Reporting vs storytelling

I once heard James Hohmann -then at Washington Post, today with Politico- say he was a good reporter, but not a good writer. Four years later, and changing the background of Capitol Hill for the Berlaymont in Brussels, I keep hearing about the “don’t let the facts ruin a good story” debate. 

During his lecture to my class at GW, Hohmann referred to his passion for tracing sources, going through phone books, and knocking on doors. He loved questions more than he loved answers, he said, and sitting in front of a blank screen with a handful of the latter was the true trouble when writing articles.

At the time, his speech made me think of two things. On the one hand, the differences between newsrooms that can actually get access to sources and those that have newswires as their main tool. Local stories vs big international events. On the other, Journalism training in the US seemed a lot more focused on reporting tools and techniques, while my own education in Europe put greater emphasis on being intellectually prepared to understand and judge stories on your own. 

Four years later, I am not in the shoes of either of those personas, but I am an observer to the dozens of journalists I meet in Brussels every week. People tell me that the investigative type of reporting Hohmann referred to is hard to pursue in the eurobubble because sources barely ever give good quotes, if they speak at all. The role of senior columnists or expert correspondents is slightly more extended than the one of reporters. Both put equal weight on sources, but one relies more heavily on storytelling while the other focuses on reporting. Image

Classic storytellers believe good narratives are key to make complex issues like the ones in the EU appealing for a wider audience. Building stories by setting the key stones before sitting to write is necessary, especially when your readers are a priori not interested in something that you know should concern them. Without these keystones, it’s unfortunately easier for your stories to dangerously become loudspeakers of official prefabricated messages. For these reasons, storytellers need to know the angle for an article before they start researching it. 

Classic reporting souls will argue that focusing on the way to tell a story, or being a writer above everything else, is risky for the accuracy of an article. If you decide the structure or the conclusions in advance, you may only look for the answers that fit in a somewhat prefabricated narrative. Hence the reporter persona will let research drive words.

Evidently, these categories are simplifications of what I’ve met, but they are helpful when, as a Media Officer, I think of how to frame messages. Spicing up complex content with storytelling techniques is key, but so is staying factual. As usual, balancing the ingredients for all audiences sounds about right.

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