Is your story actually a story?

“The problem with many news stories is that they’re not really stories at all.” (Source: Advancing the Story, an excellent blog about broadcast journalism and multimedia.)

This is true not only in TV news but across the board — and not only for student work! Sometimes the material is new (or at least news), but it lacks story. It lacks the quality of a story.

I like to say a lot of journalism is merely reports. A report is NOT a story. The act of reporting can produce a story, but usually, it doesn’t.

The five W’s and an H produce a report, a listing of facts. A good reporter shapes them into a optimum bundle, with a sensible order and no unnecessary chatter, no repetition — and no factual errors (we hope). Around the world, that reporting bundle is called “a story,” and I’m not trying to change the vocabulary. What we call that bundle is not the issue.

The issue is that when I ask students to go out and find a story that is interesting, that is fresh, that has something new or provocative or engaging to offer — they come back with a report. A report about a fund-raising event, a band practice, a street-corner protest. But there’s no story there.

I think that in the process of teaching them reporting, we may kill their instinct for finding and telling real stories.

Is that the problem? Or have they never known what a story is?

6 Comments on “Is your story actually a story?

  1. I like your insights, but I don’t think teaching students reporting skills kills “their instinct for finding and telling real stories.”

    I think it’s the opposite.

    In many ways those basic objective journalism skills help reporters and writers both fiction and nonfiction sift through complicated subjects to ultimately discover what the story is. It helps them hone their instincts, I believe.

    Think of all what is taught — all are great tools to tell a story. From basic reporting on we learn how to look at things critically using an objective lens. We’re asked to put ourselves in the position of whom were writing about in order to be fair. We have to learn how to gather facts from documents and people by learning the art of interviewing. We learn the little appreciated but highly valued genre of objective news writing that teaches us about brevity and how to use finer details to illustrate larger themes and points … Such story telling principles are bedrock principles in taking photos and video.

    Look at the many great story tellers have been journalists and use journalistic techniques to tell their stories (Hemmingway for instance). I’d tell anyone who wants to be a reporter or playwright or novelist or speech writer … I’d tell them to take a journalism class. You can learn a lot.

    So, it’s not what we teach, I think. It’s other factors.

    First, what we can’t forget is with students is it takes longer than a single class or even a bachelor’s degree to really become an expert or professional in news writing and reporting. I’ve heard the theory that it really takes about 10 years of doing something to master it. I think that’s true for many people.

    In addition, once you reach the professional world there’s a 24-hour news cycle that demands the latest headline and facts about subjects rather than deep analysis or searching for a deeper story. This is tied to the current economics of journalism where it’s harder to make a buck. As a consequence, beat and specialty reporting at professional news gathering organizations has diminished and there are fewer reporters in these roles to tell the stories behind the facts.

    So demanding enterprise reporting (my words for your story) is a worthy goal to ask students and and for media companies to ask of their professionals, but even for the most experienced and skilled it requires time, hard work and resources to produce it.

    Hence, the less we see it these days and why we appreciate it when we do.

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Chris. I agree with many of your points — especially that it takes longer than a single class (or four years) to learn how to be a good journalist. Or maybe I should say an above-average journalist.

    But I will argue that I’m thinking of something a bit less lofty than real enterprise reporting. I’m thinking of the ability to walk down the street, or go to the shopping mall or the center of campus, and spot something in which you can discover something fresh.

    There are stories right under our noses everywhere we go. There’s no need to go to “an event” to find a story. I don’t mean deep analysis but rather a spark, a nugget, a neat little twist.

    How can we train students to find those?

  3. Quality practice, I say.

    And this is the challenging part for us as instructors … Designing assignments that provide opportunities for meaningful feedback that are relevant to the profession and appealing to students to attempt and for instructors to teach.

    And even with the best assignments, this is where I think we as instructors have to be patient and expect that many students won’t do well right away … That they’ll come back with just a report and likely an incomplete one, especially at first. But we should embrace that and not be frustrated. Making mistakes and is how people learn.

    That’s why student-run publications and internships are so important … With the demands on a student’s time and the size of classes, it can be so difficult for them to get enough feedback (editing) from instructors, even the best ones.

    Yet there’s more we can and should do. I think the other important job for instructors is to inspire our students to be passionate about our profession. That helps feed the drive necessary to learn what over time ultimately is perceived as a “nose for news.”

  4. Pingback: Teaching Online Journalism » Teaching about storytelling

  5. For me, there are some basic questions that help me think about story when I’m reporting an assignment. I may ask these questions in interviews, or I may just ask myself to form a basis for the information I will seek.

    For example:
    Why should people care about this topic?
    In what ways were lives changed?
    How can others relate their own lives to what is happening here?

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