Journalism versus Digital Storytelling. The Supreme Battle for Hearts, Eyes and Mind.
Fire and Fury author Michael Wollf’s epic battle involves relentlessly racing from interview after interview to, on the one hand, defend and then counter attack claims on his explosive book. Each appearance in this hailstorm is, he and his publishers know, a piquant realisation of a store till bleeping kerching.
In the nominal news cycle, before attention is drawn elsewhere, Wollf knows saturation is everything. Yet, beyond this scene, something more broader, interesting, is playing out.
Yes, Fire and Fury will give us the human bandwidth to discuss vérité over verification, Twitter splats and Trump, and the prudence of open access vs off the record comments. However, what’s parked in my mind, and may elude general conversation is how this also underlines the clash between epic narrative forms.
In the left corner, symbolically caped; their erudition coupled to new tech and gadgets is the journalist practicing their lore. Here the crusader defending citizens against monied interests squares up to sometimes foe and friend, the harnesser of myths and culture — the storyteller.
In some sense, the general content of Fire and Fury, arguably, has been privy to journalists. And journalism, in ways that it takes snapshots of issues about the world, has reported on the dynamics of Trump and his administration for a while.
This, though, caught fire, and it would be wholly wrong to attribute it to brilliant PR, and the president’s miscalculation to draw attention to the work from his tweets. In the 1980s, the BBC learnt to its cost with Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s suggestive gay sex track Relax that banning its airplay only drove more listeners to it.
No, this happens to be, how might an editor or filmmaker might put it… a “cracking story”.
I’m a cinema journalist and educator — a digital storyteller who uses the tropes, cues and themes of storytelling developed in factual and feature films to tell true stories. Previously, I worked as a news journalists for venerable outfits like the BBC, ABC News, Channel 4 News and Channel 1, in a myriad of positions, both in front of, and behind the camera.
I’ve interviewed presidents and figures like a former head of the CIA; been in harms way in places like Apartheid South Africa; filmed and taught Syrians in the region, in Russia (click here), and Egyptian journalists, to name a few, about how to produce engaging stories. I have presented at Apple and SXSW, and from a doctorate study realised there was something in amiss in modern video journalism.
News journalism is storytelling — of a particular kind — but not all storytelling, and digital storytelling, with its concomitant ethics is framed within the construct — the conventional structured boundaries of traditional journalism.
The journalist and digital storyteller might use common language and different terms. The journalist asks what’s the story, and proceeds to look for an angle. The storyteller similarly addresses a wider narrative, before zoning in on the plot — the line of action. At her disposal is a wider array of narrative tools.
At many J-school programmes, you’re likely walk away from the course with an understanding of the news package and quasi-documentary. But for the ones that push the form in recognition of digital, something else emerges.
On our Digital Storytelling I challenge my cohorts in the first six weeks to recognise, and use at least eight different forms of factual video narratives. They visit advertising companies to learn alternative approaches.
The journalist’s armature quite rightly has become facts and evidence, whilst the storyteller also primes the suppleness of words, charge of narrative and how they emotionally tumble into your mind. Great storytellers are chemists, prescribing dopamine hits: this happened, and and then this happened, and you’ll not believe this next.
News journalism, in the 21st century is becoming anemically estranged to story packaging. As both a journalist, artist, educator and examiner, I often glimpse journalism training as the rendering of a story crammed with a train load of facts. Little wonder, despite the accuracy and import of a report, few people might be bothered to read it.
We give storytelling short shrift. It’s the stuff of toddlers and ghouls and fairies. We tell stories all the time. How difficult can it be? But at a supra level storytelling as practised by cinema, neuroscientists and publicist is bit more than the ordinary.
To unpack this requires an excursion.
In the 1700s as philosophy found its feet to challenge the fiefdom of religion and unquestionable faith, broadly, storytelling was undergoing a significant change too. Communicating through words had in those last three hundred years become a mass reality, with the bible being one of the main beneficiaries. Historians too printed, but a sizeable chunk of material as information through pamphlets and books was fictional and as Leonard Schlain writes in his scholarly book Art and physics.
“Western literature and drama had flowed from the basic tenet that it is permissible for an author to fabricate a story” .
Sounds like that’s come full circle. but Schlain continues:
While rational doubt, the right to suspect the truth, became the foundation of all science. its antipode, poetic license, the right to make up the truth became the substrate of all literature.
As philosophers contributing to the enlightenment took hold, a different type of storyteller emerged. William Defoe, is usually attributed as one of the first. Defoe sought to back his storytelling by seeking to tell the truth, by taking eye witness accounts and observing events first hand. His willingness for objectivity was noted, but did not go down well with other writers says Andrew Marr in his My Trade.
