“Consider the different paths to storytelling,” Chip Scanlan said. I was talking to the Poynter educator about a workshop we’re organizing at my paper.
The topic: Coming up with compelling story ideas for beat editors and reporters.
He shared with me a lesson he’d learned from Jacqui Banaszynski, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist at the Seattle Times and the University of Missouri.
Jacqui suggested there are at least six paths a reporter can take to tell compelling stories: the profile, the explanatory piece, the issues and trend story, the investigative piece, the narrative and the descriptive/day in the life. (See Chip’s Dec. 11, 2002, column titled “Jacqui Banaszynski’s Six Paths to Story.“)
By committing themselves to these approaches, reporters and editors can produce more varied clip files, richer newspapers and, I would argue, stories that resonate more powerfully with readers.
This got me thinking about how we cover news and feature stories involving diversity. Specifically, I mean stories where it’s relevant to consider people’s differences in areas like race, ethnicity, gender, age, income, sexual orientation and physical abilities.
You can certainly apply Jacqui’s paths to diversity storytelling. Here are some basic examples – you can use these as starting points to come up with better ideas:
Profile: Write an in-depth profile about a prominent member in your community who has grown up with a physical disability. What was the experience like? How did he cope with the disability? How did it shape who she is and what she does today?
Explanatory: Produce a story explaining how immigrants and refugees can or cannot access health care in your community. What benefits are they eligible for? What bureaucratic, cultural or language barriers stand in the way to getting adequate care? Who’s providing a safety net?
Issues and trend: Focus on a neighborhood where there’s been a significant demographic shift in the last five years. Is there a suburb where a lot of young, single professionals have moved and bought houses? Is there a neighborhood where a lot of Asian or Hispanic immigrants have settled? How is all of this changing the social and business landscape of these areas?
Investigative: Investigate racial profiling in police traffic stops in your community. What records can you access that will provide you with numbers? How can you identify people who say they have been pulled over because of their race? Besides looking at your city police, can you examine police departments at local universities, hospitals and transit authorities?
Narrative: Simply put, a narrative is a feature story in which the writer pays attention to character, plot and tension. It has a sense of drama, most likely with a central conflict and resolution. Write a narrative about a young adult who has recently told his loved ones that he is gay. What has his experience been like? How are his relationships changing, if at all? Who has he left to tell? Is there a natural arc to his story?
Descriptive/Day in the life: I’ve always been intrigued by relationships between the very young and the very old. Find a nursing home or retirement center that will give you open access. Spend a day there when a group of schoolchildren comes to visit. Be a fly on the wall and just watch. Write a slice-of-life story describing how the young and the old interact, and what they learn from one another.
It’s helpful for us to think about these different paths to storytelling, because they also guide us on the different reporting muscles that we need to flex for each kind of story – digging for documents, gaining the trust of a subject, conducting confrontational interviews, understanding statistics, reading history, immersing oneself in a community, being a quiet observer.
But in addition to these different ways of reporting and telling stories, there are also different ways of “seeing” stories, or, put another way, recognizing and framing stories.
For example, in the neighborhood where a lot of Asian immigrants are settling, a reporter could recognize a story involving conflict between the newcomers and long-time residents. Or a story focused on a program of volunteers assisting the immigrants. Or a story about elderly immigrants and their sense of dislocation.
These reflect different frames for the diversity story in general: one of conflict, one of bridge-building, one of disorientation, one of identity, and one of mainstreaming.