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: character, conflict and movement toward resolution. You need all three.

So let’s look at them.

The character can be a person, a group, a team, a cause. Anything with a noun. Mainly the character needs to be worthy not just of attention, but of caring, meaning at least a small degree of emotional investment. 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 conflict can be of any kind at all. It just needs to involve the character(s) in a problem, and a struggle (for the character or others) around that problem. All that matters is that the conflict keeps going. If not, the story is over. (For example, if you’re at a sports evbent, 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.)

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

For a lesson in how this can go very wrong, let’s take the example of the character now serving as President of the United States, and the conflicts he generates on purpose. I doubt any other character in history understands more deeply and instinctively how stories work, or is more practiced and successful at attracting journalistic attention by causing constant conflict, always toward his personal advantage, much of which is about enlarging his character to maximum size. There is true genius to how he does all this, especially in these early years of our new digital age, when the entire Internet is one big gossip mill. It is beyond amazing to watch him bend history, much like The Mule does in Isaac Azimov’s Foundation and Empire. (It was for this reason that, along with Scott Adams, I expected the dude to win in 2016.)

That he is cocaine for journalists and news organizations, however, is beside the point I’m making here,* which is that stories are inadequate ways to represent facts and truths, even if (as my favorite priest says) there are some truths so deep only stories can tell them.

Most truths we need to know aren’t deep, or even complicated. They just don’t fit the story format, and therefore resist becoming news—or interesting to journalists. That’s because stories are what journalism produces. This isn’t fatal flaw. But it is a failing, because there are some truths stories can’t tell. And most facts in the world don’t fit the story format.

For examples, let’s start with some facts that once mattered by now mostly don’t. The best evidence of these may be cemeteries. All a cemetery’s occupants  were, in life, characters. Each of their lives was a story, and within their lives were many more stories. But their problems are all over, and there is no motion toward a conclusion, since all their lives are done. In most cases their characters have been erased by time and the full disinterest of the living. This even goes for relatives of the deceased, all of whom will also be deceased eventually, if they aren’t already.

For example, among the hundreds of thousands buried in New York’s Woodlawn Cemetery is my great-grandfather, Henry Roman Englert:

Henry R. Englert headstoneTo make him more real as a character, here is how he looked as a sharp young man:

His headstone says nothing about him, other than that he died at eighty-seven, seventy-six years ago. Being a journalist, however, and knowing a bit about  Henry, I tell some of his story in the captions under the dozens of photos I’ve put in this album: that he headed the Steel and Copper Plate Engravers Union in New York, that he was what his daughter (my grandma) called a “good socialist,” that he had at least seven daughters and at least one son (Henry Jr., known as Harry, who died at age four) by two marriages, and that he outlived both of his wives at three of his kids by a long margin.

There are also questions within stories that have no answer, or even a way to get one, so the story just stops, even if the facts matter. For example, Henry’s plot is marked only by his headstone, with no markers for five others buried in the same plot, in just three graves, including both his wives and three of his children, all of whom predeceased him:

Henry Roman Englert, wives and kidsThe sad but true summary here is that none of these people matter much, if at all, today, even though they mattered in each others’ lives a great deal when they were all alive. The great-grandchildren of Henry and his wives are now all advanced in death’s queue, or have already arrived there. And the living ones, including me, are way too busy living stories of their own and long since past caring much, if at all, about any of the gone people here. And the same is pretty much true for all but the most recently planted dead at Woodlawn and every other cemetery.

For a very different example—one that undeniably, deeply, and fully matters—take the killing fields of Cambodia: the story about how Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge murdered what eventually became more than a million people. I first heard of this genocide from Hughes Rudd, who was anchoring the CBS Morning News one day in the late 1970s. Between other news stories (as I recall they were about the Superbowl and Patty Hearst), Rudd said there were now reports that perhaps half a million people were dead in Cambodia. But the story wasn’t a story. It 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 item mentioned in a short piece on an inside page. Dig: 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 apparent struggle, 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 story finally became a story on January 20, 1980, when Sydney Shamberg‘s The Death and Life of Dith Pran ran in the Times‘ Sunday Magazine. Now the story had a protagonist, a conflict, and movement toward resolution, all illustrating and illuminating important facts about the conflict, which was still going on at the time. Eventually it became a movie as well. For journalism, however, what also matters about this is that years went by, with hundreds of thousands more dying, before the killing fields became a big story.

And this wasn’t the first or last time that 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. The Rohingya conflict (more than 10,000 civilians dead, 128,000 internally displaced, 950,000+ fled elsewhere) vs. approximately nobody. Heard of Holodomor? How about any of the millions who died in Mao’s revolution in China? Without characters to care about, or a struggle to focus interest, without movement toward resolution, you mostly just have statistics. Sure, all that stuff will get 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. Like it is right now.

You may notice that this post is itself a non-story. That’s one reason it has been incubating here for months. It still isn’t ready to be born now, and may not ever be. But I do feel a need to share my thinking on the topic, even though my thinking about it is likely to change. I am at least hoping that the journalistic feeding frenzy generated by the Mule of our time will lead to some fresh thinking about what journalism does best and worst, and especially about what, almost by design, it can’t or won’t.

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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.