Good Storytelling Takes Time

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Guest blogger Heather McIntosh started Documentary Site almost a decade ago as a resource and outlet for documentary media. Follow her on Twitter @documentarysite.

The news and documentary forms are complementary, but as guest blogger Heather McIntosh explains, popular online news is failing to lay a foundation for deeper inquiry.

Journalism always seems to be in a hurry. Up until somewhat recently, newsgathering practices followed a once-a-day news cycle. Traditional Day One stories answered the basic questions: Who? What? When? Where? and How? Running two and more days later, follow-up stories delved into the Why?, trying to explain further the meanings and implications behind happenings.

The proliferation of cable and satellite television sped journalism up even more. It brought streams of news to audiences 24 hours a day, and the news cycle shifted from once-a-day coverage to 24-hour coverage. Footage of the white Ford Bronco speeding down California highways in the mid-1990s had audiences riveted — as did the coverage of the subsequent trial of O.J. Simpson — thus demonstrating the potential viability of such coverage. Coverage of the events of September 11, 2011, confirmed that viability.

With the proliferation of the Internet, the stream of information has turned into a flood. The Internet has changed significantly the way stories get told, particularly in terms of breaking news stories. Black Friday, for example, provided plenty of fodder for news coverage, with not only the frenzies created by deal-seeking shoppers, but also with the extremes created by violence and looting.

New online journalism format

The new but common style
for online news stories includes
frequent updates and video embeds
added throughout the day.

Msnbc ran a story on its web site as part of the weekend coverage of Black Friday consumers. The story features updates throughout the day, with each update timestamped. The story covers a lot of ground, which includes hard news stories and human-interest stories. Subjects include a bomb scare, long lines, romance, shootings, suspected shootings, and fights. Video clips from shows are woven throughout the text, and embedded links redirect to a photoblog and other related stories.

Granted, not all stories appearing online run like this one did, but this format is a common online producer’s starting point for stories that break suddenly and develop throughout a day.

As a news document, this story is a sloppy mess. The headline and the opening paragraph highlight the more sensational aspects, but the long lines and romance angles get buried further down. The multimedia and the links offer more details, but not necessarily any more cohesion.

Arguably, the story caters to the scanning culture of Internet audiences, with fickle readers cherry-picking among the sections that interest them the most. It also enables the rapid updating almost required for an online news presence. But how does one begin to make sense of all the information here? What ties it all together? The topic of Black Friday? And what does this loose structure do for the explaining powers of journalism?

In the print era, first-day stories covered the most pertinent and immediate facts, but they managed to achieve a greater sense of cohesion than this story does. Follow-up news coverage offered opportunities to fill information gaps, to expand perspectives, and overall just to round out the details. So how does one begin to turn that Msnbc story on Black Friday into something more coherent, something with a greater explanatory power? After all, isn’t the fact that multiple forms of violence ensued while people waited to go shopping worthy of further investigation? Has the violence increased over the years? Decreased? And why is violence happening while people wait in line at Walmart? (Am I the only one disturbed by these events?)

My (delayed) point here is quite simple: good journalism takes time. Effective storytelling takes time, and many documentaries demonstrate this fact with their production times. Liz Canning took nine years to make Orgasm, Inc. Lake of Fire took Tony Kaye about 15 years to complete. Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah took 11 years to make, with six years in filming and five years in editing. Each of these titles offers an in-depth look at its subject, and each one offers a multifaceted investigation. These long-term investigations are part of why I find documentaries so compelling.

Now, I am not here to decry the downfall of news and herald the importance of the documentary (actually, the separation of documentary and news is not that simple, but that topic is for another post). As a teacher, a critic, and former newspaper employee, I see both of them as important. News and documentary complement and inform each other in different ways, with each showing the limitations and possibilities of the other. Each one has its own purpose in providing ways of understanding and interpreting our world and its histories. News’ ability to react almost instantly is critical for comprehending rapidly unfolding events, and that initial coverage provides some foundation for interpreting the events in the long term as well. Documentaries’ ability to get deeper into the nuances of these events is critical for contextualizing them in the long term.

So what does that mean for the Msnbc round-up story about Black Friday and its place within the development of news and documentary? The story certainly fulfills the scanning expectations of Internet readers, and it also keeps pace with the news as it unfolds. But what kind of foundation is it setting for follow-up stories or deeper inquiries that might be made by a documentary maker exploring the phenomenon of violence, consumerism, and Black Friday?

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Heather McIntosh
Heather McIntosh
Heather McIntosh started Documentary Site as a resource for documentary media and has greatly enjoyed the connections it has fostered over the years.