Journalism at its best is a way to uncover and communicate the truth, subject to all the usual human limitations. But journalism’s fundamental form, the story itself, brings a special temptation to manipulate the truth for economic or aesthetic reasons. The temptation is resistible to varying degrees, depending on the type of story (the temptations are greater for feature stories than for hard-core reportage of the day’s events), the nature of the journal, and the standing of journalist. Nevertheless, the temptation is there, built into the form itself.
The very idea that there’s a story is itself a temptation. Maybe the story is on Facebook addiction or the rise in incivility. A journalist who goes back to her editor and says, “Nope, no story there” has disappointed the editor who now has to find another story to fill the hole in the paper newspaper or to feed the maw of the online publication. Not a big deal; it happens all the time. But if it’s fifth consecutive time that the reporter says there was no story there, it’s getting to be a problem. If it’s the reporter who has suggested the stories in the first place, as is often the case at many publications, she will be judged a failure because she’s wasted her time and gummed up the editor’s planning.
It’s not like it’s supposed to be in science, where a failed hypothesis is as valuable as a proved one, even though of course every scientist would rather discover that a new compound cures cancer than that it doesn’t. A failed hypothesis in the world of journalism is a story that won’t run, that won’t bring in readers, that won’t give businesses a page on which to place an ad. There are real prices to stories failing to pan out. Reporters are thus tempted to make the story work.
Even when the hypothesis of a story is true, journalists almost always reach a place in the story where they know what they want their interviewees to say. An interview is requested of a particular person to provide the “some experts disagree” statement or the “the implications of this are vast” verbiage. If that person doesn’t provide it, someone else will. Depending on the stage of the story, the interviewee may spark interest in a side issue or an approach the reporter hadn’t considered…resulting in someone else being called to provide the other side or the amplification.
This happens at some of stage of the story even when the topic is interesting no matter what storyline it takes. For example, the death of Pat Tillman is interesting because it is instantly symbolic: Football star turns down a life of fame and wealth in order to defend his country, and dies a soldier’s death in Afghanistan. Beyond the basic reportage the day that it happened, it was bound to inspire journalistic stories. A reporter could enter with an open mind. Even so, she’ll enter with an open mind looking for an angle, which is to say, looking for a story. Is it a relatively simple narrative of an inspiring patriot who gave his life to support his ideals? Or was there “more” to it? That search for the “more” isn’t simply a hunt for unknown truths. It’s a search for a narrative that reveals the simple surface to be a veneer from which we will learn something unexpected. The reporter may have no idea what the more is, but once she gets a hint of it, she’ll be on it, and the narrative itself — if not personal ambition — will carry her forward. Maybe Tillman wasn’t as virtuous as we thought. Maybe his death wasn’t as straightforward as we were told. Maybe his story was of a life fulfilled or of a life wasted or of a life more complex than we’d thought. Maybe it’s about the government’s cynical use of him, or of the media’s own eagerness to find a hero. But something will emerge. And as it emerges, it gathers its story around it, and the reporter is off looking for the voices who will play certain roles in the story. Why? Because the story demands it.
At the very least, the temptation journalistic stories is that of all story-telling, the basic way we humans make sense of our world. Stories, not just in journalism, are about the gradual revealing of truth. The surface wasn’t as it seemed. The ending was contained, hidden, in the beginning. What looked continuous was in fact disruptive. Stories have a shape, and story-tellers fit the pieces into that shape. There’s nothing wrong with that, except in an environment where there’s economic and social pressure to produce a story. Then the temptation is to get the pieces to fit. And that can corrode the truth.
So can the simple fact that stories tend towards closure. They end. They’re done. Some circle of understanding has been drawn and closed, tip to tip. The story says, simply by ending. “This is what you needed to know.” There can often be truth in that, but there is always falsity in it. The world, its events, and its people escape even the best of stories.
Stories are not going away from journalism, just as they’re not going away from history, biography, or how we talk about our day over dinner. They’re fundamental. Stories are how we understand, but they also inevitably are constructions, incomplete, and organized around a point of view. All stories are temptations. Journalistic stories have their own special and strong temptations because of their economics and because of the nature of the medium in which they’ve been embodied. Now those economics and that medium are changing, diminishing the old temptations but creating new ones:
::: Because we are increasingly turning to publications that explicitly take a stand, the temptation to include false views for “balance” is diminished. But, the preference for partisan media creates a new temptation: To over-state, in order to attract attention. [Guilty as charged!]
::: The old medium limited the length of stories, forcing unnecessary trimming except in very special circumstances. The new medium has infinite space so that stories can be right-sized. But it turns out that prolixity discourages on-line readers, so the new temptation is toward brevity. It’s not clear if that’s an expression of an impatience that’s always been with us or if the new medium constitutes a new temptation.
::: The old medium’s inability to embed links encouraged journalists to try to encapsulate the world in a single column of text. The new hyperlinked medium can tempt authors to gloss over points and contradictions because they’ve put in some links, putting the burden on readers who are (usually) lazier than the writers.
::: The economics of the old medium tempted publications to appear valuable by being a reliable source of the single truth. While they of course have encouraged discourse on controversial topics, their bread and butter have been stories that “get it right” and thus serve as a stopping point for belief. Stories are the bulwark of authority, and authority is the currency of the old journalistic economics. The new medium now can include as many stories as we want, from as many different points of view, connected by curators above the stories and by hyperlinks within the stories. The story no longer has to tell the whole truth. It’s just one of the stories. But, while that’s true of the ecosystem as a whole, the old temptation to be a single-source truth shop exists for individual online publications, whether they’re commercial or personal.
Now, the form I’ve adopted for this essay, which is itself a type of story-telling, is one of balance: Old temptations matched by new temptations. It’s a form that aims at inspiring trust: “See, I’m presenting both sides!” And that itself can be corrosive. Indeed, in this case it is. While the old temptations are being replaced by new ones, the locus of truth is moving decisively from individual stories and publications to the network of stories and publications. The balancing of temptations misses this most important change. The hyperlinked context of stories creates not only new temptations to go wrong, but a greater possibility for going right.