Editor’s note: as you can see by my initial line of questioning, the following interview was at first intended to be a discussion on storytelling in journalism–but it quickly turned into a more fascinating (and urgent) discussion about the state of news media today. I am thankful to Porter for bringing these issues to our attention and for doing the best (of anyone I’ve ever read) at helping us understand it.
Dear readers, it is my honor and pleasure to be interviewing Porter Anderson today. Porter Anderson is known to many online as @Porter_Anderson, his Twitter handle. He tracks articles and posts material related to the publishing industry and serious writing. His weekly column for Jane Friedman, Writing on the Ether, appears on Thursdays. Porter’s entry into journalism was as a critic in the arts, another element of his online platform today. He worked for twelve years primarily in newspapers and magazines (Village Voice, Dallas Times Herald, Dallas Observer, D Magazine, Tampa Tribune, Sarasota Herald-Tribune). In 1995, he transitioned to hard news as an anchor, editor, and finally senior producer with CNN, then CNN International, then CNN.com. He was the lead editorial staffer assigned to the development team for CNN.com Live. Today he is a Fellow with The National Critics Institute.
Here’s the interview:
Ollin: First of all, thank you so much for stopping by, Porter. It’s an honor and a pleasure to have an experienced, expert journalist visiting the C2C for the first time.
Porter: Thanks for having me, Ollin, and congratulations on your success with the C2C.
Ollin: So let’s get right to it. There are many storytelling devices utilized by the news media these days. For example: some news outlets like to make sure that there’s a dramatic “Climax” to every news story (by using terms that allude to “Armageddon,” for instance.) What do you think is the reason behind the persistent use of the “Climax” storytelling device in journalism today?
Porter: You mean the entire publishing industry isn’t going to hell in a Borders bag?
Seriously, Ollin, despite the exhausting efforts of many committed journalists and corporate managers at our major news media, competition is really what’s behind that Armageddon mode of reporting. And your term “climax,” regrettably, is a generous euphemism: it’s less a storytelling device than commercially driven hyperbole, the noisy result of the competitive arena in which news workers now function.
On Monday, you had some good things to say here in your blog about finding meaning in work during hard times. (I noticed in the post’s URL that you called the piece a lullaby, very apt.) The competitive environment gripping contemporary journalism is sometimes perceived to be much harder on journalists than on managerial workers. A news medium’s business people can be facile targets of blame for the apocalyptic tone you’ve noticed in so much coverage. But at the end of the day-which-never-ends in the 24-hour global news cycle, the entire team, corporate right along with editorial, is caught in a relentless imperative to produce news that sells.
Your good storytelling term “climax,” then, translates in practice into “breaking news.” And “this just in.” How about “must-see video?” “Eyewitness report.” These catch phrases often are rendered as branding elements for news, to bolster that sense of “up-to-the-minute” excitement. “The very latest”—as opposed, one assumes, to the not-quite-but-almost-latest.
I’ll give you one of my favorites: “brutally murdered.” Listen to broadcast reports and you’ll hear it all day and night. No one is ever merely murdered. They’re brutally murdered. My guess is that if you’ve been murdered and you’re enjoying your heavenly reward and somebody drops by to visit you on your celestial front porch and asks you over that glass of iced nectar, “How did it all end back in your Earthly life?” you’re going to say your murder was brutal. Because all murder is brutal. It goes without saying. And yet, our news people can’t seem to stop saying it, can they? Murder isn’t bad enough. It has to be “brutal murder.”
The tone you’re correctly discerning simply has become the currency of an industry locked in hour-to-hour, daypart-to-daypart competition. There are more news outlets, more channels, more stations, more blogs, more text services, more apps, more sites yammering for your attention every day. There are more ways to get those media onto more devices within buzzing, vibrating, dinging distance of your attention, too. So how can news outlets try to trump each other? Well, figuratively speaking, they can yell more loudly, more importantly, more direly, that’s about it. “Don’t touch that remote, damn it, our murders are more brutal than the other medium’s murders.”
What’s behind this, of course, is advertising. Advertisers need to be associated with the hottest news stories, angles, and personalities because those draw the most consumer attention. The brutally murdered wheel gets the oil. So news ownerships, which today are frequently entertainment corporations, leverage that “climax” tone to capture advertising dollars. The more eyeballs or listeners or readers or users a news outlet has—meaning the higher its ratings (and your blood pressure)—the more advertisers want their commercials to be seen there, and the more money a news outlet can charge for those ads.
“Climax” comes from the Greek, Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary tells us. Klimax. In an original sense, it means ladder. So next time you see that “climax” in a news story, remember: Somebody is climbing, or trying to, in the ratings.
Ollin: I’ve noticed that “Conflict” is another storytelling device that many journalists use (by pitting two politicians against each other, for instance.) Why do you think so many in the news media use the “Conflict” storytelling device?
