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Some of you aren’t going to like this

by Candace Bowen, MJE
Yes, it’s true. I’m going to question a concept scholastic media latched onto and often treats like the solution to all media problems. We got it from commercial media and have adopted it passionately: It’s storytelling.

And, yes, it certainly has some value, but it has some pitfalls we and our students sometimes overlook. Big pitfalls.

But first a bit of back story.

About 20 years ago, a fellow high school journalism teacher from Iowa and I were teaching “fact-based American journalism” to teens in Prague and Bratislava. These were two-week boot camps with about 30 students at each site, sponsored by Hungarian-born philanthropist George Soros and his Open Society Foundations. Because not all of our students spoke English, we had support from interpreters.

The ones in Prague were excellent, majoring in this at Charles University and very serious about being accurate. Of course, they had no journalism background, so many nights they double checked their understanding and jargon with some of their friends who were studying to be reporters.

That’s how, on about the third day, they sought us out before the group session started. “We’ve been translating something wrong,” Lucie said apologetically. “And we should have known better.”

She explained that when we sometimes used the word “story” in our descriptions of what the students would be writing for the end-of-the-workshop newspaper, they were translating it as “příběh,“ which referred to fiction, but it should be “reportáž,“ which means news story, the factual reporting we were trying to teach.

Ever since then, a small part of me twitches when I hear journalists talk endlessly about “stories” and “storytelling.” I try to be very careful with my freshman news majors, making it clear all they will do is based on fact.

Thus when I read a tweet from New York University professor and media critic Jay Rosen* a week or so ago, it struck a chord. I happened to see one of several tweets he had about the problems with the term “storytelling”:

“I don’t know how our journalists came to see ‘storytelling’ as the heart of what they do, and ‘storyteller’ as a self-description. I can think of 4-5 elements of journalism more central than ‘story.’ Truthtelling, grounding public conversation in fact, verificationlistening.” (The boldface is mine.)

Then another much-followed media expert, Jeff Jarvis*, who was, by the way, an award-winning high school journalist in his younger days, shared articles and tweets about a German newspaper situation, “The Spiegel Scandal and the Seduction of Storytelling.”There 33-year-old reporter Claas Relotius made up “article after article” because, as he told his editors, he was “motivated by fear of failure.”

Yes, it sounds like Jason Blair, Stephen Glass and Janet Cooke. But Jarvis goes on to explore this more thoroughly through articles in German media about Relotius and his fabrications. Jarvis translates and quotes “A Beautiful Lie,” an essay by Bernhard Pörksen’s in Die Zeit: “What shows up here is called the narrative distortion, story bias. You have the story in your head, you know what sound readers or colleagues want to hear. And you deliver what works.”

Both Jarvis and Rosen write about the problem with the phrase “getting the story” or “getting a quote for the story.” It’s a concept I have warned students to avoid. It sends the message to me that the student isn’t reporting the facts, telling what’s really going on as much as he or she is following a formula – narrative arc, starting and ending with a representative person, using quotes to make it real and move the story along.

All those devices can be fine. They can help attract readers who might otherwise just click on or flip to something else. It gives the situation a face that grabs the attention of today’s often fickle audience.

But it needs to be used sparingly and carefully.

*Rosen had 245K followers on Twitter and Jarvis has 169K.

2 Comments

  1. Thank you, Candace, for setting this before us to remind us the true job of journalists.

  2. Thank you, Candance for putting it into perspective. I feel like you nailed it when you said truth-telling. Journalism students need to be reminded that they need to share the truths as to what is going on in the world around them.

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