The Problem With Stories

In journalism school and newsrooms, we teach as an advanced skill the ability to know what a story is: what characters, conflict, newsworthy peg, and narrative potential comprise a tale that people will read, that is worth space in print, that promises to attract traffic, clicks, pageviews, and attention. The story is the thing.

“How about a story about a nazi?” a New York Times reporter asked his boss. Well, that ticks all the boxes: character, conflict, peg, catchy headline (“A Voice of Hate in America’s Heartland”), clicks, attention. Get on a plane! But, of course, the resulting profile has been met with righteous and proper derision for normalizing nazis. It didn’t tell us anything Hannah Arrendt hadn’t told us years ago, except that modern-day nazis eat at Panera.

The problem, I think, is our system of pitching stories to fill our products. The goal of journalism is not to write stories people will read. The goal of journalism is to educate, to uncover, to check, to dog, to connect, to convene, to converse, to improve society, to have a positive impact. The nazi story did none of that. It didn’t even satisfy a curiosity. Instead, it did harm, for it made it seem as if any white guy could be a nazi and thus turned a nazi into any guy, which is simply not true. The Times is accused of ignoring flyover country and now it essentially insults the heartland as the land of potential nazis; better not to have bothered. The story did not explain how this white guy became a nazi and the reporter recognized that, confessing that he left a hole, a hole so gaping that it should have led him and his editor to kill it. Buzzfeed’s Charlie Warzel got closer to the origins of this man’s hate by delving into online radicalization — well demonstrating Storyful’s argument (in a piece commissioned by the News Integrity Intiatitive, which I started) that every newsroom now needs a 4chan correspondent. Screw the Panera beat. Who’s on the Pepe beat?

OK, so let’s reimagine a purpose-driven conversation between reporter and editor about American nazis:

Reporter: “I want to do a story about a nazi.”

Editor: “I don’t care what you want to do. What does the world need you to do?”

Reporter: “The public needs a story about a nazi.”

Editor: “Why? How do you know that? Give me evidence.”

Reporter: “I’ve been digging into 4chan and social groups and watching memes to find the roots of hate online, to understand the methods by which people are radicalized and recruited and how they organize. I’ve been talking with researchers at Data & Society, Storyful, and elsewhere to take advantage of what they’re learning.”

Editor: “So?”

Reporter: “I can track the process and explain it.”

Editor: “Why do people need to know that? What good will it do them? How do you connect this with their lives and their needs?”

Reporter: “A few ways go to: I could find a newly minted nazi and explain how he got there: the roots in his life that made him vulnerable and what hooked him.”

Editor: “That’s hard. You assume that the roots of his naziism come from the roots of his life; I’d want to see evidence of that. You need to do more than have coffee with a nazi and repeat what he says. The Times did that. Do you have a nazi in hand?”

Reporter: “Not yet.”

Editor: “What else can you do?”

Reporter: “I can track a meme that entered into the mainstream conversation and show how it got there, like Pizzagate.”

Editor: “Maybe. Do you know enough to expose the culpability of not just the trolls and even the Russians but also the media and the platforms? Do you have enough data to do that?”

Reporter: “Not yet. But there’s something else I could do. I could expose what they’re working on next. For example, they want to go after the U.S. Census. I’ve seen them talking about that and getting memes ready, trying to convince people that the Census is ‘rigged’ (sound familiar?) and that it should be subverted.”

Editor: “So, what do you want to do? Fact-check them? We have lots of fact-checkers these days.”

Reporter: “No. That would lend credence and credibility to what the Census-attackers say. It would help them set the agenda of news and the public conversation. It would mean that we are doing their bidding.”

Editor: “So what do you do instead?”

Reporter: “We report the methods and the motives — but not the message. We show precisely how they are readying to inject their lies into social media and then mainstream media. We explain how this fits into their larger, well-documented strategy of breeding polarization, of suppressing the vote, of maintaining gerryrigged voting maps, of sowing distrust in government and institutions.”

Editor: “So it’s a process story.”

Reporter: “No, it’s arming the public. At the same time, we need to anticipate the lies that will be told and innoculate the public against them. We need to do good reporting on the census itself and explain why it’s important and how it operates and how the government itself is undercutting its own Census. We need to empower citizens to call on their representatives to protect this keystone of electoral democracy.”

Editor: “How do you measure success?”

Reporter: “Not with those fucking page views projected on the wall. Will you turn that off already? And not with likes or clicks or shares.”

Editor: “Then how?”

Reporter: “With impact. With change. With knowing we had a role in assuring a free and fair election, a more civil and informed and productive public conversation. With knowing we helped expose manipulation and maybe warned off some future victims of it.”

Editor: “You sound like an advocate.”

Reporter: “You got a problem with that?”

Editor: “Hell no. This is journalism.”

Reporter: “What form should this take? A story?”

Editor: “It should take whatever form it needs to to accomplish your goals. It could be a map and timeline of manipulation or a video course on how manipulation occurs or….”

Reporter: “But not an interview with a nazi. Should I cancel my flight to the flyover country?”

Editor: “Instead book a moving van. I want you to move there. Do more than fly in and fly out and think you understand a people with an anecdote of one. Understand the people and their needs and goals and bring me back evidence that informs how we allocate our precious resources and serve the public and make a difference.”

Reporter: “Do I have to eat in Panera?”

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