“I had just arrived in the Chicago bureau and I needed a story…”

Many years ago I was sitting around in a hotel bar with some journalists who were telling tales, and one of them started an anecdote this way:

6 Dec 2014 9:19 pm 45 Comments

“I had just arrived in the Chicago bureau and I needed a story…”

I stopped listening at that point, but not because he was boring. Something struck me about that phrase, “I needed a story.”

I knew what he meant, of course. He had an editor. His editor would want to know: now that you’re all settled in Chicago, when can I expect some production from you? But a good reporter doesn’t need to be told told this. I’m new on the beat and I need a story. Completely reasonable, from the journalist’s point of view. But from the public’s point of view — or even a truthtelling point of view — the same phrase sounds kind of weird.

“I had just arrived in the Chicago bureau and I needed a story…”

Okay, you needed a story. But was there a story that needed to be told?

Or, less charitably: Who cares if you need a story? What we need is a good signaling system to know what’s going on. If it fits the shape of a story that can be counted toward your production quota and keep your editor in New York happy, great! But keep this in mind: your need for a story may clash with the public’s need to be alerted only when there is a story.

I don’t have a big point to make here. It’s a small point. A need for story is something that journalists should watch out for. It could be a trap.

Here are two passages from Eric Wemple’s analysis of the Rolling Stone story about rape on campus. The editors now say they have lost confidence in its primary source, a woman called Jackie who described a horrific gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity house:

On Slate’s DoubleX Gabfest podcast last month, reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely explained why she had settled on the University of Virginia as the focus for her investigative story on a horrific 2012 gang rape of a freshman named Jackie at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house. “First I looked around at a number of different campuses,” said Erdely. “It took me a while to figure out where I wanted to focus on. But when I finally decided on the University of Virginia — one of the compelling reasons that made me focus on the University of Virginia was when I found Jackie. I made contact with a student activist at the school who told me a lot about the culture of the school — that was one of the important things, sort of criteria that I wanted when I was looking for the right school to focus on.”

Doesn’t it sound like she needed a story, which fit certain “criteria?” Does to me.

Wemple also quotes from Paul Farhi’s Nov. 28 account in the Washington Post, for which he interviewed the author:

So, for six weeks starting in June, Erdely interviewed students from across the country. She talked to people at Harvard, Yale, Princeton and her alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania. None of those schools felt quite right. But one did: the University of Virginia, a public school, Southern and genteel, brimming with what Erdely calls “super-smart kids” and steeped in the legacy of its founder, Thomas Jefferson.

Wemple comments: “A perfect place, in other words, to set a story about a gang rape.” A Rolling Stone story about campus rape needs to be set somewhere. But think about it: is this need legitimate?

Judith Shulevitz in CJR:

Erdely told Rosin that she’d gone all around the country looking for rape survivors and was delighted when she stumbled on Jackie. She was obviously traumatized, and her story illustrated everything Erdely knew to be true—that frat boys rape girls and universities are indifferent to rape survivors.

In non-fiction a need for story and what the story “needs” in order to work — to sing, to have a hook, to jump off the page, to fit genre requirements — these are all danger zones.

Almost no word has more prestige in journalism than “story.” It also has way too many referents. Story = the thing that appears in the newspaper, the thing that you chase not knowing if it will appear in the newspaper, the thing you drop when it turns out “there’s no story,” the larger thing (the #Ferguson story) made up of many stories, the exposé plus the controversy about the exposé, the ongoing thing that over years generates multiple articles, the thing you try to keep alive by finding another angle, another reason to update, the two inch item, the twenty-two inch item.

When all are represented by a single word, story, which is fused to professional identity — as in journalist as storyteller, a sacred equation — confusion, hidden danger and fatal fuzziness are likely. Watch out, journalists. You need story. We need truth.


“I don’t have a big point to make here. It’s a small point.”

Not even that. This nonsense is straight out of some semiotics textbook from 1989. BEWARE THE WORD STORY. IF YOU USE IT, IT COULD MEAN TROUBLE.

Meanwhile, the whole industry is falling down all around us because of real problems, including the kind that caused the Rolling Stone debacle. Hint: it had nothing to do with the word “story,” and it didn’t even have anything to do with this reporter looking for a “story” as a hook. There’s absolutely nothing wrong (and much right) with doing that, if you do it responsibly. She didn’t.

