Journalism’s ‘stories’

I can think of at least four different words newsrooms use to describe the bundles of content they work with: story, piece, article and copy (‘content’ itself isn’t one of them). With a few exceptions, all four labels are used interchangeably. ‘Copy’ is perhaps the most common, especially since most copy-editors use that name for the thing they work their magic on, but so is story for its gentle glamour. The question is whether this orgy of labels is actually a problem or just a triviality.

(A lot more people in J-schools say they “want to produce longform journalism” than the number engaged in finding good things to write about first. That an aspiration like this even exists – and was nurtured without question at the J-school I attended – was the first sign that the glamour had overtaken the substance.)

Put another way: is dissecting the labels a useful way of looking at the world?

Some time in 2012, my heresy about the ‘Columbia style’ – my name for a ‘narrative technique’ that began by introducing a protagonist, following them for three or four big paragraphs, before introducing the meat of the matter through the protagonist’s pain – took root. I called it ‘Columbia style’ at the time because many of those who practised it in India had graduated from the Columbia School of Journalism.

When a piece is written like this, it is decidedly a story, at least in the mind of the writer. As many people have pointed out, stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. ‘Columbia style’ pieces do too, as well as a protagonist through whose eyes the reader is to find footing and guidance, and a conclusion that I bet ends with eyes set on the horizon with a heart full of hope.

However, most practitioners of this form don’t use it right. To work the ‘Columbia style’, you need a very, very good story first – one that lends itself to dramatic narratives. E.g., I’ve always thought stories of agrarian distress shouldn’t be laid out this way but they often are. Second, the ‘Columbia style’ implicitly demands that the piece be a feature article, 2,000 words or longer (in The Wire‘s lexicon). So it would be technically sound if a writer adopted the ‘Columbia style’ after they’d found a suitable narrative, but what usually happens is journalists adopt the style first and then set about reporting, eventually producing something with little substance and a lot of fluff.

Earlier today, Rosen – with a short thread on Twitter – laid out his issues with framing the news as stories. He argued that when journalists become storytellers, they open themselves up to being lured by the “seduction of the narrative” and, second, let the story’s needs edge out space that needs to be devoted to other “central” components of good journalism: “truth-telling, grounding public conversation in fact, verification, listening”, etc. To be sure, and at the risk of repetition, this criticism is directed at those who report to write stories and not at those who set out to report, find a story and then determine if can be narrated in a certain form.

To paraphrase Jeff Jarvis from his Christmas Day article that Rosen cites, we must ask ourselves “whether our compulsion to make news compelling (yes, entertaining) leads us astray.” He elaborates: 

The real problem is that we have let our means of production determine our mission rather than the other way around. I hear journalists say their primary role is as storytellers. No. I hear them say their task is to fill a product – a newspaper or magazine or show. No. Our job is to inform the public conversation. And now that we can hear people talking and join in with them, I’ve updated my definition of journalism to this: to convene communities into civil, informed, and productive conversation. This means our first job is not to write but to listen to that conversation so we can find what it needs to function. Then we report. Then we write – or convene or teach or use other forms now available to us. First listener, not storyteller.

In short: when we intend to tell stories, we close ourselves off to parts of the conversation that we don’t think can fulfil the story’s needs.

I find some consolation in this conclusion because I’ve felt similarly before and it’s nice to discover Rosen and Jarvis have as well: science stories – particularly in the ‘Columbia style’ – are typically about science’s connection to the human condition in some form or other. It’s quite difficult to frame a science-related issue as a story that doesn’t have this connection. Stories are fundamentally human. So when reporters preemptively gravitate towards this narrative style, they also preemptively – and often heedlessly – begin to ignore details that may not help them write these stories, details that have nothing to do with the human condition. A lot more on this here.

There are of course those labelled ‘great storytellers’, and you might argue that even if you didn’t have an awesome story to tell, you could spin an ordinary one that way if you excelled at the telling. This argument seems to have some logic in theory but I’ve never seen it done in practice.

Postscript: I’m also glad that Jarvis said the following (emphasis added): “… our first job is not to write but to listen to that conversation so we can find what it needs to function. Then we report. Then we write – or convene or teach or use other forms now available to us.”

In his definition, a lot more people become journalists because it precludes novelty of information and because it decouples the activity from how we choose to disseminate what we’ve found. The latter isn’t only about multimedia journalism but also about context-specific measures. For example, I consider science explainers to be a form of science journalism because science education is a bit of a disaster in India.