Intern Reflection: It’s not the story, it’s the way you tell it

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After this point (yes, week five), I started to feel like my internship had actually started.

Here’s what I did:

  • Curated content from national affiliate stations.
  • Monitored and shared trending stories on Social News Desk.
  • Formatted event calendars into shareable stories, and vice-versa.

Here’s what I learned:

  • A lot of weird things happen in Pennsylvania and Florida.
    • Pennsylvania and Florida alone provided pretty much all of my “Weird News” content. No offense, Pennsylvanians.
  • It’s not the story, it’s the way you tell it.
    • AP content is boring. A story isn’t funny, interesting, or shareable because of what it says- most of the time. You can tell the most benign tale in an interesting, vivid way, and people laugh, they want to read it, they’ve been adequately entertained to justify their decision to click, and they identify with something within the story (and/or a larger social truth that the story reflects). Basically, when you tell “weird news” stories, you are telling people a version of a familiar tale, in an interesting way. You are telling them something broader that they already know and believe, but telling it in a specific, personal, and quantifiable way. The story you’re telling- the facts- didn’t change. But the way you tell it- that has everything to do with what kind of  user you’re writing for.
  • Words matter. 
    • Actually, ^that phrasing is not strong enough. The idea is not your story. Your words are your story. If you have a fantastic idea, but pair it with lackluster words- it’s generally a low-impact, lackluster story. If you have a lackluster idea, but really, truly excellent words- honestly, half the time you can get away with it. Just tell the story well. It can be the dullest story in the world, “Broom Enters Closet,” but- since you’re stuck writing it, anyways- enjoy it. Make it something fun to write. Make it something fun to read. Yes, you’re communicating facts. But reality is not a blank data set of facts. Reality is a story. Use those facts to construct a story for your reader. Make those facts matter. Make inanimate data real. Make a dry anecdote into a human experience. This isn’t really true for fast, hard journalism (although it kind of applies)- but honestly, most of commercial media is not hard journalism. It’s good stories. Or, more specifically, it’s average stories, told extremely well.
      • How do you do this? Uh… it depends? In brief, make your facts matter to your reader. AKA:
        • Child marriage is an existing, practiced, and totally legal thing in the state of Louisiana. Lawmakers are suddenly (I guess, like, just now?) realizing that maybe this has some moral implications. Why should you care?
          • In brief: Child marriage? Wtf?
          • In non-brief: Because we, as a culture, exist alongside and within (often morally disturbing) institutional structures. What’s interesting about this story is not that it occurred, but that no one In Authority said anything, for a long time, when it did. It’s a little late to be outraged, and a lot more time to be… deeply concerned about some of our moral convictions and assumptions.
          • Depending on your reader, this story- and just the facts of this story, would communicate that:
          • Small-town rural people communities are morally backwards.
          • Churches and social institutions are corrupt.
          • The government is just finding excuses to crack down on religious folk for perfectly normal practices.
          • The public just doesn’t understand the sacred institution of marriage as defined by the Bible.
          • Literally what is going on in Louisiana.
          • Now that I think about creepy religious men, the validity of this 100% checks out.
          • This proposed, highly sensational legislation is being presented to preoccupy governing bodies from having to rule on larger, more controversial issues.

Basically, in other words- what you get out of the story is the reinforcement of what you already believe. No matter what the story says.

This is not an anomaly. For entertainment media- and, for most web content, this is the rule. Agitate or inspire. So long as you do one or the other, you’ll succeed.

To agitate or inspire: Media bias, moral mythologies, and the stories we don’t tell
This is not conducive to accurate reporting, the realistic construction of narratives, responsibly providing context for your reader, or, well- um, integrity. It feels.. bad. It feels.. really bad.

It feels bad telling the story of a fundamentally interesting thing (man robs bank, controversy transpires, threat emerges among innocents) through the format of visual, clickable media- I have, basically, three seconds max to tell you everything you need to know- and I cannot tell you the truth in three seconds, I can only tell you part of it- and in that part of it, you’ll see whatever it is you already wanted to see.

Every fact, every event, every conflict, functions or express itself, primarily, within your story. You are living a story.  You are, always, creating a narrative of your life. But life is not linear. Life is scattered fragments of events, news headlines, partial quotes, and anticlimactic endings.

Too often, when you’re writing a highly standardized kind of story (robber does crime, thief steals the thing, child hero helps community) the story as you’ve heard it written- or the story as people want it to be told- writes you. In a way, it’s difficult to narrate this space objectively, because your readers have already filled in existing bits of a social script- and you are, implicitly, confined to narrating mythologies of implicit bias, bogey badmen, and contentless tales that inspire fear or reflect suspicions- stories that don’t tell the truth in the way we tell them (the facts are true, but, when portrayed archetypally, they do not provide adequate context for the understanding of an event or its cultural implications) and they don’t make the world a better place.

Honestly? I think giving headlines to nonviolent criminals is, 9 times out of 10, a complete waste of time. And it’s not…news. Not really. It enhances racial or class-typified criminal profiling and prejudice in its portrayal, sure. It constructs a narrative of Certain People as inherently dangerous. It reinforces implicit biases and prejudice which sustain structures of social power and control.

Does it reflect an active threat to an individual? No.

Does it reflect a genuinely newsworthy thing that happened locally (AKA ‘man robs 7/11′ versus City Council reforms school system budget’)? Which one probably will actually affect your life more? Which one is actually, truly, more authentically news? Are we covering what is right, or what is easy?

Are we journalism, or entertainment?

Is our purpose to inform, or to impact?

And lastly, not leastly, which action will write us sufficient checks (to justify what is, already, a largely thankless job)?

This is just the way it works, everyone says. You just report it, everyone says. You don’t get to be creative, or honest, or critical yet, everyone says. Unidentified Male Robs 7/11.

This is just what happened, everyone says. This is just what you do, everyone says. You just have to tell it, everyone says. This is the way the world is, everyone says.

But I’m not telling it. I’m not telling the full story. I’m telling one brief fragment of a much broader, more complicated- and more controversial- narrative. When I give you a bare-bone structure of three to four sentences decontextualizing an alleged event that (it’s pretty clear) we are covering because it’s “the type of story” we tend to cover? Am I telling “the type of story” that’s responsible? Am I telling “the type of story” that’s relevant? Am I telling “the type of story” that’s, implicitly, true- not for the event’s factual accuracy, but for what my choice, in particular to focus on it implies? And does that say something about my subject, or does that say something about me?

Am I doing what is easy, or am I doing what is right?

It’s not always honest to publish four sentences describing a complex situation, without context- intentionally tugging upon deeper social and cultural tensions of bias, oppression, and inequality. You are dealing with the elements of power, here, in the story you tell.

And that’s not just in what you say. It’s in what you don’t.

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