I guess you didn’t like it. I’m sorry.

Just more theory from the leisure class.

You’re right. That’s terrible. Again, I’m sorry.

Clay Shirky says:

I recognize that Jay is being tongue in cheek her, but E, let me say this a little more directly: If you think the above analysis equates story as a “hook”, you didn’t read it. Jay understands perfectly well that reporting a story can be done responsibly.

What he’s trying to explain is that it can also be done irresponsibly. He’s taking the old fact-checking dictum — “too good to check” — and noting that an expanded sense of that same sentiment can trip up journalists who crave the power of the fusion of fact and narrative.

Reading this, I immediately thought of Ira Glass’s craven performance in the aftermath of the Mike Daisey episode on China. Glass, a man who should definitely know better, wanted to believe that great storytelling and careful fact-checking go hand in hand.

So Jay’s point is small — here is a possible blind spot that can especially afflict journalists and outlets minded to do good by using narrative power — but its ramifications can be quite large.

On that point about This American Life. This is from my Tumblr, March 18, 2012:

This American Life is about stories. No word is more basic to the show than that… “story.” You could almost say that the show fetishizes the “story” as object. I think Ira Glass could have dug a little deeper into why he and his team made that fatal error and broadcast the segment even though they could not fully check it with the translator. They could have adopted as a working hypothesis that such an error was years in the making, not an isolated slip-up but something that cut deeper. If they had done that, they might have begun to question whether it is possible to fall too deeply in love with “stories” and their magical effects; whether that kind of love erodes skepticism, even when you are telling yourself to be skeptical; whether Ira and his colleagues in some way wanted Daisey’s stories to be 100 percent true, whether this wish interfered with their judgment, whether there isn’t something just a little too cultish about the cult of “the story” on This American Life.

Hans Suter says:

I listen to This American Life from Italy. To me these podcast stories that are very creativily chased and selected seem like a modern version of Johann Peter Hebel’s Schatzkaestlein.

Agreeing that this is almost too small a point to bother with – but what the hell, I challenge your premise.

There IS rape on campus, and there IS a story in the city of Chicago that needs telling. A reporter can “need” a story ethically because the assumption is that there are more stories than reporters to report them all or column-inches to tell them all.

You seem to be saying the opposite, that if the reporter isn’t already aware that there is news than they shouldn’t be trying to find any. I dont think you are saying that, but it would be a logical conclusion from your argument.

As for the bad rape story. Reporter gets fired, and thats that.

Almost too small a point to bother with…

Could be. But what I’m trying to say is that it’s easier than it looks to let what the story needs creep in as a legitimate demand to make of reality, and that this may have been a factor in the Rolling Stone mishaps.

Jay, in that sense, of course you are right and wise to point it out. As Meacham says below, “having a premise and then going in search of examples” is not how it’s supposed to work.

But outside of breaking news coverage, isn’t that exactly how it does work? This makes journalism a lot like science, where no experiment can take place without a thesis to prove or disprove.

We’ve all had our hearts a little broken when the facts refuse to line up behind a pet theory. Then if we are honest we adjust the theory and try again, just as scientists do.

Perhaps journalists cheat on this scientific method more often than scientists do…? Maybe we need to see it as scientific not to get confused.

Journalists don’t practice the scientific method. Nor do they adhere to legal principles of “innocent until proven guilty” or the right to face one’s accusers. Should they? Analysis would be more important than narrative if they were practicing the scientific method.

Most journalists are not practicing scientists or lawyers, although some are, and do not have the training or mindset for adhering to those professional principles and disciplines.

That doesn’t mean they cannot try to adopt and apply to their art certain ideals from other areas.

I think it’s a point worth making. The desire to wrap things up in a clear, good vs bad story that feels ‘right’, ‘newsworthy’ or even ‘awardworthy’ can frame the questions a journalist asks, how they interpret the information they receive, and how deeply an editor chooses to dig about the words they receive. I suspect that similar problems (among so many others) beset the writer and editors of The Magical Putter of Dr V.

We learn narratives a certain way from a very early age, and I know that it’s easy to fall into the trap of trying to explain a slice of real life – which is often more messy and complicated – in a way that matches that pattern. Basic semiotics? Maybe, but it’s a major journalistic problem if it’s true.

