Howie Wright couldn’t sleep. And now, after a fretful night, he could sense that the black nighttime sky beyond the drapes had turned to a slate gray. Tires were hissing on the wet freeway a mile from his trim suburban home – commuters heading to work. Birds were peeping tentatively in the trees outside his second-story window.
His 110-pound brunette wife, Sara Ann, still was clinging to him, smelling faintly of onions and Tesoro. The objects in the dim light of their bedroom were beginning to define themselves in the gloom, as the sun readied itself to climb over the grassy plains to the east.
Wright sighed. Today, the state budget would be released. It was the first budget in years that wasn’t emerging into a robust economy. How to tell that figure-laden but important story to his readers? Sometimes he thought today’s newspaper “consumers” had the attention span of mayflies.
He could, he supposed, tell the story of Sgt. Otto Chase, the veteran highway patrol officer in a part of the state where towns were far apart and the interstate highways wide open. Chase’s 3-year-old cruiser had close to a quarter-million miles on it and was no longer able to keep up with the speeders. It was past time for the state to buy him a new one.
Or there was Chuck Spears, the Olympic-class javelin thrower at the third-most-prominent state university. There wasn’t a big alumni base for javelin; not like football. Either the state budget would have to find a way to support the minor sports, or Spears wouldn’t be bringing home a gold medal from the summer games.
What about the struggling survivors of Medicaid recipient Rhoda Rouen? She had been the sole provider for six dependents until her wheelchair fell through a rotting pier and she drowned in the icy waters of Howe’s Bayou, a state park that desperately needed improvements.
Wright was an award-winning reporter. He always got his story, and he always told it in a compelling way. But he also was committed to being an ethical reporter, and ethical issues swarmed in his mind as he tossed in the murky room.
Have we reporters become overly concerned with telling the “human side” of the news?, he asked himself. Are we now too dependent on individual cases and less likely to include as many hard facts, numbers and statistics?
In focusing on those individual stories, do we unwittingly bias the news? If I single out one of these yarns to engage the uninvolved reader, do I risk creating disproportional concern – both from the public and from public officials – for the state patrol, state parks or university athletics?
How many anecdotal stories about poor, affected families does it take before a story is blatantly biased against politicians and bureaucrats who are only trying to do their jobs and craft a budget to cope with a faltering economy? But, then again, is old-fashioned muckraking and crusading such a bad thing?
How he longed for the simple clarity of the inverted pyramid of his internship days: A simple $15 billion budget; a 5.5 percent increase over the previous year, a record (of course it was a record – the real news would be if it were less than the previous years); and, to humanize the story, telling readers that this was an extra 26 cents for each of the state’s nearly 3 million income-tax filers.
How simple, how direct, how easy! But now he was a storyteller, expected to engage the reader.
As the familiar objects of his home slowly defined themselves in the feebly brightening dawn, he thought to himself – in the third person, as writers often do – Howie Wright has certainly changed over the years.
The gripping saga above is entirely fictional, intended to lure the reluctant browser into the lengthy discussion that follows. But the technique it employs is definitely not fiction. How we write has certainly changed over the years.
The storytelling lead, employing anecdote and example to make a difficult subject more accessible, is one of the most popular trends in journalism.
But this is a trend with its roots in antiquity. Stories told around campfires are the ancestor of news. We reporters, when we employ storytelling, are simply returning to our roots as caveman communicators.
The renaissance of storytelling as the pinnacle of information exchange raises questions, though. There is still much to be said for telling the most important news first, tapering down to the least important at the end – the inverted pyramid.
In a world where news is available at the speed of light, do we really do our readers a service by delaying their access to the facts while we indulge ourselves in our literary aspirations? Studies show that most readers spend an average of 15 to 25 minutes with their daily newspapers. That doesn’t leave a lot of time for reading aspiring novelists.
The anecdotal approach to writing news is like the anecdotal approach to government. Both are currently quite popular, and both have their pitfalls.
