Teaching Examples

Telling the story: When you don’t have it easy
May 16, 2007, 4:48 am
Filed under: audio, journalism, multimedia, storytelling

I finally got my hands on a copy of “Telling the Story: The National Public Radio Guide to Radio Journalism,” published in 1983.

In general, the more powerful the event, the easier it will be to do a story, because strong stories tell themselves. If you are working on a story about prison conditions and a riot breaks out, your only problems are getting to the riot, recording the right sounds, asking the right questions of the right people and getting out in one piece. But if the prison is quiet, you will have to look for the events that evoke prison life — perhaps the slow movement of a new prisoner through a tough entry procedure, or the sounds of the night lock-up, or the sermon at Sunday chapel, or the conversations of guards and prisoners about past events. (Chris Koch, p. 3)

It’s hard to teach this stuff. You can go out and interview one or two people, edit the audio nicely, and put it together with some photos — but have you told a story? I’m teaching a new course in the fall and I want to make sure we are continually reminding ourselves that the ultimate goal is to tell a story.

While we want to prepare students to cover real breaking news well, I think it’s important to admit that the bulk of daily journalism is NOT breaking news. If it’s breaking, like Koch says, you have to hustle your butt to the scene, try to see and hear everything, gather as much video, audio, photos and notes as possible, and get out in time to post to the Web, edit tape, write a story for tomorrow’s print edition.

But most stories are harder than that — even though they are easier in the sense that the reporter is not under the same pressure.

You can waste time trying to do news stories on vague ideas…. [P]ieces about poverty, poor education, crime in the streets, corruption, inflation, freedom of speech and other abstractions…. If journalists are interested in these things and want to do stories about them, then they will look for events. (Koch, p. 3)

In contrast to trying to tell a story without any events, sometimes we settle for relating events without telling a story.

I see this both with students’ work and in regular daily journalism. The subject might be interesting, but at the end, the reader or viewer is left with a kind of “So what?” feeling.

To combat that, we’ve got to be able to summarize the story and also why it matters. Okay, here’s a person who does an interesting job. You photograph, you gather audio, you have an interesting two minutes. About what? If all you can say is, “It’s about these two furniture makers and what they do,” I think you should admit that that’s not really a story. If it’s about how they quit their stockbroker jobs in the big city to move out to the countryside and pursue a dream — then THAT might make a story.

I say “might” and not “would” because it all depends how you tell it. If the heart and emotion can be seen and heard, then it’s a story. But if it’s flat and matter-of-fact, it may all come to nothing.

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4 Comments so far
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Hi Mindy: hard work to catch the point in any story. Alex Blumberg, producer at This American Life, “developed a mathematical test to tell whether you’re on the right track”.
You can find his manifesto in Transom.org:

Comment by Jose Luis

Ha, great contribution, Jose Luis! Thanks!

The link — and a quote:

“And I also don’t remember why I possibly thought This American Life would want to devote any part of its hour on the air to a ‘story’ without characters, ideas or conflict. But I do remember what I thought they should call the gardening-themed show that I thought my community garden story should go into. I thought they should call the show ‘Flowers from the Dead Earth.’ I thought this was a line from the Wasteland, a poem by T.S. Eliot which I’d never actually read, and which it turns out, I’d misquoted. Badly, actually.”

Comment by Mindy McAdams

“I finally got my hands on a copy of “Telling the Story: The National Public Radio Guide to Radio Journalism,” published in 1983.”

Is this book incredibly hard to find, or you just now got around to picking one up?

Comment by joseph hollak

Well, it’s been out of print for several years. And while you can usually locate a few used copies on Amazon, sometimes the prices are very high. I got it for $20 OR $25.

A few radio people have told me it’s STILL the best textbook for learning to gather audio. That’s why I decided to buy it.

Comment by Mindy McAdams

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