Trevor Hultner says:

The Magical Putter of Dr. V is a great (read: horrific) example of a writer putting the need for a story before ethical reporting.

wendy beck says:

I DO think it is a point worth making, a big point. Though Rolling Stone doesn’t broadcast, it does have an online presence and broadcast and online’s 24-hour news cycle seem to demand something new all the time. And outrage is great click bait. Part of what I found sad about The New Republic (even before the recent resignations) was that every day a new batch of articles online were spun out without much thought or skill. Many never should have been written, but were, I assume to feed the beast. I’m assuming something like that affects almost every news organization today. Click bait, instant outrage, stories that stoke it.

I imagine people read Rolling Stone for its narrative bias. The failure was not “needing” a story. It was wanting to believe (and publish) the story that fit Rolling Stone’s existing narrative bias.

“One must be most critical about stories that play into existing biases”

Narrative bias: The news media cover the news in terms of “stories” that must have a beginning, middle, and end–in other words, a plot with antagonists and protagonists. Much of what happens in our world, however, is ambiguous. The news media apply a narrative structure to ambiguous events suggesting that these events are easily understood and have clear cause-and-effect relationships. Good storytelling requires drama, and so this bias often leads journalists to add, or seek out, drama for the sake of drama. Controversy creates drama. Journalists often seek out the opinions of competing experts or officials in order to present conflict between two sides of an issue (sometimes referred to as the authority-disorder bias). Lastly, narrative bias leads many journalists to create, and then hang on to, master narratives–set story lines with set characters who act in set ways. Once a master narrative has been set, it is very difficult to get journalists to see that their narrative is simply one way, and not necessarily the correct or best way, of viewing people and events.

Andrew Meacham says:

The point — made unambiguously if you care to receive it — is that having a premise and then going in search of examples that will prove it true is bass-awkwards. It’s not in itself any kind of ethical lapse (what working joirnalist hasn’t set out to do that or been assigned to do that?). But it’s dangerous. And yes, the word “story” does matter because the best ones imply multi-layeredness, that overarching narrative of which the central character provides such a vivid example. Except that this example didn’t just grow out of the ground. The writer needed a victim whose story “felt right” and wouldn’t quit until she found one.

In construction there’s this thing called a cold joint. Say you’re pouring a slab for a warehouse and it gets dark.You got a late start, maybe it rained right before you were about to pour and you had to wait. You exhaust 60 or 70 yards but it’s just no longer practicable to keep going tonight. Yet all concrete must connect by steel. The slab wire at ground level won’t do the job tomorrow because the concrete will be set up. So what you do is this. You “stub out” pieces of rebar, say at least number 5 (5/8″ thick). Place the rebar horizontally in the wet concrete such that it’s embedded at least 2 feet, with 18 inches sticking out. Place the lengths of steel every 18 inches or so apart. When you pour tomorrow, this “stubbed” steel will receive the new concrete, connecting the new slab sections with the old. Like I say, this can all be done within the parameters of acceptable construction and it is done. The problem, however, is that such “cold joints” are considered structurally weak. There’s still steel connecting old and new sections of slab. But you’ll notice a hairline fissure the length of the section. It comes together, but you can see where it came together, which had to do with your needs and not the structure. If the slab is subjected to extraordinary pressure and it breaks, it’s going to break there, the point at which human need overrode the structural principles embedded in the design.

When you go out with a hypothesis and then look for examples to confirm it, you are not necessarily violating okay journalistic principles. But you are limiting and hemming in something that at best is wonderful, replacing the magic of spontaneous discovery with a more cynical calculation (I.e., “My ideal character is out there; if I just look hard enough and talk to enough people, I’ll eventually find her”). That method might be fine for some stories, like people who got married on 9/9/99 or were born on leap years at. I don’t think it’s such a great method for demonstrating that serious sex crimes are routinely committed on college campuses. As Wemple pointed out, the material for that story existed, including in at least one of the other sources quoted in the Rolling Stone story. That story would not have packed the same punch as a narrative of gang rape told by someone who was victimized on multiple levels at multiple times. But that story, the one that did run, arose out of the author’s stated and bass-awkwards need to find characters to play key roles in the script she had already started to write. That story did not grow out of the ground. It was a cold joint. When subjected to pressures, it broke.

That was a really nice analogy.

