The art of storytelling is vanishing in TV journalism

By
Tim Knight

Tim KnightSo there I am back in the sixties in New York City, an ABC-TV reporter/field producer and writer for anchor Peter Jennings, former UPI foreign correspondent in the Congo, owner of a nifty little Smith-Corona portable typewriter and a trench coat with rings to hang grenades on, and I don’t understand a lot of the journalism on my own network. Or, for that matter, anyone else’s network.

I don’t understand why we send all those anchors and reporters with all those teeth and hair into people’s living room every evening to read loud and fast at them because a politician, rock star, athlete or axe murderer gets on or off a plane, in or out of a limousine/jail, while lying incomprehensible words into eager microphones about remote and irrelevant happenings.

Not only don’t I understand a lot of the stories in the news, but when it’s over I remember almost nothing anyone says or does. I watch news and current affairs programs with friends, ask them what they remember afterwards.

“Some fighting somewhere,” they say. “In Vietnam or Africa or somewhere … and the President makes this announcement … and what’s-his-face meets with the Canadian President … and some murders, of course … and something about a strike … and, oh yeah, a plane crash in Turkey or was it Chile … and I think there’s a demonstration against something … and at the end this cute little Panda’s born at the zoo in Beijing … and it’s father’s name is Ping Pong and it’s mother’s is Butterfly and it weighs maybe six pounds and you have to love it, it’s so cute …”

Over the years since then, TV journalism becomes more and more glitzy, more and more miraculous.

People with unhuman assurance report live and in color from anywhere in the known universe. But the report itself is often about a world in which I don’t live,  in a code I don’t understand. Its meaning, its relevance, lost in a jargon jungle behind loud unthinking voices and blank, unthinking faces.

We perform technical miracles, but what we broadcast becomes little more understandable, little more retainable, little more relevant than the stuff we produced back in the sixties.

Some reasons:

We TV journalists have almost forgotten the ancient and magic art of storytelling, by far the most efficient method ever invented for passing on information, one human to another. Storytelling is universal and timeless. It tells stories chronologically, with context followed by (sometimes) foreshadowing, dramatic development, the ever-popular climax and (sometimes) denouement.

Storytelling has nothing to do with pyramids, inverted or otherwise, taught in journalism schools over so many years by newspaper people who often couldn’t make it in newspapers, had never heard of storytelling, believed devoutly in inverted pyramids, and didn’t believe there was any real difference between TV and newspapers anyway.

In turn, when the TV newbies grew up and became producers and J-school teachers, they passed these same story guidelines on to new newbies. Who passed them on …

Added to all this, there’s still a theory that just about all a TV journalist has to do is put shortened, fact-based newspaper stories on the air — with a reporter reading the script so the viewer doesn’t have to while moving pictures replace still pictures. Everything else, including the peculiar coded language, is pretty much the same as newspapers.

TV is a magnificent medium for bringing understanding through human events, human emotion, human needs, and is very bad at passing on facts. Which is, of course, why most TV journalism concentrates on facts and avoids almost anything to do with real human emotion (except, of course, at funerals where it wallows in predictable and scripted emotion).

There’s another problem. Most TV journalists secretly believe that their real selves, their real personas, are inadequate for TV. That the way they communicate in real life isn’t good enough. So they act. Badly. They confuse speed, volume and bad acting with energy, authority and sincerity. It doesn’t work. They hardly communicate at all. And they don’t fool anyone except, maybe, their mothers and the people in charge of TV journalism.

They seem to think they’re addressing enormous crowds and behave appropriately. But TV works best when the performer talks to just one person. Someone who is known and respected. About things that matter.

Even in the worst TV sitcom, performers are expected to try to see the scenes, think the thoughts, feel the emotions in whatever the hell they’re talking about. But most TV journalists just read. Usually loud. And usually fast. And reading loud and fast at people is the least efficient form of communication humans have ever invented.

Another problem. TV journalists put almost all their information over moving pictures. It’s called voice-over narration and is a most unnatural method of communication. That’s because unless the narration actually supports and enhances the video (which it almost never does) the viewer is forced to choose between audio and video. And video is far more powerful and always wins.

Also, the viewer loses an enormous amount of information when the speaker can’t be seen. (In real life when we hear voices but can’t see the speaker we’re eventually taken away in butterfly nets by large men in white coats).

Journalism educations should understand that TV journalism, when done properly, is closer to theatre (the theater of the truth, of course, but then again, good theater is automatically theatre of the truth) than to newspapers. TV journalism and newspaper journalism are, at best, distant relatives. Maybe kissing cousins once removed.

North American TV networks panic as they watch their TV news ratings slump lower and lower every year and react by calling in the infamous and expensive news doctors to perform magic tricks.

The networks should try the magic of storytelling instead. It’s a lot cheaper, works a lot better and doesn’t involve giving in to the appalling “if it bleeds it leads” syndrome.

Tim Knight (www.TimKnight.org) is an Emmy and Sigma Delta Chi award-winning journalist, international TV journalism trainer and documentary producer. He’s worked for three newspapers, UPI, ABC, NBC and PBS and was head of CBC TV journalism training for 10 years. This article is adapted from the second edition of his book Storytelling And The Anima Factor (available at www.lulu.com).

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