Matt Thompson

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News Without the Narrative Needed to Make Sense of the News: What I Will Say at SXSW is where and how Jay Rosen lays out his current thinking on new agendas for whatever journalism will become after we’re done with the current transition.

He has long been concerned with how explanation is “under-emphasized in the modern newsroom” and offers excellent examples of how explaining should work, as well as ideas about how to institutionalize it. For example, “The goal is to surface the hidden demand for explanation and create a kind of user-driven assignment desk for the explainer genre, which is itself under-developed in pro journalism”. He adds, “Are there other ways to surface this kind of demand?”

I’d call attention to the imperatives of stories, and the role that might be played by new sets of well-explained facts that can help frame or re-frame a story.

See, stories are what assignment editors want. They’re also what readers want. And stories are different to some degree from the current vogue-word narrative. They do overlap, but they are different.

A few months back I visited the subject of story in What’s right with Wikipedia? — a piece I wrote in response to a What’s Wrong With Wikipedia story that had run in the Wall Steet Journal. I don’t know if that story was part of the WSJ’s GOP-aligned “What’s Wrong With Everything Liberals Do” narrative, but in any case I felt the matter needed explaining. Some Wikipedians did a good job of showing how there wasn’t much of a story there (read the piece to see how). For my part, I felt the need to explain what stories are actually about, which is problems, or struggles. Said I,

Three elements make stories interesting: 1) a protagonist we know, or is at least interesting; 2) a struggle of some kind; and 3) movement (or possible movement) toward a resolution. Struggle is at the heart of a story. There has to be a problem (what to do with Afghanistan), a conflict (a game between good teams, going to the final seconds), a mystery (wtf was Tiger Woods’ accident all about?), a wealth of complications (Brad and Angelina), a crazy success (the iPhone), failings of the mighty (Nixon and Watergate). The Journal‘s Wikipedia story is of the Mighty Falling variety.

In his piece Jay mentions what a good Job the Giant Pool of Money episode of This American Life did of bringing sense to the country’s financial crisis. This gave rise to the PlanetMoney podcast, which is also terrific at explaining things. PlanetMoney feeds some of its best stuff to NPR’s news flow as well. One good example is Accidents of History Created U.S. Health System, which made it clear how we got to our wacky employer-supported health insurance system. Go listen to it and see if you don’t have a much better grasp on the challenge, if not of the solutions, currently on the table.

My point here, or one of them, is that the real story isn’t Obama vs. Intransigent Republicans (the Dems’ narrative) or Sensible Americans against Government Takeover (the Reps narrartive), but that we’ve got a health care system that burdens employers almost exclusively, rather than individuals, government (save for VA, Medicare and Medicaid), or other institutions. It’s an open quetion whether or not that’s screwed up, but at least it’s a question that ought to be at the center of the table, or the “debate” that been both boring and appalling.

This is consistent with what Matt Thompson says in The three key parts of news stories you usually don’t get, # 2 of which is WHAT WE MISS (1): The longstanding facts. But we also miss seeing the role that longstanding overlooked facts might play amongst the three story elements: protagonist, problem and movement. Take the problem of employer responsibility as a structural premise for health care. By itself, the problem just sits there. We need a protagonist and a sense that the story has movement. In the absence of either, we look for other defaults. Thus we cast Obama and his opponents as the protagonists, or to get into characterization as the issue if the topic gets logjammed, which it has been for awhile. So we hear about problems with the president’s charactrer. He’s not leading. Or … whatever. You can fill in the blanks

Meanwhile, we live in a world where employers are almost nothing like they were when the current health care system solidified at the end of World War II. In many towns (Santa Barbara, for example) the (or at least a) leading employer is “self”. Tried to get insurance for your self-employed butt lately? How about if you’re older than a child and have a medical history that’s other than perfect? Scary shit. Does the Obama plan make things better for you? According to this story in CNN, “Health insurance exchanges would be created to make it easier for small businesses, the self-employed and unemployed to pool resources and purchase less expensive coverage.” Hmm. “Easier” doesn’t sound like much relief. But doing nothing doesn’t sound good either.

So the easy thing is to go back to covering the compromise bill’s chances in Congress, and the politics surrounding it. That at least makes some kind of sense. We have all our story elements in place. It’s all politics from here on. Bring in the sports and war metaphors and let automated processes carry the rest. Don’t dig, just dine. The sausage-machine rocks on.

As Matt says, “… rarely do we acknowledge what we’re pursuing. When our questions make it into the coverage at all, they have to appear in the mouths of our sources, resulting in paltry, contorted pieces like this one, from the AP. Or they’re attributed to no one, weaseled into a headline that says only, ‘[Such-and-such] raises questions.’ Whose questions? Not ours, certainly.”

I also wonder if we’re barking up the wrong tree (or down the wrong hole) when we obsess about “curation” of news — a favorite topic of mainstream media preservationists. Maybe what we need is to see explainers as advocates of our curiosity about the deep questions, or deep facts, such that they might become unavoidable in news coverage.

This, of course, begs the creation of whole new institutions. Which is the job that Jay has taken up here. Let’s help him out with it.

[Later...] An additional thought: statistics aren’t stories.

I remember hearing about what were later called the killing fields of Cambodia, after refugees reported Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge were murdering what eventually became more than a million people. Hughes Rudd delivered the story one on the CBS Morning News, as I recall between items on the Superbowl and Patty Hearst. He said that perhaps half a million people were already dead. But the story wasn’t a story. It was an item. It wasn’t until Sydney Shamberg ran “The Death and Life of Dith Pran” in the New York Times’ Sunday Magazine that the story got real. It got human. It had a protagonist. It became a movie.

I thought about this when I noticed there were exactly no comments following my Gendercide post. Here’s the fact that matters: countless baby girls are being killed, right now. But that’s not a story. Not yet. Not even with help from The Economist. I think the job here isn’t just to get more facts, or even to get the right name and the right face. The story needs its Dith Pran, and doesn’t have her yet. (Or, if it does, news hasn’t spread.)

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