Prefer Not says:

Also, for stragglers, a long trail of like-mined lies by Erdely has been uncovered, false hit-pieces involving the Catholic Church and the Navy. Erdely is a demented serial liar who should be locked up in a rubber room for the rest of her life.

I have similar thoughts about “Let’s keep the story alive,” a phrase I’ve used dozens of times to urge reporters to find something — a new angle, an old angle, even a shred — to justify running a story we’ve been chasing for another day.

My goal was always to keep the pressure on — to get a source to crack or to get public officials to do the “right” thing. It was cloaked in a high-brow goal of “this is what the public needs” versus what the story needs or the reader needs…or even what the truth is. I shudder to think the number of times that goal justified bullshit journalism.

That’s ridiculous, as of course is Rosen’s piece. Which he “needed” to write. We’d all be so much better off if his particular “need” was squelched most of the time.

Not a journalist, just a journalism consumer, but it seems to me that in journalism, public speaking, public policy, the guidance is to tell a story, because that is more interesting than just reciting facts. I agree. So, it makes sense for the journalist to find the most interesting example for a story. I don’t take such examples as representative.

There are no end of stories that need to be told, and I am all for doing so in the most interesting way. But, get it right.

Amanda Cox said (on this panel) that her bias is for “interesting stories.” I’ve thought a lot about that.

Many people have made serious arguments that this is exactly wrong. E.g. Nate Silver’s “The average is still the most useful statistical tool.” But things are not so simple. There’s an ongoing conversation in the social sciences about how to choose and report on individual cases of some larger concept, and “random sampling” or “average case” is not always the clear winner.

The problem, as I see it, is that journalism is completely disconnected from these ideas. In practice, we do not take seriously the question of “where do stories come from?” It’s almost invisible in the way we talk about our work.

I can do no better than to quote Stewart Hall again:

“News values” are one of the most opaque structures of meaning in modern society. All “true journalists” are supposed to possess it: few can or are willing to identify and define it. Journalists speak of “the news” as if events select themselves. Further, they speak as if which is the “most significant” news story, and which “news angles” are the most salient are divinely inspired. Yet of the millions of events which occur every day in the world, only a tiny portion ever become visible as “potential news stories”; and of this proportion, only a small fraction are actually produced as the day’s news in the news media. We appear to be dealing, then, with a “deep structure” whose function as a selective device is un-transparent event to those who professionally most know how to operate it.

He said that in 1973.

Thanks, Jonathan. I agree completely. That’s a great quote from Hall.

My point about “story” is similar to what he said. We appear to be dealing with a “deep structure” whose function as a selective device is un-transparent event to those who operate it.

This isn’t just a small point. It’s a big point, too. A frequent criticism of the news media is that they present a terribly unbalanced picture of social life that heavily overemphasizes violence and disorder. “If it bleeds, it leads.” This picture of society that they give us has consequences: for instance, that many people believe crime rates are going up when they are actually going down.

They’re telling a highly biased big picture story that is lurid with scandal and blood. The more they do this, the more they become primarily entertainment outlets, which is what, basically, has happened to CNN.

Presumably, news execs believe they need this bias to “sell more papers.” But it isn’t working, is it?

A lot of good points made on all ‘sides’. Agree with a lot of it. I guess I fall into the camp that argues that seeking out ‘examples’ to fit one’s already-formed narrative isn’t inherently bad.

A few intertwined, bumbling thoughts:

1a) This could just be an example of vegetarians examining how the sausage gets made. (This is another way of phrasing the theory vs. practice point in the comment by “E.”)

1b) In terms of creativity, there are a lot of unsettling things related to the process that creatives would rather not show to the public. Examine any portion of this creative process on its own — the imitation, the copying, the notes — and it can look bad. I think most creatives will argue that the ends — the finished, public product, justify the means. In the Rolling Stone case, the “end” product is being rightly criticized, but that doesn’t necessarily mean aspects of the author’s “means” are wrong.

1c) In a time when internet journalism is encouraged to link to sources, provide detailed disclosure statements, participate in Reddit AMAs, there is still so much opacity (and I don’t think that’s bad). If I knew that internet journalists who wrote about rape and war and suffering did so between snapchats, in their underwear, and while watching TV and eating a sandwich, that would cause me to think less of them. But I’d rather judge their work on their end product, not they way they arrived at it (then again, in practice I do both, depending on the situation).

