How the careful use of creative tools can strengthen storytelling.

Sarah Shourd
Apr 2 · 7 min read

Truth can sometimes be inconvenient when crafting a narrative.

As journalists, we dig and dig for something new to show the world. We ask endless questions and often take the longer road on blind faith, trusting our instincts that our work will reveal something that benefits society.

Yet, we’re also storytellers, and story has been around much longer than journalism, at least as long as we’ve been sitting around campfires, which is a megaannum — or a million years. For that reason, telling a story has its own logic, almost a formula that has developed in tandem with our languages, societies and the human brain itself. Story shapes our thoughts. Story is powerful.

As a journalist, I’ve used a lot of creative tools. I’ve adapted my investigations to podcasting, theater and now a graphic novel. I know first hand that creative tools can sometimes be a tempting shortcut. Wouldn’t it be nice, for example, to merge those two “characters” into one? Or to tweak the timeline just a smidge to increase the narrative tension? You could spare the reader confusion, streamline the story and save precious space. But in journalism this isn’t an option. The stories we tell are a record, what former Washington Post Publisher Phillip Graham is credited with calling “the first draft of history.”

“When you start moving things around for narrative purposes or to make the story better, you’re employing the tools of fiction the way a fiction writer employs them,” says Kelly McBride, senior vice president and media ethicist at The Poynter Institute. “Journalism does a very specific thing. It documents what has happened so people can make decisions, so citizens can participate in democracy.”

As a 2019 JSK Journalism Fellow at Stanford I’m looking at how journalists can be more transparent in our use of creative tools. How can we draw the public into the storytelling process instead of obscuring it? How does this play out differently in mediums such as photography, documentary film and narrative nonfiction? How might transparency in our trade engage the public, and even regain some of the trust journalism has lost?

The problem of reenactments

All story is communicated through symbolic representations. In writing, you paint a picture in someone’s mind using words as symbols. In visual media, such as photography and documentary film, images become symbols, which our brains are much more likely to automatically accept as real.

Thin Blue Line,” is a documentary film about a man named Randall Dale Adams, who was sentenced to death for the murder of a policeman. Errol Morris made the film in 1988. About half the film is made up of interviews with bystanders, policemen or the two men accused of the crime. The other half is staged reenactments of the shooting itself, where actors bring different versions of the crime to life. The result is a groundbreaking documentary that led to Adam’s release from prison little over a year after the film’s release.

Reenactments walk a murky line. There’s something about the viewer not being able to discern the difference between what’s real and what’s acting that feels deceitful. McBride cautions that reenactments can be “really dicey. It has to be very, very clear that this is a reenactment. Reenactments are not journalistic; the word itself has ‘acting’ in it. For journalists you would not reenact something; there are other tools available.”

Thin Blue Line (fragment)

Yet Morris’ film uses reenactments in a very intentional way. First, the scenes played by actors are much more stylized and dramatic than the static, interview scenes. Watching the documentary, I never experienced any doubt or ambiguity as to when I was watching real-life footage or actors performing.

But the use of reenactments is not always so clear. Many documentaries contain footage played by actors that seamlessly blends into the larger piece. Regardless of how transparent the filmmaker tries to be, most people aren’t trained to recognize when and if what they’re seeing is real or “fake.”

Could Morris have been more transparent? He couple have simply stated “this is a reenactment” at the beginning of every acted scene. Would that have been confusing to the viewer, interrupted their trance? Perhaps. But it also could have been an invitation for a viewer, who, like more people, isn’t inclined to do their own research, someone who would otherwise have taken what they saw at face value.

The use of tools of “fiction” in Morris’ film are what ultimately lead to the highest level of truth-telling. Journalism’s goal, as articulated by McBride, is to give the public the information and analysis it needs to “participate in democracy.” By so clearly and persuasively exposing the flaws in our judicial system through creative storytelling, Morris’ film does just that.

When journalism becomes novelistic

Another example of a journalist’s use of creative tools to bring their investigation to life is Katherine Boo’s “Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity.”

Boo is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who wrote for The New Yorker and The Washington Post before publishing her first book. Similar to Morris’ film, “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” revolves around the circumstances of crime, the self-immolation of a woman named Fatima (known by her neighbors as One Leg), a resident of an Indian slum named Annawadi located near the Mumbai airport.

