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 character now serving as President of the United States. Here is a guy who deeply and instinctively understands how stories work, and is skilled in using that knowledge to find or cause problems that generate conflict and enlarge his own character to maximum size 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.” And by staying on the attack at all times: a strategy he learned from Roy Cohn. 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.” There is genius to how he succeeds at this, especially in these early years of our new digital age, when the entire Internet is one big gossip mill.

His success at capturing the attention of everyone and the loyalty of many calls to mind The Mule in Isaac Azimov’s Foundation and Empire. (It from noting this resemblance that, along with Scott Adams, I expected Trump to win in 2016.)

So that’s the first way journalism fails: its appetite for stories proves a weakness when it’s fed by a genius at hogging the stage.

The second failing is in reporting what doesn’t fit the story format. Simply put, stories are inadequate ways to represent facts and truths. Too much of both get excluded.

There is a paradox here: that we need to know more than stories can tell, and yet stories are pretty much all we’re interested in. Character, problem and movement give shape and purpose to every human life. We can’t correct for it.

Perhaps our best hope is to recognize something I learned from a shrink I was talking to at a party long ago. Most mental illness, she said, is just OCD: obsessive compulsive disorder. And it’s hard to say exactly what’s a “disorder,” because all human accomplishments worth celebrating owe in large measure to obsessive and compulsive interests and behaviors. And, in some cases (for example our current president’s) to narcissism and other disorders as well.

I don’t know how to fix any of that, or if it can be fixed at all. I’m just sure that journalism as a discipline will benefit by looking more closely at how stories fail: at what they can’t do, as well as at what they can.

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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 new prime minister.