Sunday, January 04, 2015

'The Stranger in the Story': Not just lazy writing but bad for public policy

A New York Times' After Deadline column last month had an interesting if IMO incomplete critique of a common journalism practice, aptly titled "The Stranger in the Story."

Philip Corbett, the paper's associate managing editor for standards, lamented "how often [the Times'] feature and enterprise stories rely on that old journalistic staple, the anecdotal lead. It seemed that practically every story discussed for the front page started out by introducing me, by name, to some stranger whose connection to the point of the article would emerge only with time and patience."

The column had numerous examples from the Times of this lazy and over-used method just from a single day, though in truth it has become ubiquitous throughout print journalism, not just at the Times. In the past, journalists considered "burying the lede" a faux pas; today it's standard operating procedure.

Grits found Corbett's concerns welcome but simultaneously shallow. He wasn't worried about the way this hackneyed form can skew journalism's content, but merely that readers may tire of it: "the device can seem rote and shopworn if a reader encounters one story after another with the same approach. There are many, many ways to start a non-straight-news story; writers and editors should be looking harder for alternatives."

He's also concerned that reduced attention spans in the online era will mean introducing a stranger in the lede may prevent some readers from ever learning the true subject of the article: "In each case, we asked readers to hold on for two, three or even four paragraphs before we got to the point. That’s a lot to ask."

Of course, Corbett noted, "Sometimes the stranger in the first paragraph really is the focus of the story, not just a convenient anecdote." But even then, "we should think hard about starting out with an unfamiliar name. It can be puzzling or daunting to readers — should I recognize this name? Or it may lead readers to suspect that yet another leisurely anecdote is in store. Consider using a description in the lead and leaving the name for later," he advised Times reporters.

I agree with those critiques of this journalistic trope but find them incomplete. Last year, Grits offered a more fundamental analysis of these sorts of anecdotal ledes focused specifically on crime coverage, where I think the technique has not been just repetitive and unoriginal but actively harmful in the public policy realm. (Probably other areas, too, but crimjust is the topic on which your correspondent can most ably marshal evidence.) In an item titled "Telling stories vs. telling the truth," Grits attempted to articulate the broader issues at stake:
Failures of journalism ... help explain why the public thinks crime has increased in recent years even though all available data shows it's at its lowest rates since the 1950s in most parts of the country. The reason: Media today tend to glorify and hype crime for its entertainment value instead of placing it in context and providing useful information. The goal of American crime coverage has become manipulating readers' and viewers' emotions as opposed to increasing their understanding.

Back in June, your correspondent was invited to speak at a national Investigative Reporters and Editors conference at which I addressed this subject, offering similar observations: Back when I was coming up in the journalism field a quarter-century ago, I told them, reporters were taught to write articles along what was described as a reverse pyramid model, with the lede expressing the most important take-away from the story and anecdotes and personal details of individuals involved buried deeper down in the article.

That all changed, though, when the Wall Street Journal famously began publishing stories on their front page, left-hand column that all followed the same format: They began by telling the story of a single individual in a compelling, dramatic fashion that had more in common with fiction writing than how journalism schools taught their students. Then the articles would draw broader conclusions from the anecdote, with contextualizing information buried deeper in the article, often after the jump to an interior page. These articles were powerful for the same reason fiction writing can sometimes tell more truth than non-fiction - we all identify with personal stories and the format encouraged readers to put themselves in the shoes of the person in the featured anecdote.

Today, though, that method has become ubiquitous and virtually every story about crime follows that format, with institutional, cultural and other big-picture analyses relegated to the back end of stories if they're emphasized at all. Start looking for the phenomenon and you'll notice it everywhere. This practice, I told the conference-goers, has limits that most news outlets have come to ignore. Telling stories of individuals may promote a truth but seldom the truth. There are too many other people out there whose truths are ignored by the model and too many institutional dynamics that just don't fit into the framework. The approach encourages the media to pick and choose which stories to tell based on which ones are most likely to push their readers' buttons. The tragic deaths of black girls in Chicago or Houston may not merit a blip on the media radar screen, while the death of a cute white girl from Florida can dominate national media coverage for months.