Whether it’s a presidential candidate calling forth, in every stump speech at every campaign stop; the welfare mother who collects soda cans to pay for a trip to apply for food stamps; or the reporter who begins a complicated explanation of a land deal by setting a scene with a rustic character ambling through picturesque ancestral acreage, the target audience is asked to identify with protagonists who may or may not have any connection with the audience’s lives.
Anecdotal lawmaking often results in narrowly focused legislation that needs to be fixed at the next session of the legislative body – when it becomes apparent that a law designed to fix one problem may create others.
The consequences of anecdotal reporting may be less disruptive, but they do carry the risk of slanting a story unnecessarily. And while a vivid anecdote may make for satisfying literature, it may not have any relevance to the life experiences of a majority of its readers.
Anecdotes are like appetizers, preparing the palate for the heavy meal to come. Some might prefer the lightest of introductions, a salad of tossed greens. Others might want to get right to the meat of the story. Leave the anecdotes for dessert.
Perhaps the best compromise is to have a hearty appetizer – a lead with both flair and substance. Forget the watercress; show me the shrimp!
The anecdote is intended to show how the news affects the lives of ordinary people. We have come to believe that the anecdote is more attractive to readers and viewers than the hard facts, numbers and statistics that mathematically challenged reporters and that editors feel are audience repellents.
The Missouri Group, four faculty members at the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, put together a textbook called “News Reporting and Writing” (Bedford/St. Martin’s, sixth edition, 1999). They, like most contemporary journalists, are fans of good storytelling, the human angle, the telling episode.
“The ultimate treats, anecdotes are stories embedded in stories. … Whatever their tone, they should illustrate a point,” write Brian S. Brooks, Bruce Kennedy, Daryl R. Moen and Don Kennedy.
“If we want to engage our readers intellectually and emotionally, if we want to inform and entertain, we must use writing techniques that promise great things to come and then fulfill that promise,” they say.
And yet they acknowledge the importance of the traditional structure, which still dominates the vast majority of reportage:
“Frequently misdiagnosed as dying, the inverted pyramid has more lives than a cat. Perhaps because it is because the more people try to speed up the dissemination of information, the more valuable the inverted pyramid becomes.”
The use of storytelling is an effort to pitch news at an audience that is dwindling and drifting away. It’s all well and good to try to expand our readership base and our circulation numbers. But we shouldn’t be straining ourselves to write newspapers for people who don’t read them. We shouldn’t forget the loyal, habitual readers who got us where we are and who want their news told straight – meat and potatoes, without a lot of sauce and garnish.
The Internet has an advantage here. Online reporting, in addition to its endless and instantaneous access, requires the writer to tell the story quickly, without taking forever to sneak up on the subject.
This is what used to be wire-service style: A lot of no-nonsense facts, told quickly without a lot of creativity. But now even The Associated Press is demanding more enterprise and creativity from its writers.
Certainly, there are many who recommend the anecdotal approach. Rudolf Flesch, the legendary advocate of readable writing, is one of the champions of this technique. His advocacy goes back more than half a century.
In “The Art of Readable Writing” (Harper and Brothers, 1949), Flesch celebrates what might seem trivial: “ … for readability you need not only basic ideas and solid facts, but also a good collection of seemingly useless information.”
That includes the use of an “everyman” protagonist to provide an entrÈe into a story. “There’s nothing on earth that cannot be told through a hero – or heroine – who’s trying to solve a problem in spite of a series of obstacles. It’s the classic formula, and it’s the only one you can rely on to interest the average reader,” Flesch writes.
Flesch sees the anecdote as an aid to the reader.
“Whenever you write about a general principle, show its application in a specific case; quote the way someone stated it; tell a pointed anecdote. These dashes of color are what the reader will take away with him. Not that he will necessarily remember the illustration or anecdote itself, but it will help him remember the main idea,” he writes.