Katherine Boo on Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Boo’s book is nonfiction, but it reads like a novel. Her gorgeous prose weaves together direct quotes, observations and mountains of research. To achieve this level of artistry in a work of nonfiction, Boo immersed herself in her subjects’ lives for three years. While reading the book, it boggles the mind to imagine just how many hundreds of hours of interviews it must have taken to get inside the minds of the residents of Annawadi the way she did.

In the author’s note at the end of her book, Boo educates her readers on her investigative methods. She says that she tried to compensate for her outsider status as a white foreigner by relentless documentation. She writes that people portrayed in her book “had concerns more pressing than my presence. After a month or two of curiosity, they went more or less about their business, as I chronicled their lives.”

What if Boo had brought the content of her epilogue, appended to the back of the book, into the work itself? I discussed this with my colleague JSK Fellow H R Venkatesh, an Indian journalist. We both find it impossible to imagine that Boo’s presence in the slum as a white foreigner didn’t affect the story. When a journalist is that deeply immersed in the lives of the people they’re investigating, they almost have to include themselves in the narrative. Weaving her own presence in Annawadi into the narrative might have made it less novelistic, but it would have made her influence more transparent.

This is an example of what McBride calls “competing loyalties” — when the power of the story threatens journalistic transparency. McBride says these decisions are a matter of priority for a journalist: “Your production values can’t undermine your journalistic values.”

In both cases, whether it’s Boo including her experience as a foreigner in the narrative, or Morris’ announcing his use of reenactments, transparency in journalism runs the risk of taking our audience out of the drama of the moment. Those are the choices we as journalists have to make.

But the challenge doesn’t stop there, before I share my conclusions, let me share my thoughts on one more medium.

Redlines of interference

A photojournalist must document the world as she sees it, without changing it in any way, except to change her position and that of her camera. But when does a journalist’s presence, or influence, become interference?

According to McBride, a photographer should not intervene in the moment they are photographing unless “a human life is at stake and you are the most competent person to help.”

Recently a crew of videographers working with English broadcaster and historian David Attenborough encountered a group of penguin mothers and their babies stuck in a hole. The mothers could get out, but they couldn’t carry their babies with them up the icy slope. After several days, some of the mothers started to abandon their babies, while others stayed with them. Finally, the crew decided to intervene by building an ice bridge for the mothers to use to rescue their babies.

When they released this footage, the public cheered them, while some other photojournalists asked whether this was still journalism if the videographers’ intervention was shielding us from the reality of the cruel, natural world.

Film Crew Helps Penguins (Antarctica) -BBC News- 19 November 2018

McBride says she’s not opposed to the crew helping the penguins. “Had they intervened for production reasons, I would object to their motives. In this case, they wanted to save the penguins; I’m OK with that.”

Instead of just observing, they took action, and in the process they documented an even more interesting story, one that included them. Perhaps those videographers weren’t practicing strict journalism, but they were transparent about their reasons for breaking with journalistic convention. In being more open about her involvement in the events that transpired in Annawadi, perhaps Boo could have done the same.

Journalists, let’s show our seams (or dare I say undergarments?)

Perhaps the slick, polished illusion of the magic trick is better left for pure entertainment. One way to educate the public and regain its trust in journalism is by drawing our audience into the process by showing the seams of the garments — or stories — we create.

It should always be clear to our audience what’s real and what isn’t. They should know whether our presence influenced the people and events that transpired. Sometimes our own messy grappling with truth, identity and bias is an equally fascinating story to tell, so why have we left it out for so long?

In the world of misinformation and “deep fakes,” journalistic transparency is more important than ever, as is the need for powerful storytelling — because the public needs more than just facts to inspire us to “make decisions and participate in democracy.” We need stories that are timely, true and that move us to act.

Imagine a dress sewn in a way that your eyes can trace its pattern on the arc of a sleeve or the swoop of a skirt, decorated with the numbers and arrows that illustrate the beauty of the process that made it. The way we use creative means to investigate and tell a story can become a transparent, and engaging, part of the story itself.

All truth is messy, a work in progress. So perhaps that’s how we, as truth-tellers, should aspire to tell it.

JSK Class of 2019

Insights and updates from members of the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships Class of 2019 at Stanford University

Sarah Shourd

Written by

Multi-media, narrative-focused journalist using the tools of fiction to humanize and bring facts to life. Currently a @JSKstanford fellow. Sshourd@stanford.edu.

JSK Class of 2019

Insights and updates from members of the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships Class of 2019 at Stanford University

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade