Where Journalism Fails

“What’s the story?”

No question is asked more often by editors in newsrooms than that one. And for good reason: that’s what news is about: stories.

I was just 22 when I got my first gig as a journalist, reporting for a daily newspaper in New Jersey. It was there that I first learned that all stories are built around just three elements:

  1. Character
  2. Problem
  3. Movement toward resolution

You need all three. Subtract one or more, and all you have is an item, or an incident. Not a story. So let’s unpack those a bit.

The character can be a person, a group, a team, a cause—anything with a noun. Mainly the character needs to be worth caring about in some way. You can love the character, hate it (or him, or her or whatever). Mainly you have to care about the character enough to be interested.

The problem can be of any kind at all, so long as it causes conflict involving the character. All that matters is that the conflict keeps going, at least toward the possibility of resolution. If the conflict ends, the story is over. For example, if you’re at a sports event, and your team is up (or down) by forty points with five minutes left, the character you now care about is your own ass, and your problem is getting it out of the parking lot. If that struggle turns out to be interesting, it might be a story you tell later at a bar.)

Movement toward resolution is nothing more than that. Bear in mind that many stories, and many characters in many conflicts around many problems in stories, never arrive at a conclusion. In fact, that may be part of the story itself. Soap operas work that way.

For a case-in-point of how this can go very wrong, we have the problem-making character now serving as President of the United States. Please, if you can, set the politics aside and just look at the dude through the prism of Story.

He—clearly, deeply and instinctively—understands how stories work. He is experienced and skilled at finding or causing problems that generate conflict and enlarge his own character in the process.

He does this through constant characterization of others, for example with nicknames: “Little Mario,” “Low Energy Jeb,” “Crooked Hillary,” “Sleepy Joe,” “Failing New York Times.”

He stokes the fires of conflict by staying on the attack at all times—a strategy he learned from Roy Cohn, a lawyer Frank Rich felicitously called “The worst human being who ever lived … the most evil, twisted, vicious bastard ever to snort coke at Studio 54.” Talk about character: Cohn was absolutely interesting. As Politico puts it here, “Cohn imparted an M.O. that’s been on searing display throughout Trump’s ascent, his divisive, captivating campaign, and his fraught, unprecedented presidency. Deflect and distract, never give in, never admit fault, lie and attack, lie and attack, publicity no matter what, win no matter what, all underpinned by a deep, prove-me-wrong belief in the power of chaos and fear.”

As for movement, every new problem Trump creates or intensifies is meant to generate an emotional response, which is movement in itself.

Look closely: the news Trump makes is deliberate, theatrical and constant. All of it is staged and re-staged, so every unavoidably interesting thing he says or does pushes the last thing he said or did off the stage and into irrelevance, because whatever he’s saying or doing now demands full attention, no matter what he said or did yesterday.

There is true genius to this, and it requires understanding and respect—especially by those who report on it.

You can call this trolling, or earned media coverage, meaning the free kind. Both are true. So is comparing Trump to The Mule in Isaac Azimov’s Foundation and Empire. (The Mule was a mutant with exceptional influence over the emotions of whole populations. It was by noting this resemblance that I, along with Scott Adams, expected Trump to win in 2016.)

Regardless of what one calls it, we do have two big fails for journalism here:

  1. Its appetite for stories proves a weakness when it’s fed by a genius at hogging the stage.
  2. It avoids reporting what doesn’t fit the story format. This includes most of reality.

My favorite priest says “some truths are so deep only stories can tell them,” and I’m sure this is true. But stories by themselves are also inadequate ways to present essential facts people need to know, because by design they exclude what doesn’t fit “the narrative,” which is the modern way to talk about story—and to spin journalists. (My hairs of suspicion stand on end every time I hear the word “narrative.”)

So here’s the paradox: We need to know more than stories can tell, yet stories are pretty much all human beings are interested in. Character, problem and movement give shape and purpose to every human life. We can’t correct for it.

That’s why my topic here—a deep and abiding flaw (also a feature) of both journalism and human nature—is one most journalists won’t touch. The flawed nature of The Story itself is not a story. Same goes for  “earned media coverage.” Both are features rather than bugs, because they cause much of journalism’s success, and debugging them has proven impossible.

I’ll illustrate those points with the killing fields of Cambodia. Those fields are the setting for a story well-known today, about how Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge committed genocide on a massive scale, wiping out between one and a half to two million people, or around twenty-five percent of the Cambodia’s population. And yet that story meant close to nothing until it became about one man with a problem rather than a whole population whose lives had ended.

A measure of how close-to-nothing that genocide meant to journalism at that time was delivered one evening in the late 1970s by Hughes Rudd, an anchor at the time of the CBS Morning News. Rudd said, almost offhandedly, that perhaps half a million people were dead in Cambodia. Rather than a story, this was just an item: too important to not mention but not interesting enough to say more about. The next morning I checked The New York Times and found the same item mentioned in a short piece on an inside page. It blew my mind: half a million dead, and no story.

What made it not a story was the absence of all three elements. There were no characters, no conflict that was easy to describe, no movement toward resolution. Just a statistic. It hardly mattered to journalistic institutions of the time that the statistic itself was a massive one.

The killing fields finally became a story on January 20, 1980, when Sydney Schanberg‘s The Death and Life of Dith Pran ran in the Times‘ Sunday Magazine. Now the story had all three elements, and pulled in lots of relevant and interesting facts. Eventually it became the movie that gave Cambodia’s killing fields their name.

What matters for our current inquiry is that years went by, with a million or more people dying, before the killing fields became a big story.

And this was neither the first nor the last time massively important and consequential facts got too little attention in the absence of one or more of a story’s three elements. Consider The Holocaust (six million dead) vs. the story of Ann Frank. The Rwandan genocide vs. Hotel Rwanda. China’s one child policy (untold millions of full-term fetuses aborted or born babies killed or left beside the road to die) vs. One Child Nation. The Rohingya conflict (more than 10,000 civilians dead, 128,000 internally displaced, 950,000+ chased elsewhere) vs. approximately nobody. Heard of Holodomor? How about any of the millions who died during Mao’s revolution in China?

Without characters to care about, or a conflict to focus interest, or movement toward resolution, at most you have have statistics that become cemeteries of facts. Sure, some of the storyless facts will be studied by academics and obsessives of other kinds (including journalists who care about the topics and publish what they learn wherever they can). But Big-J journalism will mostly be preoccupied elsewhere, by more interesting stuff. Including, unavoidably, the genius in the White House.

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*However, if you want good advice on how best to write stories about the guy, you can’t beat what @JayRosen_NYU tweets here. I suggest it also applies to the UK’s prime minister.