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Making the News Interesting
"Journalism: The style of writing characteristic of material in newspapers and magazines, consisting of direct presentation of facts or occurrences with little attempt at analysis or interpretation."The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition copyright © 1992 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Electronic version licensed from INSO Corporation. All rights reserved.
Aargh! With that definition, no wonder people are abandoning network news. The definition gets reporting partly right: unbiased coverage... if indeed there is such a thing. What it doesn't get right is: interest level. Should we be interested in events that happened simply because they are events that happened?
In the '60s I wrote, edited, read, and "tore the wire news" on radio. I had three important friends at that time, CBS News (Walter Cronkite), Associated Press wire news (AP), and US News and World Report. I had always been interested in the news. As a Cub Scout in the 1950s, I portrayed Walter Cronkite in a skit. While in radio in the '60s, I interviewed people and submitted my stories to AP. In this series, I'm going to immediately quote from two of these important old friends:
Hmmm. Two stories from the same source, one telling a story about entertainment getting in the way of doing a good job, and the other telling a story about attracting young people with interesting news that isn't merely entertaining. So much for unbiased reporting? The story that journalists (reporters and editors) choose to tell depends on the "slant" they want to give the story to get interest. OK, I'm down with that - "slant" isn't biased.
Slant is a major improvement on "direct presentation of facts or occurrences." Giving a chronological report of facts does not get an audience. Such stories lack context, meaning, and interesting narrative form. In this series on journalism, we will look at telling a story and making it "interesting," without telling it from a biased point of view.
Make news stories interesting? How? Cronkite says to do this with "good writing, good reporting and good editing." Right. Cryptic, Cronkite. Minimalist. Define "good." So, just how do you make news stories interesting?
This isn't a new problem. Anthropologists faced the very same problem. They would go out and live with some vastly different culture and then write ethnographic reports on the tales told by people in the culture. Apparently drilled into many of their heads was the "scientific" maxim, "Just the facts, 'mam."
Their reports of stories, written verbatim as the person told them, factually correct, complete with marks for emphasis, were as dry and barren of meaning as a skeleton in the desert sand. Both the ethnographer's chronological report of an event, and the tale told among peers, failed to convey meaning to outsiders. They lacked context.
In The Anthropology of Experience, Renato Rosaldo tells of an Ilongot Hunting story that is a good example of stories that fail to resonate with us.1
The story is only three paragraphs long, and it really doesn't mean much to an outsider. But if you look at the structure of the narrative, it begins with a good opening that creates a sense of place, anticipation, and suspense, and then it raises the stakes, has coherence throughout, and ends with a climax and a resolution. If the story isn't communicating, it isn't the storyteller's fault. It's because the listener doesn't know the context of a hunting experience, the geography, and the pitfalls of the environment. If strict reporting of chronological facts doesn't allow these vital things that communicate meaning, for the ethnographer or journalist there is little point in writing the story.
The result of such "factual" stories is meaningless annals devoid of societal importance. They don't communicate. Why? Within the culture, the hearer has complete context. The hearer knows the past, understands the hunter's skill, the places they hunt and the environmental hazards, the challenges they face and conquer through wit and skill, and what the results of injury or food mean for the future. The person listening from outside has no such knowledge. For the outsider, events could just as easily have been produced by a well oiled machine.
Rosaldo concludes that stories "...describe and play out the central qualities..." of the event or experience. Stories "...define the kinds of experiences they seek out on future..." experiences. They measure against qualities the society feels are important. 2 Note in Rosaldo's conclusions the place of the contributors of "meaning" in storytelling.
Edward Bruner, one of the editors of the anthology, tells us that "...ethnographers are guided by an implicit narrative structure, by a story we tell about the peoples we study." He advises that, "Stories make meaning. They operate at the level of semantics in addition to vocabulary and syntax. Just as a story has a beginning, a middle, and an end, culture change, too, almost by definition, takes the form of a sequence with a past, a present, and a future." He continues that, "Stories are interpretive devices which give meaning to the present in terms of location in an ordered syntagmatic sequence... The narrative structures we construct are not secondary narratives about data but primary narratives that establish what is to count as data... what constitutes the data of those accounts." 3
The US Supreme Court hearings demonstrate a good clue to finding relevance and meaning in facts, before rulings are made. The justices closely question the lawyers before them about the potential implications of the desired ruling. They ask, "In this circumstance what would happen? Would this apply to all...? What if...?
Supreme Court justices look beyond the cold facts to what the full implications of their ruling are for our society. They then limit the scope (or slant) of their rulings to have the effect on only certain things. In planning a story, journalists need to ask those same questions. "What does this mean to society?" Meaning and relevance - the implications of the event to people - are critically important, and the main things that generate interest.
This series actually began from the "Tips for Journalists" that I was creating, but the tips would never fit in the allotted space... so they became a series. I'm not a journalism specialist. This series is about understanding and improving storytelling as it applies to effective communications in journalism.
Watch for more articles in this series.
1. Renato Rosaldo. Ilongot Hunting as Story and Experience, p 104. In The Anthropology of Experience, edited by Victor W. Turner and Edward M. Bruner. 1986. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
2. --- Ilongot Hunting as Story and Experience, p 134. In The Anthropology of Experience, edited by Victor W. Turner and Edward M. Bruner. 1986. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
3. Edward M. Bruner. Ethnography as Narrative, pp 139 - 143. In The Anthropology of Experience, edited by Victor W. Turner and Edward M. Bruner. 1986. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
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