This is my JRNL101 Essay that made up 30% of our overall mark in the 2015 Autumn Session. We were asked to complete a 2000 word essay on what is effective storytelling drawing on a contemporary journalism context. This Essay received a mark of 92/100 (High Distinction).
As I sit down on my bed in my cramped apartment, the room is completely dark with the one exception of the faint glow emanating from my TV. Hannibal is on, and for the next hour, my world has fallen out from below me, with my eyes and ears being transported to the story painted across the screen. About halfway through, I hear a faint buzz from my phone. I assume someone has sent me something that needs attention, but for now I ignore it. I’m too drawn in to the story to desert it now.
Storytelling influences the information we receive, process and retain in numerous ways. Walter Fisher (1983) believes that “humans are essentially storytellers” and that narratives allow us to understand the actions of others due to our own lives being narratives of their own. Naturally this notion is followed through into the profession of journalism. Some Academics ponder that all forms of journalism is mere storytelling (Bird 1990, p. 380) while others feel that it should take a more narrow approach where it should only be reserved for a specific mode of communication (Ekström 2000, p. 472).
In this essay I will be examining the balance between Storytelling and Journalism and how leaning too far in one direction may cause a shift away from the intended nature of the piece. This will be examined through the case study of the podcast Serial, which became a “global phenomenon” (Gamerman 2014) in late 2014 for its blend of storytelling and investigate journalism.
Storytelling Versus Journalism
Miguel Macias (2015) feels that “there is a fundamental incompatibility between storytelling and journalism” and that this causes every piece of media trying to balance the line will be flawed in one way or another. However, Storytelling has been noted as helping traditional forms of journalism become more interesting and help to retain the audience (Emde, Klimmt and Schluetz 2015) and it could be argued that Storytelling and Journalism may be incompatible, but a necessary pairing nonetheless. But where exactly does the balance lie? At what point does storytelling take precedence over the journalistic principles?
A great case study that examines this idea is the recent HBO Miniseries The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst. In the six part miniseries, Andrew Jarecki examined the case of Robert Durst in relation to three suspected murders over a period of 25 years. In the final moments of the final episode, Durst was recorded muttering a crucial statement; “What did I do? I killed them all, of course,” (Episode Six 2015) which seemed to be a confession to the murders. The Jinx ending could be termed as a ‘Cliffhanger’ which itself is not a new term, dating back to the early 1900’s but its implementation into journalism is a rather new concept (Powell 2015). However what Powell fails to mention is how sometimes the cliffhanger is left unresolved, becoming a dangling thread that is picked up later in the piece after other questions are resolved. That being said the ending, while entertaining for the fans and giving some closure to the series, drew criticism from academics for its method of storytelling.
Jane Kirtley believes that the main issue is how “it isn’t clear how much the storyteller knows” and that “you wouldn’t play ‘hide the ball’ from the reader” in more traditional forms of investigative journalism (Dockterman 2015). Kirtley raises an interesting point. Does hiding information from the audience build tension and entice them to continue on? Or does it do the opposite and make the journalist seem less credible due to their hiding of crucial information?
Serial And Storytelling
Serial has become a pop culture icon since its debut in late 2014. A spinoff of This American Life, Serial takes a more in depth look at one story, rather than the one off stories that is told by This American Life. From the very start of the podcast, the producers aimed at “giv[ing] you the same experience you get from a great HBO or Netflix series, where you get caught up with the characters and the thing unfolds week after week, but with a true story” (Lurie 2014) and this form of storytelling was mostly untested on Radio, with the notable exception of This American Life, which focused on short, self-contained stories.
Upon its release Serial was hailed by Josh Logue (2014) for showing “That longform journalism doesn’t necessarily demand concise narratives with neat, satisfying resolutions, even if those stories are important and in need of telling.” It is the manner in which Serial tells its story that is interesting and shows how a unique take on traditional investigative journalism can be effective.
Serial’s first season was split into twelve episodes of differing lengths, in which each episode was a different part of the case surrounding the murder of Hae Lee Min, a Baltimore student in 1999 and the trial of her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed. Sarah Koenig, the main voice behind the program believes that the format “allows us to be so flexible and so responsive to new information as we’re getting it” and this naturally allows the story to be mapped out in a number of ways, with each path changing how the story is told (Kiernan 2014).
This allowed Serial to experiment with the traditional storytelling format in a number of ways. As noted by Joe Berkowitz (2014), a key feature of how Serial told the story was by mentioning a small detail in passing during an earlier episode, before bringing it back much later on to wrap up loose threads in the story. This helps to wrap up any cliffhangers that were left open at the time and forms a fuller picture. However, as noted by others, some threads are never resolved, leaving Serial to be “full of these kinds of reportorial rabbit holes” noting it as more “show-your-work journalism” which can frustrate some members of the audience for its difficulty to follow (Levin 2014).