Flesch likes the idea of using a protagonist. “A good way of using someone else for focus and perspective is to put such a person right into your piece of writing. You present your facts and ideas as seen by an observer with a detached point of view.”
He concedes, though, that it’s difficult to focus away from the outstanding, attention-grabbing – and therefore not typical – protagonist.
Forget “typical,” says Roy Peter Clark, senior scholar and writing guru at the Poynter Institute, a media think tank in St. Petersburg, Fla.
“As a writer, I reject the idea of the ‘ordinary person.’ I’m not sure any character should be chosen for a story because he or she is ‘ordinary.’ Sometimes a writer will ‘cast’ a character because he or she seems representative, and other times because the character is extraordinary,” Clark said.
is a proponent of storytelling in journalism. He says he has noticed “definitely more interest” in the technique – “not just to engage readers, but also to fulfill the larger mission of journalism.” A recent Harvard University conference on the subject attracted more than 800 people.
And yet, Clark said, “interest in storytelling doesn’t mean that it’s actually happening. To use the evidence of my eyes, I’d say that fewer than 10 percent of pieces in newspapers are ‘stories.’ They are more likely to be ‘reports’ or ‘articles.’ “
Most readers seem to like the approach. Poynter and the American Society of Newspaper Editors conducted a research project several years ago involving 16 stories in the St. Petersburg Times that were written in different styles, from traditional to narrative. “While some readers did prefer a straight approach, a majority of readers preferred other forms of storytelling,” Clark said.
Northwestern University also is doing research that indicates a reader preference for “feature style,” he added. “The anecdotal evidence on reader response to ‘stories’ is tremendously encouraging. Writers like Tom Hallman and Tom French and Anne Hull and Mark Bowden receive responses in the hundreds and thousands,” Clark said.
Bob Steele, Clark’s Poynter colleague as senior scholar and head of the ethics group, has a different take.
“I believe some writers take short cuts by finding an ‘example’ of the issue and using that person as the linchpin for the story. That can be dangerous,” Steele said.
“It can slant the story to one perspective – that of the example. It can also oversimplify a complex issue,” he said. “To be sure, overuse or misuse of hard facts can also be counterproductive to good storytelling. Too many numbers and statistics can bog down the story and confuse the reader.”
And yet, he added, “We do know from the ASNE Credibility Project that some readers believe anecdotal leads can improperly frame a story, giving inappropriate weight to the anecdote that opens the story,” Steele said. “For instance, some suggest that stories about human services that start with an anecdotal lead about a recipient of government funding are inherently slanted and biased.”
example, a story on industrial pollution that begins with an extensive recounting of the plight of a victim doesn’t go far enough. “If the anecdotes focus only on the so-called ‘affected families,’ the story is not authentic,” said Steele. “There are many stakeholders in stories like this. Stakeholders include the industrial workers who may lose their jobs. Stakeholders include scientists who are trying to develop solutions.
“Journalists who use anecdotes to build their crusades are susceptible to stories that are short on authenticity. They can fall prey to serious problems with bias, fairness and accuracy.”
Like other writing tools, the anecdotal lead should be used cautiously, Steele said. “Of course, that’s true with all of the writing and reporting tools in the bag. Writers who use an anecdotal approach should make sure this technique heightens accuracy and fairness in the story.”
Clark’s advice for writers using anecdotes also emphasizes accuracy and makes for a good closing note:
“Report well. Try to see things with your own eyes.
“If reconstructing an event from the past, reveal your evidence to the reader.
“Never add something that didn’t happen. Never deceive the reader. Never break your contract of trust with the reader. Announce any unusual narrative techniques.
“Reports transfer information. Stories transfer experience.
“Use language that puts the reader on the scene.”
Fred Brown, co-chair of the SPJ Ethics Committee, retired in January as political editor of The Denver Post. He is organizing a project to study media and government ethics.