-“Having a premise and then going in search of examples,” seems better than the alternative. (The alternative is not writing anything.) As mentioned, examples don’t knock on your door ready to tell you their nut graf.

-The “example” part is the “story”; a truthful story is what gives boring facts their legs and heart.

-An example, to show that seeking out the ‘right’ example to fit a predefined narrative isn’t always bad. Tim Rasmussen, the Assistant Managing Editor for Photography at the Denver Post, was talking about a story they did about poverty in Colorado. They wanted to humanize and add specificity to some cold, dead, unsettling numbers. So they spent time searching for the ‘right’ subject. They didn’t want a black family for this photo-heavy story, because Poor Black People was a trope they weren’t interesting in perpetuating. I think that’s a responsible way to go about ‘searching’ for a story subject. In the case of the Rolling Stone story-finding, it’s almost like the opposite to me: She sought out a case most notorious in our collective psyche: Irresponsible Frat Bros commit Violent Rape. At best, the contours of this story are not the norm for campus rapes. As someone else said (can’t remember their name) the Rolling Stone story (unlike the Denver Post story I mentioned) confirms our collective biases, not challenges them.

-There’s a difference between thinking/saying “I need a story for the sake of having a story” and “I need good examples to fit my story argument.” The former seems slimy, careerist. The latter seems responsible.

This is a great point, and I thank you for making it. I’m honestly even wary of the practice of seeking out sources to humanize boring statistics, because it seems to me that a reporter is inevitably going to be drawn to cases that are unusual or extreme in some way. And it’s not that those cases don’t merit highlighting — sometimes they absolutely do, because they’re so extreme — but that it still skews the picture.

I think one solution is to try to assemble a range of stories. That can be hard to do, especially in print with limited space, but when journalists tell a few different stories in one report, it serves as a reminder that no single experience is all-defining. I think there’s quite a bit of value in one of the things Andrew Sullivan frequently does, too (regardless of how one feels about Sullivan himself), which is to run lengthy responses from readers sharing their firsthand perspectives on important topics. I don’t know how much fact-checking he does of those ongoing threads, but it seems possible to me that journalists today could do meaningful work by facilitating more sharing of stories directly from non-journalists and largely getting out of the way. The layperson suddenly has this enormous capacity for publicizing their thoughts and feelings, but not necessarily an understanding of the practice, and there may be room for journalists to provide guidance, rather than just operating as a class unto themselves.

Bill Owen says:

I need a comment, but I don’t have one, so never mind.

Yeah, I think perhaps here your point is not such a great one. A story is facts well told. It’s not remotely remarkable that a reporter, whose job is finding out facts and telling them, was once told to go get a story. There ARE problems when the facts are wrong, or misleading, or they are not well told because they are presented unfairly or confusingly or just plain ugly.

Every great piece of journalism ever has been a story. The story is the key and the power of journalism. To blame the form, in its most general, blandest definition, rather than the content is just… wrong. Sorry.

Without a story, journalism is just a list of facts waiting to bore a non-existent audience. Journalists must tell good stories, not avoid them, even if that were possible, which it isn’t.

To blame the form, in its most general, blandest definition, rather than the content is just… wrong. Sorry.

I don’t think that’s what I am doing, blaming the form called story for RS’s screw-ups… But perhaps I didn’t write it well enough, and gave that impression.

Does “story,” as a form, have multiple structures or formats? Inverted triangle as one example?

Needing a “story” means … what?

Needing an explainer?
Needing an impactful investigative report?
Needing a stirring polemic?

Or just, hey this is topical, give me something news-/award-worthy to fill the hole!

Joe Conley says:

It misses the point to say all journalists must tell good stories–the point being that all stories are the result of and reflect biases like confirmation bias and (it is a term? It should be) narrative bias. If we must tell stories (and we must, because it’s what humans do) we must question them constantly.

If you’re having trouble grasping the point I was trying to make with this post (which could be my problem, not saying it’s yours necessarily) look up thread to what John Robinson, a former newspaper editor, said. It’s an important anecdote:

I have similar thoughts about “Let’s keep the story alive,” a phrase I’ve used dozens of times to urge reporters to find something — a new angle, an old angle, even a shred — to justify running a story we’ve been chasing for another day.

