand the suffering. Speaking as a human, I can see what is happening and I understand the suffering. I do not need prompting from a news reporter to activate my emotions. What would be helpful is to know the truth of what is going on as it is happening.
In the United States, we are still sorting through the wreckage left by an administration that for four years lied to the American people almost everyday. The former president and some of his followers continue to spread lies in an attempt to undercut the legitimacy of the current president — even as he leads a global coalition against the Russian invasion of Ukraine. At home, we need fact checkers not story tellers. The former president is the story teller. We need the counter balance only a working press can provide.
As we move into a congressional campaign season and toward the next presidential election, the evidence suggests some politicians have taken the wrong message from four years of lying from the top. It appears some political hopefuls have concluded lying, exaggeration, scapegoating, and the sowing of division, is not something to be avoided, but a winning strategy to be emulated. We need a press that will hold political leaders to account; rather than taking a pass on demagoguery and telling us stories as if an election is a sporting event.
Story telling is part of journalism, but it is not the reason for the work. The first job is to act as witness, to hold the powerful to account, and to ensure that we are all starting from the same set of basic facts as we debate issues of public concern. By definition, a story is something that is told after the fact. Telling a story is a technique used to understand the lessons learned, or to reveal a narrative not initially understood.
First tell me what is happening. First tell me the news. Once you have done that, if you want to tell me a story, I’m listening.
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