Porter: Ditto. Conflict, like climax, becomes less a storytelling technique than the vehicle of urgency—excited anchors, breathless correspondents, racing fonts, jiggling live video from helicopters, and control room producers cueing their directors to roll “breaking news” animations. “Bust” that interview, as we say. “Go to breaking.”
Which kid doesn’t like to yell “Fight!” when somebody punches somebody else in the playground at school? Teachers come running. Schoolmates scatter. A big mess ensues. Conflict. And the first “Fight!”-yeller “owns the story,” as we say in news. He squealed brutal murder before the others did.
Now, some stories do turn on conflict.
But do all news stories turn on such conflict? No, and we need much more coverage that reflects issues’ quiet complexity, rather than the black-and-white simplicity of head-to-head conflict.
I think an example of more layered coverage is readily available in NPR’s flagship shows, “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered.” For the most part, the tone is less heated, the writing of scripts and the daily news rundowns are less driven by the “brutality” of it all. Things are delivered in more measured terms. The public broadcasting funding structure is in play here, of course, although NPR and her affiliates must compete for underwriting and audience share.
Ollin: Do you think using the “conflict” and “climax” storytelling devices in journalism is problematic or helpful to journalists?
Porter: Problematic, of course. But this war was lost years ago—and with very few bad guys in sight. Nobody “ran off” with journalism. It was captured right in front of us. It’s a story of market forces overtaking an important part of civil society, and with powerful acceleration since the late 1980s. What we’ve seen are:
(a) Dramatically increased competition as new national and international media outlets rose to challenge the original handful; (b) a strong trend toward entertainment-corporation ownership of media outlets; (c) the speed of digital production and distribution; and (d) as part of the digital wave, the arrival of the non-editorial media, of which your site and my presence on Twitter are a part.
There was a time when newsrooms and advertising departments at major newspapers were kept apart, something like church-state separation in government. I’m talking actual physical separation at some facilities. Advertising and editorial people didn’t work together. I was lucky to enter the business during the end of that era. It gave me a chance to see that formula in operation. That interpretation of the journalistic mission (to search out and deliver meaningful information as fairly as possible) was what inspired people to become members of the press in those days. Certainly not the hope of looking cute on TV in a cloud of hairspray and “brutal murder” fonts. The entertainment factor didn’t yet play as central a role as it would come to do in the following 20 years.
Managing editors spoke of “setting the news agenda.” They had far fewer metrics available, too. Once that newspaper landed on the lawn, who knew if it was read at all, let alone which stories were the most popular? We added up letters to the editor and phone calls to the switchboard. There were no news websites, let alone hit counters and unique-user trackers and stickiness meters. So “what does the audience want to know?” wasn’t as big a concern as “what does the audience need to know?” And editors, gatekeepers in current palaver, held the responsibility of determining what was significant. They didn’t always get it right, but they had to try because that was the pitch. It was that efficacy on which a medium staked its credibility and with which it worked to attract advertisers.
The difference now is that while journalistic credibility is still what good media struggle to maintain, from the news floor to the promotions departments, the appeal—meaning the pitch to audiences and to advertisers—is closer to the tone you’re asking about, that hotter sell of “conflict” and “climax.”
New survey data from the Pew Research Center, as reported by Julie Moos at Poynter, indicates that negative opinions about the news media are much higher than they were in the mid-1980s .
- In 1985, 34 percent of those surveyed said that news stories are often inaccurate. This year, 66 percent of respondents agreed with that statement.
- In 1985, 53 percent of the survey sample said journalists tend to favor one side of an issue or story. This year, 77 percent said the same thing.
- And in 1985, 53 percent of respondents said journalists are “often influenced by powerful people and organizations.” This year, 80 percent of those surveyed said journalists are influenced—and 72 percent said journalists try to cover up their mistakes rather than admitting them.
The challenge is to answer such damaged confidence with new formats in advertiser relations. Obviously, a good place to start might be with level-headed, non-hysterical contextualization and distribution of news. But so far in the digital revolution—Pew’s report is from July—practical options in that direction aren’t gaining much traction.
There will be a redress, eventually; not a full swing-back of the pendulum, but a bankable interest in having professionally trained journalists parse events in a less entertainment-fueled context. Early signs of this are found in pay wall experiments online including those at the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. It’s hard to predict widespread success for those models based on such exceptional media.
But don’t expect to find many snarling villains in the sorry state of journalism’s dynamics and image. Even in an era of Murdoch scandals, nobody gets up in the morning and says, “I’m going down to the network today and really gut me some journalism”—not the corporate management folks, and not the news workers on the floor. Some of the executives I’ve known in the entertainment-corporate structure have been valiant in battling layoffs of their journalists, several are leaders in promoting workplace diversity.
The corporate profit imperative simply has overpowered the original ethos of journalistic intent. Everybody is doing the best he and she can under radical pressure.
Ollin: Do you think that utilizing “dramatic storytelling devices” in the news is distorting the truth of what is really going on in the world, or is it simply a reflection of the way all human society interprets current events and processes new information—in other words, does utilizing “climax” and “conflict” in the news reflect some (or all) truth?