My goal was always to keep the pressure on — to get a source to crack or to get public officials to do the “right” thing. It was cloaked in a high-brow goal of “this is what the public needs” versus what the story needs or the reader needs…or even what the truth is. I shudder to think the number of times that goal justified bullshit journalism.

He’s talking about the way “story,” as the term is used in journalism, can almost become an actor in itself, with needs and a “life” of its own. This is an illusion, of course, because it’s always people making calls, good and bad, but the illusion has effects. As John says, it “justified bullshit journalism.”

Is he blaming “story” for this? No, he’s blaming himself (which is easier to do now that he’s out of the game) but the way journalists think about “story” facilitates these missteps.

And that is what I am writing about. I’m not saying… Stories, bad! Or that we don’t in some sense need them to make sense of the world. We probably do. But when a journalist feels that need, he or she has entered the danger zone.

Thanks, I think I better understand your point now. Except… I’m a massive fan of the story. I would encourage, not discourage, journalists to think in terms of stories. Why not use such a powerful form of communication? What is the alternative? Listicles?

Stories must not be misused, they must be carefully understood we should not seek a narrative where there isn’t one, or try to jam facts into a story where they don’t belong, or stretch a story beyond its natural end. But these are about understanding stories, not rejecting them.

As a journalist I feel a need for stories every day. It challenges me to go out and find good ones. I like to believe my readers want me to tell them stories. It’s my responsibility to do that well. I still think what you are warning against is not ‘looking for a story’. It’s ‘making up a story’.

Not “looking for a story.” The needs of story.

It might help if I spell this part out. It seems to me that what we’re trying to understand in the Rolling Stone case is how people who know they’re not supposed to be making up a story and who have all sorts of protections against that very thing wind up doing it anyway — or something close to that. From my point of view that’s hard to understand, a lot harder than saying, “Hey, don’t make shit up.” It has to involve a certain amount of self-deception, so I am trying to isolate one strand in that thread.

I think the protests in the comments are a good example of the pervasive power of story; some practitioners are taken aback by the mere idea that story might be construed in any way negatively.

Story is a tool; all tools confer some benefits when you employ them; and there are always trade-offs for those benefits. Story confers particularly powerful benefits, so we should be mindful that the trade-offs are likely significant as well. Story is inherently sympathetic — a story of any kind seeks to entice the audience, to charm them into giving the teller their attention. That is potentially dangerous, not least because the tellers can charm themselves, too. I think many journalists are lying if they say they’ve never, for example, nudged a source with a leading question, in the hope of getting the just right quote to close their piece with. It feels like a tiny thing, and the quote might even be accurate, and it certainly provides a certain amount of satisfaction for the audience, that neat little grace note at the end — but that’s a thirst to tell a good story driving the process, more than a hunger for unsullied truth.

Omg: you’re a clone of Rosen’s. Which means you have no friggin’ idea of what you’re talking about. I suppose it’s good you’ve found each other, but still….

“One of the main purposes of fact-checking is to correct journalism’s bias toward a ‘good story’ above all else. While journalism is sometimes willing to acknowledge that journalists, just like everyone else, bring individual perspectives and prejudices to their work, it doesn’t much like to cop to this general bias, since, while it can be partially checked by responsible reporting and rigorous fact-checking, it’s inherent to the form. A compelling, clean narrative is seductive to both writers and editors, and one of the main duties of a fact-checker is to fight that bias in themselves in order to balance the tendency toward dramatic arcs, villains and heroes, and neat conclusions — to constantly re-inject inconvenient nuance, to keep adding the jagged edges when everyone else involved in process would ideally love to see them smoothed.

“Most importantly — in my opinion, at least — fact-checkers work to protect the integrity of sources’ stories against this bias. Journalists are storytellers who use other people’s stories to build their own. In doing so, they chop up other people’s truths, make them incomplete, and put them in service of their own overall narrative. That’s not a criticism of journalists, most of whom, in my experience, care deeply about responsibly representing their sources — it’s just the way journalism works.” (My italics)

from Feministing on Rolling Stone. Read the rest.

Thank you for bringing attention to that here. I wonder who else at RS knew that “Jackie” ask to be dropped from the story besides Sabrina Erdely and the ethical decision-making in telling her no and publishing anyway? The decision to publish anyway could be ethical, but how does “protect the integrity of sources’ stories against this bias” play a role that decision?