Serial also took advantage of the media platform it was available through in order to craft a story that stuck with listeners. It set up the major characters through both descriptive language that lets the listeners form a mental image of each character (Thieke 2014), and through audio recordings of the individuals themselves, which may back up or change this image which we have created. This helped make the characters relatable and more memorable, more akin to Chuck McGill than Chuck Cunningham. Whereas written words or film would have approached things differently, radio podcasting allowed Serial to blend different forms to make a unique image. We did not know what Adnan Syed looked like, but we had an image ingrained into our minds from the first episode.
However where Serial flourished the most in terms of storytelling was to keep the audience engaged through the entire season by constantly keeping them guessing. Hanna Rosin (2014) felt that Koenig was doing “a truly radical kind of crime reporting” if she had not figured out her opinion on Syed’s guilt before exposing herself to the audience. But as noted by Berkowitz (2014), Serial had no direct answer to the question. The program was more of a road map that laid out the main points and it was for the viewer to decide on their own.
With an open ending, Serial left many unanswered questions hanging, and this has led to the audience looking for answers on their own (Vargas-Cooper 2014), having processed the information put forward by Koenig and having been entertained by the storytelling process along the way.
Storytelling Versus Journalism – How Does Serial Apply?
This brings us back to the points raised by Kirtley earlier. Serial has been criticized in the media for not asking the difficult questions in order to make the story work better (Duffy 2014). Duffy feels that Serial “is great storytelling. [But] I just think it’s shoddy reporting” and this fits Kirtley’s argument that it makes the journalist seem less credible as seemingly crucial information was either withheld or not followed up on.
Another criticism of Serial is that Koenig was “withholding information she already knows from the audience to build suspense and hook us in various ways. She is playing the innocent in order to elicit a certain response from her audience” (Rosin 2014) and this fits back into Kirtley’s statement about how ‘hide the ball’ is being played with the audience. Koenig seemingly knows more than she is willing to let on, but by playing the innocent, she reduces her own credibility for the benefit of more audience excitement.
That is not to say hiding information from the audience is necessary a bad thing. By following the episodic format, Serial attempts to move journalism into something akin to episodic television, where a story is crafted from the start with a clear ending in sight (Malla 2014). But the issue Serial faced was its non-fiction source material. Itzhak Roeh (1989) believes that “journalists’ stories of the real are constructions of meanings, and they seek, as all narratives do, to establish meaningful closure of moral significance”
Due to the subject matter, it was unlikely that there would be a neat conclusion, and Serial suffered for it, with the case in point being the season finale. Koenig herself could find no correct answer (What We Know 2014), and the lack of fulfillment annoyed some sections of the audience as it could be felt that the previous 12 weeks were for naught. However this all brings us back to the question; Did Serial go too much towards storytelling to be effective journalism, or vice versa?
Miguel Macias (2015) believes that Serial strayed a little too far on the side of storytelling to be considered great journalism where as others like Josh Levin (2014) believe Serial was a “Master Class in Investigative Journalism.” Much like Serial itself, there is no correct answer to the question, much rather evidence laid out that allows the audience to form their own view.
Storytelling and journalism may not be compatible with each other, but there is no denying that they are intertwined. However one must look at how individual pieces balance the two in order to find how they are both effective in their own way. One only needs to look at something like The Jinx to see that storytelling is a major part of journalism, and that storytelling will often dictate when to disclose vital information to the audience. This can cause more problems than it solves though, as failure to disclose early enough can cause the credibility of the journalism to be reduced as it gives off the impression that the one telling the story does not know where the story itself is heading.
This was also an issue in the podcast Serial, where Sarah Koenig withheld information until it suited her in the story in order to entice the audience to stick with the serialized nature of the story. However, this was one of the details that made it a great story over a great journalism piece. By telling an effective story, Koenig was able to lead the audience along to an unresolved ending, with more questions than answers arriving in the final instalment. Serial took full advantage of storytelling techniques such as cliffhangers and crafting unique characters to help entertain the audience and tell the story it had planned out.
Serial gained recognition for its combination of storytelling and journalistic prowess, but to many people, it strayed a little too far from its journalism roots to be considered great journalism. However, it did fulfill Fisher’s (1983) theory of ‘Homo Narrans’ as it told a story that was understood by the audience due to its very nature. While there is no clear answer to whether Serial strayed too far towards great storytelling to be good journalism or vice versa, one cannot doubt its effectiveness in getting the information they wanted to be released to the audience in a manner which was well received and retained.
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