When informing isn’t enough

This school year has been very long.

Of course, that sentence automatically sounds negative. And yeah, a lot of negative things happened to me this year.

But after thinking — cue in the image of a self-reflective member of the intelligentsia — about it, I can’t come out of this year with a negative perspective. Rather, I want to be intentional and active about being positive.

I’m not sure when it hit me, but I’ve been disenchanted with the traditional structure of journalism for a while, for about a year. I don’t know the trigger and I don’t know if it’ll even last, but I do know one thing I want that I’m not getting that I keep on repeating to myself but can’t verbalize to anyone else.

I don’t want to criticize anyone, because I think this program is great. I think it’s achieved many things and it’s developed many great journalists.

But I simply have not been satisfied with it, and I couldn’t pinpoint why.

I think I realized part of it today when I was actually talking to an adviser about something completely unrelated to journalism. I’m applying for a grant after school and this adviser was asking for me to clarify something in my personal statement.

I wrote about how I want to tell stories, how I can’t do anything but tell stories. (Oh god! Just like everyone else!) And he said that was fine. But he asked what the point was to it. He asked me what he expected people to do with the stories I told. 

He read a part of my statement where I describe the moment I wanted to go into journalism: it was when I saw one of photojournalist Robert Capa’s photos, and I was so intrigued by the photo that I wanted to know more. Of course, my adviser was right. I wanted to know more and I made myself learn more. I looked up Robert Capa and pored over his photos. I wanted to learn everything about him.

Maybe that had something to do with him and maybe it had something to do with me.

But my adviser told me that the only way I communicate what I want to do will be through telling what I want people to do after they read my story. He said that I should want people to “look for the sequel.” 

I had never thought of my stories this way before. The way I perceive writing journalistically does not focus on the receiving end of the story: the reader him or herself. But it makes total sense. We think about the writing of the article and the gathering of interviews and sources and information and we put it all together and make it beautiful and send it on its merry way.

But what if people don’t care?

A lot of work goes into journalism. A LOT of work. But sometimes the output doesn’t match the input, which is one of the huge blockades I’ve run into. 

We expect readers to automatically love long features and beautifully written prose. But sometimes they won’t. A lot of the time they won’t. 

Of course, that’s not to say that the way I’ve been taught how to do journalism ignores the reader. That’s not what I’m saying. But the way we expect readers to respond is flawed, I think. Or maybe the way I want people to respond to my stories is different from everyone else.

Wanting to do something after you read an article is more than just clicking through links and reading more stories, to me. 

But it’s not about “making” anyone like my stories. I don’t want someone to read a story I write and think, “Wow, she’s a great writer.” I don’t really care what anyone thinks of me as a writer, which is why I have such a fundamental problem with journalism awards and dinners and really anything self-congratulatory.

What I want from people who read my stories or watch my videos is not about me. It is about the story. It is about the people I am describing. I want to instill something within people to do something. But it’s different from Nicholas Kristof. I don’t want to be Nicholas Kristof.

I want my stories to be a vessel for people. Maybe it’s just them thinking, “Wow, I didn’t know that” about some kid in Prague or some average post-college guy in some average college town. I want to tell boring stories and exciting stories so that boring people and exciting people can somehow form some connection with each other. I want these boring people and exciting people to know that they don’t have to join the Peace Corps or buy a pair of TOMS shoes to appreciate humanity at a global level — I just want to tell them about each other and maybe look up some Wikipedia page about another culture or cry when they see another crying or laugh when another is laughing.

I want to work for StoryCorps. I want to work for Radio Free Europe. I want to make films like Life in a Day or Tree of Life or Stoker or Bending Steel (for real it’s a great documentary). I want to be involved in things like this because they are activists and humanists, but overall, they tell very simple stories about people — but these stories hold a deeper significance because they really are just about people. No more, no less. No pretention or upside-down pyramid style anything. And I think stories like that can almost be the most effective.

StoryCorps realizes that people cry when they hear about heartbreak, or death, or aspiration, or youth. Radio Free Europe is so much more than just another news aggregator — it takes an active role in the region it’s covering. Life in a Day was so great because it was about people, in a day, doing what they do. Because we all do, and we all have 24 hours in a day, and that’s something so basic but yet so special.

Because even if people don’t do anything after they experience these stories, they feel. Sometimes I don’t think people feel after taking part in the journalism cycle.

Yes, we should have daily coverage of news. But what does it do, at the end of the day? What is the purpose of a story if it does not take an active role in the mind of the reader? Why tell a story if no one wants to do or feel anything afterward?

I don’t want people to think of me as a writer. I don’t want to write a traditional feature. I don’t want to write things that people don’t care about. 

I just want to make people feel.

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2 thoughts on “When informing isn’t enough

  1. I love this. I want the same thing — to connect people — and I also sometimes worry that we’re learning “Every long story is good.” Or “Every time you ask readers a question, that’s good.” But sometimes it’s boring. I think it’s great that you know how important it is to trust your gut about what a good story really is and why our job matters.

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