“Journalists are storytellers who use other people’s stories to build their own.”

Academically, semantically, this phrase is definitely open for debate. Does a story “exist” if it’s not told to anyone? If it only lives as a series of disorganized facts? To me, that’s only half of what a story is. A story often isn’t a direct linear playback of history but more a deliberately organized tapestry of related morsels. That’s not to say that a story doesn’t exist in a legible form before Professional Journalists arrive on scene, but for the most part, I don’t think the needs of stories (structure, clarity, empathy, resolution, etc.) and the wants of journalists (hard-hitting, career-making, editor-pleasing) necessarily compromise the original ‘story.’ (This wasn’t the case wasn’t the Rolling Stone article, however.)

As mentioned, it’s the job of journalists, editors, fact checking and legal to balance these needs and wants. Because given the right scenario, given a perfect storm, certain parts could wrongly trump others.

Rolling Stone spokeswoman Melissa Bruno responds, “We decline to comment further at this time.”

Because the needs of the story, needs of the readers, or what the public needs, only matters when journalistic spotlight is on someone else.

That’s what always bothers me as a non journalist reading news stories about journalists / journalism. Journalists seem to be inherently hypocritical, and protect themselves as a class.
Honestly the recent Russel Brand business card kerfuffle feels like that to me too…

Watch out, journalists. You need story. We need truth

I understand that this post is structured argumentatively, contrasting the separate set of interests of the producer of the news item and its consumer. So, consumers are interested in “a good signaling system to know what’s going on” whereas producers are concerned with enabling their offerings “to sing, to have a hook, to jump off the page, to fit genre requirements.”

The conclusion of this depiction of clashing priorities is quoted above — the insinuation that, somehow, “story” must be the antithesis of “truth.”

Professor Rosen: clearly you are not actually proposing that “story” and “truth” are mutually exclusive. Ending your post that way was a rhetorical flourish to dramatize your warning. However, you do diminish the journalistic craft in your eagerness to demean the “story” as its organizing category.

Journalism is just one of many discourses in the field of non-fiction, one of many “good signaling systems” as you put it. What do journalists do when they tell people about “what’s going on” that distinguishes them from what sociologists do, or statisticians, or activists, or academics, or authors, or psychologists?

This is what journalists do: they examine the truth of a given situation through the filter of isolating and highlighting what is newsworthy about it — what makes a good headline; what surprises, delights, intrigues people; what highlights its ironies, contradictions, novelties, controversies; what makes them want to share it with others. In other words, they try to organize the truth — yes — “to sing, to have a hook, to jump off the page.”

In other words, your “genre requirements” are precisely to turn the truth of a situation into story worth telling. Not a warning but a requirement.

Jay, I recall an event from the 70s in our newsroom in Milwaukee over an item on the agenda of an upcoming City Council meeting. It was a proposal to end playing basketball in the city’s alleyways. If passed, of course, this would have had significant ramifications for, especially, the black community. It was a great story. And, for TV, it had everything needed to create a compelling piece. Our City Hall reporter was a grizzled veteran of the local newspapers and objected, because 1) the item had come up before, 2) it was always defeated, because it was a stupid idea, and 3) it was merely an attempt by a politico to please a certain constituency, and 4) nobody with half-a-brain would ever expect passage.

We did the story anyway. Why? Because we needed it. It fit many narratives, and “just because it won’t pass doesn’t make the threat less valid.” Yeah, right.

As usual, your gut is right on. Thank you.


Richard Aubrey says:

“Need a story” Does that mean something, anything? Or was the context that there was a subject or issue that was supposed to be covered and, now that the guy’s in Chicago, we presumably different/more/clearer opportunities to write on the pre-existing subject?
If the latter, it’s not so bad.

Erdly gave away the game by describing UVa in terms guaranteed to get liberals’ dander up. Blond, tanned, buff, wealthy. And doubled down on that theme for PSP. One commenter, familiar with UVa said that the fraternity was not a top-tier, but a regular-Joe house. Nevertheless, it had to be the perfect enemy. Rich, entitled, mostly blond and jocks…. Nope that was Duke. Not jocks. Scratch that.

After that intro, it was hardly worth the time to read it. But it was better perps than that Hannah Graham (aka “who?”) thing.