Good journalists, we learnt from Mark Brayne, report the World back to itself. But the reflecting mirror of journalism is necessarily a bit misty around the edges. Reporting trauma – conflict, natural disaster, domestic tragedy and all manner of catastrophe – isn’t easy. Share too much and the audience/viewers/readers listeners (but please, never consumers) just shut down. Let your guard down and over-empathise and it’s the journalist who will eventually shut down. I touched on this a little bit in Take good care of yourself.
The trick to this kind of reporting is to find a way to make the story resonate with those who haven’t experienced it firsthand.
Easier said than done.
The theory of journalistic impartiality goes out of the window when confronted with things that are just plain unfair, unjust or undeserved. As Brayne put it, if some warmonger is telling you that 2+2=6, you still know that 2+2=4. So should you try and put his point of view across?
Objectivity is another matter. But if you’re interviewing a woman who has just lost her family and her home in a tsunami and she’s crying all over you, can you really be objective?
In the end, his work as a foreign correspondent tipped Brayne over the edge. Through his own recovery through psychotherapy he became interested in helping other journalists to cope with the inevitable overload of a job that confronts trauma and distress.
A journalist doesn’t become an unfeeling machine once issued with a press card. The accumulation of reporting traumatic experiences can work away at the system, gnaw at the mind, until a tiny switch is tripped and everything crashes.
So Brayne’s approach to being a good journalist and maintaining some semblance of sanity made sense.
The trick is to be human. It’s as simple as that. And the key to good story telling is connecting one set of humans with another set of humans, or with something that connects to their sense of humanity.
This echoes Dr Daniel Meadows’ advice that everyone has a story and that journalists should look for those stories. He certainly did when he set off to discover the people of England in a modified double decker bus. His travels gave him an archive that is growing all the time. The people he photographed and spoke to kept generating more stories. Now he’s trying to make sense of it all.
Meadows was instrumental in persuading the BBC to roll out its Capture Wales digital story telling programme. For seven years a small team travelled Wales, helping people to tell their own stories; to write them, film them, record the audio and turn them into little nuggets of human experience.
This can be dismissed as irrelevant to a lecture theatre full of trainee journalists, hungry for the big story, but big stories start out as little stories. Behind the headlines there’s always a story about the central characters. What made them behave like that or how did they behave afterwards? Who was changed and who was dead?
A story caught my eye in The Guardian last week. It wasn’t in the main section but in G2, hiding under the title Why we learn nothing from executing paedophiles. The picture of Gary Glitter in the dock is also a bit of a red herring, but a good news hook for a story behind a story of a woman’s fight to save the boy who had murdered her son from execution in the US.
The headline has changed online, but Clive Stafford Smith’s observations about the fuss stirred up by C4’s fictional The Execution of Gary Glitter, remind us that being human is a very complicated thing indeed.