Storytelling Solutions for a Better Journalism
Created on: February 23, 2021
My Clwstwr research into news storytelling has brought up lots of questions about the effectiveness of the “inverted pyramid” style of writing that puts all the key information at the top of the story. There are conflicting theories on how and why it was adopted, but the change certainly happened around the development of the telegraph in the mid 19th century. It may have been that, because the telegraph was expensive and occasionally unreliable, it was important to make sure that key information was prioritised. The telegraph certainly had a profound effect on the way news was delivered, and indeed we still describe news agencies like Associated Press or Reuters as “wire services”.
Until then though, journalism was delivered in the same way as, say, fairy tales — starting at the beginning, “Once upon a time…” and proceeding to the end, where the actual “news” was often to be found. Ask a journalist now why they write the way you do, and you’ll often be met with a blank stare — the unspoken answer being, “That’s just the way we do it.” However it’s worth remembering that the flip from the linear to inverted writing style was itself seen as a revolutionary departure in itself in the mid 19th century.
This change in writing style was clearly a response to a fundamental change in delivery technology, but we have recently experienced perhaps the biggest change in delivery technology that there will ever be — with the advent of the internet, and the technical, social and cultural transformation that has followed.. Why then has the way we package news not responded to that enormous change? Astonishingly, producers of online news largely accept that readers will only read their stories for a matter of seconds and “high” engagement in a “news journey” is regarded as anything more than 2 minutes.
Surely we have to ask if the inverted pyramid is still fit for purpose, and indeed the even more fundamental question of whether the “article” itself is the most appropriate form for news in the 21st century and beyond.
Much of my work is looking at how best to utilise “modules” of information that can be repurposed in a variety of different ways, to match the needs and preferences of the user.
As part of the process of reimagining how we might do journalism, I worked with the George Ewart Evans Centre for Storytelling at the University of South Wales to look at what we might learn from traditional storytelling techniques, and how they might be applied to journalism. We ran a workshop which brought together storytellers of different stripes, journalists, technologists and students to share experience, analysis and insight to help us learn more about how we might rethink news storytelling in a progressive and engaging way.
Broadly, the day followed the structure below:
- Analysis and critique of current news articles
- Discussion of traditional forms of storytelling and potential applications to journalism
- Headlines — what are they for, what are they do, can we do them better?
- Story Writing — experiments in writing news differently
- Analysis of experiments — lessons learned
The initial story critique process sparked some fascinating conversations, largely around the fundamental question of “What journalism is for”. As I’ve written elsewhere, this is a question we, as journalists, don’t ask enough and it’s right that it should have been discussed before we even got onto the process of storytelling. An answer that proved popular was the idea that journalism should be about “orientation”, helping us find our place in the world and helping us to better engage with civil society.
Another key issue which arose from those conversations was just how much knowledge most journalism assumes — and how this can make news seem unwelcoming. On the day of our workshop, there was an announcement about the future of HS2, but we realised that not everyone knew what HS2 actually was. That may seem strange to journalists, but news isn’t just for other journalists — we need to better engage with what readers and viewers actually need. If two initials and a number appear in a headline with little context or explanation, then it’s understandable that users might find it embarrassing or exclusive. We need to provide better “entry points” to news, which don’t assume knowledge or at least give access to wider context or background.
When we came to discussing headlines, we agreed that they should be a “hook” to draw us in, but we also thought they should be a “frame” to explain and contextualise better and to help us understand what the shape of the story is going to be — to help with the orientation we’d discussed earlier.
When we came to writing our own headlines, participants were encouraged to think about why headlines are the way they are — largely a reflection of space constraints in newspapers — and whether there might be a different way of writing them. In the context of our earlier discussions, participants broadly felt that headlines as they are don’t really help in giving us entry points or orientation and perhaps it would be helpful if they were longer and more natural in style and tone. It was suggested that headlines might be more useful if they were more like the sentence-long summaries that you often see in newsletters. We certainly shouldn’t be constrained by how headlines always have been — the technical and practical reasons for that are no longer relevant. Having said that, in storytelling terms it seems ludicrous to give away the whole story in a headline as we often do. There is clearly a middle ground which frames the story better.
We were lucky to have the insights of Daniel Morden and Professor Joseph Sobol to guide us through some traditional storytelling techniques — like the Hero’s (or Heroine’s) story — and discussed how we might apply some of these forms to journalism. An interesting discussion was sparked around drama and melodrama as storytelling techniques, and how lots of journalism is characterised by both.
We often confect drama to create a “better” story — an example of this which we discussed was the coverage of the Coronavirus. We talked about how lots of people we knew were very scared about getting Coronavirus — even though the actual risks to individuals in the UK right now are miniscule. That comes almost entirely from the way in which the story is covered in the media, and there are good arguments to say that we should tone down the drama (or melodrama) in our reporting, in favour of clear, realistic, evidence-based reporting. It was noted that coverage of a British man who’d contracted Coronavirus focussed on his so-called “super-spreader” status rather than the fact that he was not particularly unwell and had managed his illness, and notified authorities in a textbook manner.
It was also pointed out that real drama tends to have resolution, but journalism often doesn’t, and as a result is unsatisfying and confusing. That doesn’t mean we can’t provide it of course, we just tend not to. There’s clearly a middle ground to be found there.
When participants came to writing their own stories, they were encouraged to do that in the light of everything they’d heard and discussed in the earlier sessions. An issue, pointed out by the journalism students in particular, was that we’re now very used to the normal journalistic form and it’s quite difficult to think about writing stories in a different way. Practically, that’s likely to be a problem in any implementation of journalistic change but of course it shouldn’t stop us trying.
We ended up with lots of different approaches to storytelling — from a poem at one end of the spectrum, to a forensic dissection of a story into its constituent parts. This last was particularly useful in helping us understand how “atomising” news is clearly possible, but the difficult questions arise in how best to put it back together.
All were really useful in helping to understand how different ways of writing change the reception of a story. One interesting line of enquiry that was thrown up was how we might use a series of questions to help us tell our stories. This links with some other work I’m doing around memorability and curiosity, because there’s very little point in writing news stories if users don’t remember any of the key facts. Fascinatingly, after discussing using simple question and answer formats in news, we discovered that this was exactly how Newsround had covered the Coronavirus story online.
Perhaps most interesting was the approach taken by theatre director, Yvonne Murphy. She essentially just flipped the original BBC News story she was working on upside down. By making the presentation more linear and focussing on the human story at the root of it, a very different and much more engaging story was told. The result was something that I’d suspected might be the case, but it was fascinating to see it play out in real life with real stories.
By the end of the day, it was clear that there are different ways of storytelling that may well be more effective ways of doing journalism than the status quo. We certainly need to keep thinking, and asking questions, rather than persisting with a model which is demonstrably not working. Armed with the insights gained from our day, I’ll now be moving on to creating some prototypes which draw on those learnings. Some of these will start from the proposition that the “article” itself isn’t necessarily the best way forward, and we need to draw on the new technological tools available to us to create a new form of journalism entirely.
Thanks to Clwstwr, the University of South Wales and the George Ewart Evans Centre for Storytelling, and all the workshop participants: Joseph Sobol, Emily Underwood-Lee, Daniel Morden, David Caswell, Yvonne Murphy, Emily Price, Alaw John and Helen Frost.
Created on: February 23, 2021