Porter: Is there a naturally dramatic story? Sure there is. Are most news stories inherently dramatic? No.
Much of the time, real news is an “eat your vegetables” affair. We all owe it to our collective citizenship to pay attention to the important issues of the day. Competitive info-tainment, however, makes us expect to be entertained. We’ve been morphed into a world of crisis junkies. Truth is jostled like the elderly victim of a purse-snatching when the media have to compete for our attention with melodrama. Truth is still there, but look at her— she’s left spinning around, disoriented, not necessarily in the center of the frame. Fragile.
Journalism and entertainment never should have come together. But those two forces did merge—overwhelming both journalists and corporate executives—because the marketplace saw gold in the nightly news. And when that happened, it was never going to be the homely sanctity of unadorned coverage again.
Ollin: What about the brevity in journalism? Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
Porter: The irony about journalistic brevity, you know, is that it has reached its zenith in the age of the Internet—which is bottomless.
We used to write so many “column inches” for a newspaper. You did your 14 inches and stopped. You put your who, what, when, where, and why right up top, in your lead, because the editors would “cut from the bottom” if you’d written too long.
Nowadays, there’s no physical page to restrain you. Wide open cyberspace. We could be doing truly in-depth, exhaustive coverage. But the user or viewer or listener or reader is in such a discombobulated hurry, and is so distracted by other honking, flashing, beeping, buzzing things, that long-form journalism is the last thing many folks can handle.
The New Yorker and several other major magazines have worked hard to hold onto a deep-write concept of narrative journalism. We’re lucky to have them in production.
But elsewhere, it’s like bad O. Henry. Just think for a moment about the Internet’s brilliant, planet-wrapping capacity to handle unprecedented range and depth. Just in time for the shortest shrift of hurry-up, say-it-fast, journalism.
Finally we got the medium we wanted. And the message fell apart. Where’s Marshall McLuhan when we need him?
Ollin: What about objectivity? Isn’t it a journalist’s job to strive for objectivity when it comes to reporting a news story?
Porter: This is a commonly held myth, actually, and I’m glad you asked about it.
It’s not objectivity that journalists strive for, and they certainly never achieve it. Human beings cannot be objective. We have opinions on everything, frequently without registering them consciously. Bias is part of the human condition. Without it we’d be stranded in indecision every ten minutes.
So what journalists try to develop in themselves is correctly called fairness. Journalists try to be fair. Fairness means you don’t take one account or the other as the last word. You see if anyone else has spoken up about it. Are there other opinions out there? You allow that multiplicity of opinion and viewpoint to live in your work.
Fairness. In any kind of writing, it moves you from second to third dimension. You can’t be objective. But you can be fair.
Ollin: I always like to end with this question: what do you do to keep your head up when the going gets tough? Any last words of encouragement or inspiration you can give my readers as they pursue their writing dreams?
Porter: My advice to someone who’s struggling so hard is to just stop for a little while. Look around. Think. Have a drink. Have another drink. Listen to the music that means the most to you. Read just one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Or turn off the sound and look behind the correspondent yelling into her mic about the dangers of default in Europe—the Parthenon, high above her on its Acropolis, has outlasted a whole lot of wine-dark economic eras and a lot more brutal murders. It helps to let somebody else’s genius calm you. Paradoxically, it can get you back to yourself.
Once you’re back in touch with yourself again, the greatest part of inspiration is that you already have it. It’s the one thing you don’t have to go looking for in an eight-DVD collection as seen on TV. It’s there as soon as you hit on the right idea. Doubts? Of course doubts. But not in your inspiration, just about how you’re handling it. And if you’re really inspired, you’ll always fix the how-to-handle-it problems.
If you’re not inspired, you’re simply not “in spirit,” not in-spirited by the task you’ve set yourself. Your heart’s not in it. That’s not mystical, that’s practical. And there’s nothing shameful about feeling less than inspired. It just means you’re burrowing in a direction you probably shouldn’t be going. It means there’s something else that would immerse you “in spirit,” in the joy and thrill of being who you want to be in some aspect of your life.
So just get on with it. Just get on with it. And—you nailed it in your piece earlier this week, Ollin—you’re gonna be okay.
End of sermon. Go in peace.
Ollin: Thank you so much, Porter.
Porter: Thanks for having me, Ollin, you’re a brave man.
Porter Anderson, a Fellow with the National Critics Institute, is a producer and consultant formerly with the United Nations World Food Programme in Rome and INDEX: Design to Improve Life in Copenhagen. As a journalist, he has worked with media including the networks of CNN, the Village Voice, and the Dallas Times Herald. He holds a BA from William and Mary, an MA from the University of Michigan, and an MFA from Florida State University. He’s based in Tampa. More at PorterAndersonMedia.
What do YOU think? Can you see the effects of Porter’s assessment as a longtime newsroom worker on the media today? Or do you have a different appraisal? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments below!
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