Two techniques often are useful in planning and presenting news coverage. They go by many names, but for our purposes we’ll call them deconstructing and conceptualizing stories.
Deconstruction means identifying all potential aspects of a topic, especially the different questions, opinions or facts that diverse sets of readers might want to explore.
Every reader is unique. Each will assign differing levels of personal relevance to different aspects of the same story. Some aspects — relatively rarely — may impact their lives directly. Others — more commonly — may seem odd, outrageous, humorous, reaffirming, challenging or otherwise worthy of attention, if for no other reason than to provide material for conversations.
Regularly talking to and interacting with diverse readers — not necessarily when working on a project but as a matter of course in daily life — helps. Learning to identify each separate aspect that might have personal relevance to at least some of your readers helps you plan coverage.
Grouping topics that require similar sourcing helps determine how to deploy reporters, each of them to tackle more attainable aspects of a major larger story, which might elude a single reporter because of its complexity.
Within each individual reporter’s efforts, question outlines — a form of deconstruction — help ensure that the reporter follows up on all necessary aspects and doesn’t become so awestruck with one or two key quotes that additional angles aren’t pursued.
In presentation and design, deconstruction helps determine where entry points — separate headlines, photos, graphics, pull quotes, etc. — might be needed and emphasizes content over art in creating those entry points.
So-called “long form” coverage may impress journalism professors and writers. It may even get a few readers — the handful who actually make it all the way to the end of a piece — to say that they feel more satisified. From an informational perspective, however, web metrics and web and print eye-tracking reveal it’s very nearly the worst way to present information.
Far more effective than a linear narrative, “my way or the highway” approach to storytelling is to deconstruct a complicated piece into its non-linear components — multiple smaller inverted pyramids, each appealing to a different audience segment, instead of a single big one that appeals to just some readers.
Some regard this as a dumbing-down of news. In fact, non-linear storytelling typically requires greater depth than do long-form linear narratives. In linear narrative, it’s easy to gloss over aspects by fudging them in general terms and letting the beauty of writing or presentation hide the lack of facts to support. Think of which is harder: writing a long answer on an essay exam or answering the same question with a bulleted list. Long essays allow for bullshitting. Bullet points reveal whether you know the answer or don’t. The adage about if you had more time you would have written something shorter comes to mind.
The stakes are enormous. Economically, success in media depends upon habituation, not on the value of an individual commoditized piece of content. The more quickly and easily a reader expects to be able to locate exactly what aspects of stories are of greatest interest to him or her, the greater the chance that he or she will habitually return to that news source in the future.
Deconstruction and non-linear presentation of deconstructed material ensures that a more diverse audience will have greater expectation that something at least minimally satisfying is regularly present whenever they might check your mediated news product.
As a first step in learning how to deconstruct stories, take as an example current efforts to address the pandemic at the University of Illinois. Try creating a diagram, somewhat along the lines of the one below, that can serve as an outline of the different aspects of the story that need to be checked upon.
The example is about the first- and second-day coverage of the April 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
Imagine you are a reader, attempting to learn what you might care most about regarding that story at that time. Follow the various categorical labels — when eventually would be turned into hierarchical entry points — in the flow chart below and see how you traverse the maze of coverage in what has been referred to a spaghetti bowl of hypertext:
Note how three main paths into the story are created — a spot news path about the investigation and arrest of a suspect, more of a policy path about the implications of domestic terrorism and finally a featurized path setting the scene of the destruction.
See how these paths unfold into detailed sections that include local impact, examples, data lists, and many other elements. This not only guides reporting but also offers opportunities for images, graphics and other data structures that can do more than merely repeat what’s already said as the main points of text. In some cases, in fact, text isn’t even needed. Visuals, graphics, lists and the like can substitute while text is used to convey information best told in linear narrative fashion while other elements of the story can be presented as they are best told, via various design and data elements.
This is clearly an overly simplistic look at how a very complicated story of this nature would be presented, but if you follow the spaghetti lines the way you would consume the story yourself, then compare how another person would follow the paths differently, you may begin to get the idea of how non-linear storytelling works and why it helps ensure there’s something for everyone in the finished package.
A huge criticism of journalism is that it has become purely stenographic. All we do is look for people to comment on or characterized developments. We don’t attempt to find truth. We attempt to find “spin” and balance one set of spin with another set of spin.
Contextualizing means putting human faces to as much of what we cover as possible. Not only is it easier for readers to become engaged in a story if they can see tangible impact on everyday people like them. It also is a powerful fact-checking mechanism. Any source claiming that some action does something is nothing more than a talking head if he or she cannot point to specific individuals actually experiencing whatever they claim.
The mantra here is real people doing real things. By definition, officials are not real people — not even officials of some advocacy group like protestors. They’re fake talking heads whose primary goal is to create spin rather than let readers vicariously experience what the speakers are talking about — provided, of course, whatever it is actually exists.
Finding real people doing real things not only fact-checks the story. It also inherently diversifies the list of sources. We no longer accept only the versions of truth of the largely homogenous group of people who have power but are relying on seeing actual impacts, not just hearing from a representative cross-section of society as a whole.
Finding human faces allows us to create impactful, inductive (rather than deductive) leads, going from tangible specifics to less relatable generalities, and helps identify subjects to photograph or show by video. But that’s not the only way we contextualize.
Context also is needed with statistics. A number by itself is meaningless. Numbers take on meaning only when compared to other numbers from similar situations. This may involve comparing one locality to another, current data with past data, an unfamiliar situation with a similar but more familiar one. It’s not just a single number vs. another number. It’s the pattern of how numbers change and whether they change in response to whatever seems to be causing them.
It is rare to actually be able to prove causation with numbers, but it is possible — and necessary — to explore them more fully to determine whether some alternative cause might explain something better. It is, therefore, vitally important to know everything you can about any set of numbers reported — not just the portion of numbers you might choose to relay to readers. You need to know details of how the numbers were gathered, what limitations are inherent in such methodology, and look for anomalies that might explain false impressions numbers can create.
Charted numbers, as opposed to merely reported numbers, are particularly powerful as they allow the reader to create his or her own context for them, provided sufficient numbers are provided to allow for this process. That’s why it’s always important to show the featured pattern of numbers in context of a comparison set of past numbers or numbers from other situations. The reader subconsciously invests of himself or herself in validating the true meaning of the numbers and essentially creates his or her own personal spin, rather than having someone else’s spin forced upon him or her.
Context — both human and statistical — will play significant roles in how to deconstruct the U of I pandemic story. Look for specific areas in which human faces or statistical comparisons might shed light on the overall story and include them in our outline.
Never assume that what we are talking about when we refer to a “story” is the text of that story. Every element of the final package — the headlines, photos, graphics, lists, databases, pull quotes, interactives and other entry points — all combine to tell the story. Various pieces of text within the package are just one element of the story. Journalists gathering information constantly need to think about gathering material other than what works particularly well in linear narrative text.
Capitalizing on reporters’ undue focus on linear narrative structures is one of the ways devious public relations professionals use to keep journalists away from probing too closely for the truth. Give a reporter a sexy sound bite or a killer quote for the second paragraph and the reporter generally will go away, thinking he or she has done all that’s necessary. Adopting strategies and encouraging practices that refuse to reward such behavior is one of the goals of looking at stories through the lens of deconstruction and conceptualization.
Once you have a draft of your plan (significantly more fleshed out than the Oklahoma City example) for the pandemic story, post it to this site in the Planning category, then come to class Friday having looked at each other’s plans and being prepared to discuss them.