June 19, 2023 , in technology

Storytelling the news

In today's crowded media landscape where attention is the real currency, being able to 'tell a good story' is more prized than ever. But how can journalists and publishers reconcile the need to build an audience with the responsibility to report 'the facts'?

Eidosmedia Storytelling the news

Storytelling the news | Eidosmedia

‘Telling stories’ in many cultures is a polite way of saying ‘lying’. And yet, storytelling skills have always been appreciated in journalism. The result? An inevitable tension between the need to hook readers and the responsibility to present ‘the facts’.

Historically, even established news sources like the New York Times and Washington Post have stepped over the line — and the phenomenon isn’t new. Two decades ago, New York Times reporter Jayson Blair was accused of fabricating comments, scenes, and lifting material from other publications. The trail doesn’t end there. Janet Cooke “won a 1981 Pulitzer Prize for a bogus story in The Post about an 8-year-old heroin addict named ‘Jimmy,’ then admitted after a lengthy interrogation that she had made it all up.”

Now, the arrival of digital news and the 24-hour news cycle has upped the ante. In the era of the “attention economy,” where information is plentiful but attention is scarce, journalists are often encouraged to use storytelling to harvest as much as possible of the precious resource. But how can they present their reporting in a way that is both ethical and interesting?

Storytelling: An integral part of good journalism

Since the dawn of man, people have gathered around the campfire to share stories. Almost nothing is more universal across cultures than our shared love of stories. But what do we mean when we talk about storytelling in the context of journalism? It’s largely about constructing a narrative — and doing so in a way that makes dense or complex stories more palatable and understandable for audiences. Facts may be soon forgotten, but when those facts are accompanied by a story that makes an emotional impact, it makes a reporter’s work more memorable.

Research suggests that in the 20th century, a division emerged between “news journalism” and “authorial journalism” — the distinction between journalism that trades only in facts and one that traffics in value judgments. However, today, we see that telling a story isn’t necessarily about making a value judgment but, instead, illustrating a larger point through a related story.

In the digital age, there are more tools than ever before to help convey information in new and engaging ways. So, while “storytelling” has traditionally meant written or oral content, it’s taking on many new forms in the digital age. News designer Mario Garcia writing in the Columbia Journalism Review, sees design as an increasingly important part of telling stories in a digital context: “Today, stories are produced as a linear narrative with video, infographics and other visual elements that create a tangible experience for the reader. Through this method we transport readers to the heart of the story, be it a walk through the streets of a war-torn city or the site of a massive fire in midtown.”

It’s more important than ever before to think about content holistically — imagining how reporting can be enhanced by using a variety of media to paint a fuller picture. The creation of new roles like “storytelling product manager” in newsrooms reflects the growing recognition of narrative power in building the news audience.

Guidelines for storytelling in journalism

There is nothing inherently wrong with incorporating storytelling as an integral part of newsrooms’ toolboxes. But to ensure journalists place the appropriate amount of attention on facts while still trying to tell a compelling story, it’s important to put some guardrails in place.

1. Understand the difference between “news” and “stories”

Research from Jan Boesman and Irene Costera Meijer suggests “news” is often connected to current events, but “stories” may be less so. Think of this as the difference between reporting on a house fire and telling the story of a local business owner. One is headline news, the other is a human interest story. In either case, it’s important to make the distinction and understand how the type of content you are producing influences how it’s told.

2. Be aware of how reporters construct a story

Whether a reporter is simply reporting the news or telling a story, there is always a certain amount of construction going on. As the Boesman and Meijer report says, “In their research, journalists are taking decisions: on what to focus, whom to interview, which perspective to take and what story to tell. In other words, journalists ‘define’ to some extent what the story ought to be.” It’s imperative that all journalists keep this in mind when they are doing their reporting — and their drafting. Who you choose to talk to, who you choose not to talk to, and every other decision you make along the way — including in the pitch meeting where editors often influence the trajectory of a story — impacts the final outcome. Being aware of this is key to reporting a story fairly and accurately while also constructing a narrative audiences want to engage with.

3. Always keep journalism basics close at hand — but make them serve the story

Whether it's the Five Ws of reporting or the inverted pyramid structure, these age-old tools help keep journalists on the right track. Every article should address who is driving a story, what happened, when and where did it occur, and why it’s important — but sometimes, the answers may be more complicated than others or require more explanation. According to Boesman and Meijer, many storytellers bristle at the Five Ws: “I always had to throw away too much fun stuff … because it was very who-what-where. While I was much more interested in why … Why is that? … [His slogan is] ‘Don’t read me the news, tell me the story.’ I wanted to know: What’s all this about? What is the story behind [the news]?” This particular reporter was talking about his experience with the nightly news, but digital formats allow storytellers to flourish. With fewer space and time constraints, journalists are now more free to tell the whole story. Consider long-form investigative podcasts or ongoing digital series about climate change with interactive maps. These new formats have allowed reporters to go beyond surface-level facts and dive deeper into the impacts of the news.

Ultimately, storytelling in the digital age gives journalists an opportunity to dive deeper into stories. If newsrooms keep this in mind and use the tools at their disposal to expand the scope of their reporting, storytelling will remain an integral and ethical part of journalism.


Find out more about Eidosmedia products and technology.