The rise of this brand of coverage also changed how lawmakers govern in relation to crime and punishment, spurring the creation of countless laws named after dead children or high-profile victims ("Jessica's Law," etc.) that boosted punishments or minimized civil liberties. After this went on for many years, reformers got into the act, too, which is why it took the "Tim Cole Act" to compensate Texas' DNA exonerees or the "Michael Morton Act" to require Texas prosecutors to open up their files. If the media insists on covering crime this way, I told the conferees, then reform advocates can and will manipulate their coverage just like the tuff-on-crime crowd. But really, the journalistic approach does everyone a disservice and distorts the process, no matter which "side" benefits in any given instance.
Viewing public policy through the lens of a single case, however compelling or dramatic the story, inherently risks an anecdotal fallacy in which the featured example fails to explore all the nuance and/or counterarguments to the conclusions drawn from it. (TV news is even more susceptible to this than print media.) And even if counterarguments are acknowledged later, by personalizing the opening anecdote, the writer has informed the reader from the get-go with whom they're supposed to sympathize, framing the story in a way that inherently limits the terms of debate.

Unfortunately, in my experience editors and journalists seem mostly immune to critiques of the damage this method causes by warping public policy debates about the justice system. So I'm especially pleased at Corbett's more practical arguments. In the age of internet-shortened attention spans, perhaps the stranger-in-the-lede practice will diminish simply because readers won't scroll down four screens on their phone just to find out what a news story is about.


Katy Anders said...

When I took journalism in college, it was all about the upside down pyramid: You included all of the important facts in the first sentence and each sentence after that was less and less critical - though perhaps more specific. But the first sentence should say the basic who, what, when, and where info, at least.

The reasoning was twofold: First, that you have fewer and fewer readers with each sentence, and you're trying to cram as much info into their brains as possible before they quit; and second, you don't know how many inches an editor is going to give you, and s/he might cut your article off at any point.

But we consume news differently now. People don't read the paper, for starters. I get a lot of my news from twitter HEADLINES. The gimmicky, almost reality TV-like ways of telling the story discussed here might work to keep eyeballs on web pages for longer, and if it does, then it will be used.

The "Stranger in the Story" problem I see on a lot of political news sites online is the one where someone is quoted (and only mentioned by last name) who is not mentioned previously in the story! This happens when political news sites grab parts of an AP story but not others.

Which, incidentally, the upside pyramid method of cutting off articles would have prevented...

Anonymous said...

Like the inevitable "Michael Brown Grand Jury Reform" bill?

Will Yablome said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Will Yablome said...


Anonymous said...

I admit to being an older reader. That last is important. I read. I like the old style inverted pyramid. I hate news stories today. I want the story-the facts-before anything else. I dislike Twitter, and what passes for media journalism today. In retrospect the old "if it bleeds, it leads" seems almost a comfort.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for something completely different. Made me think about the Detective that never framed the innocent and always cut off those that veered off topic by saying - "Just the facts..." & reminded me why I stopped reading news papers despite the format.

The very day that the media implemented embedding so called Reporters with police departments was the day that the so called unbiased and fair news reporting became a microphone for the police departments. Resulting in lower crime rates that no one in the so called media dared to debunk, so it must be true, right?

Cathy Marston said...

As someone who has worked for two major newspapers in this state (the San Antonio Light and Austin American-Statesman) and has 3 degrees in communication/journalism, I approached this with great interest.

I understand the critique of the anecdotal lede (for you nonjournalists, that's how we differentiate b/w the form and the metal). I think the main problem comes when newsworkers create "composite" characters that don't exist.

The strength of it is the personalizing or "bringing home" of a larger concept or cultural context. This is especially important for marginalized groups, such as women, people with disabilities, low-income populations, and survivors of the Prison Industrial Complex. The latter is evidenced in the titling of important legislation through the name/names of a person -- a graspable concept.

Yes, overgeneralization occurs. And, as a woman, battering survivor, and director of a group for wrongfully arrested battered women, I would argue, that most of those anecdotes are of men of privilege.

Thanks for this interesting, important, topic!
Cathy Marston, PhD
Director, Free Battered TX Women

Anonymous said...

The day they put Animal Control under the control of the police departments also made news stories about cops shooting animals go away. The ones that made it seem to show potential jurors the cops version of events more than the witnesses or video that survives.

When corporations took over the media outlets and formed News monopolies, we got what the corporations & their lobbyist wanted us to get. Doh!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Cathy, thanks for your comments.

To me, though, the "composite" isn't the problem. It's the anecdotal fallacy from real stories which are over-generalized that I see as the principle malefactor.

The anecdotes and examples are important and useful, but it distorts public policy when anecdotes frame the policy questions instead of the other way around. Cheers!