Defoe was an adroit storyteller reserving, but not exclusively leaving his fluid style of writing to his best seller Robinson Crusoe. Over the years different forms of storytelling would arise, such as the biography coming at the subject from multiple sides; the mystery novel in Edgar Allan Poe’s 1843 Gold Bug, non-linear forms in Joyce’s Ulysses and stylistic framings such as in media res, and flash backs. News journalism sought the universal super pyramidal model.
If journalism, news journalism in particular, was about a transitive causal logic, storytelling sought to break this form re-inventing cognitive trojan horses into the mind of its readers.
When journalists felt stymied from the structural constraints they indulged in literary essays, descriptive features or veered of the road abandoning objectivity altogether as in Gonzo journalism. It’s one of the strategies of journalism to try and keep all factual forms of communication in its stable. Hence you have mobile, video data, social and whatever else forms of journalism.
Skilled journalists secretly knew words on a page were about an emotional connection, subjecting the reader to a plot, characters and minutiae of detail for visualisation. Skilled writers, storytellers, take it as a given. In Talk Like TED by Carmine Gallo, Chapter 1 Unleash the Master Within starts off:
Aime Mullens has 12 pairs of legs. Like most people she was born with two , but unlike most people Mullins had to have both legs amputated below the knee due to a medical condition.
In White working class by Joanne C Williams, she opens with:
My father-in-law and drew up eating blood soup. He hated it, whether because of the taste or the humiliation, I never knew. His alcoholic father regularly drank at the family wage, and the family was often short on food money. They were evicted from the apartment after apartment.
In a previous post I riffed on Frederic Filloux, a Stanford’s John S. Knight Fellowship recipient and veteran journalist who said: I’d like students to have a glimpse of how Michael Lewis works. Lewis, the author, of amongst others, The New New Thing, MoneyBall which I first read in 1999 working dotcoms and New York Times Best Seller Undoing Project IS a storyteller.
Journalist Michael Wollf acknowledges through interviews, being bound by the singular ultimate quality that frames journalism, telling the truth through observation and proxy informative interviews, (and you might dispute this as others have) but something more nuanced is at hand here for j-schools to learn from. Fire and Fury reads.
The evening began at six thirty, but Steve Bannon, suddenly among the world’s most powerful men and now less and less mindful of time constraints,was late. Bannon had promised to come to this small dinner arranged by mutual friends in Greenwich Village town house to see Roger Ailes, the former head of Fox News and most significant figure in right- wing media and Bannon’s sometime mentor.
It’s a fast pacy read, emotionally seeking out crevices into the amygdala. Wollf, as an experienced magazine writer and essayist might just shrug: It’s called good writing.
This domain of storytelling seeks out structural prose, a poetry and metronome of words on a page, thematic suspense turns, fly-on-wall delivery, what Robert Drew and Albert Maysles called Direct Cinema. And most of all an understanding of culture, culture, culture. When you read Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Cage Birds Sings, you can hear the characters, If Fire and Fury were a James Ellroy tomb, it would be the proto screen play ready for Hollywood.
If the schism between journalism and storytelling is difficult to pick out in texts, it’s far more obvious in film, where over the years good storytelling in news has been supplanted in favour of, a propensity to flood the viewer with facts, percentages and densely packed meaning.
TV News talks of sequences, but eschews scenes and a plan of action to tell the story compellingly. Its interpretation of stories is confined to a formula — hopefully 2.20 minutes. As a former TV bod, I know it well and teach it.
In TV, Wollfs’ opening gambit would have started with a journalist thrusting one shoulder forwards, sideways on, talking about a dinner rather than having the presence of mind to create an emotional connection through the medium of film.
This amnesia, or even reluctance to use the wider range of comms prose storytellers have developed over the years was reason enough for our University in London to launch the Digital and Interactive Storytelling LAB,where we explore comms and rebooted journalism 2.0 where practitioners can relearn the art of storytelling.
In hybridising story and journalism as cinema journalism, where factual cinema co-joins with new journalism, consider this a metaphorical questions. What if Superman and Batman actually joined forces? If the movies can do it, what stretch of imagination should prevent visual journalism from doing so?
David Dunkley Gyimah heads up the Digital and Interactive Storytelling LAB in the UK is an artist in residence at the Southbank Centre. He has 30 years journalism experience, and is the recipient of a number of international awards. He’s the 2017 Visiting Asper Professor of Journalism at the University of British Columbia’s journalism Department. To find out more email me David [at] viewmagazine [dot] tv. I’m giving a series of talks on the subject in Canada and in the UK next month.