Narrative Journalism and the Tricky Power of Voice

A while back, I wrote about the Narrative Journalism unit we teach in my PLC, and about how much I enjoy exposing kids to this lovely blended genre.  Well, as the snow crunched beneath my feet Sunday evening and I stared out across the frozen wasteland of my backyard, wondering how the time of year for that unit had arrived again already, it occurred to me that something had changed a bit since last year.  Something big, and culture-encompassing, and frightening.

And important for students to be prepared for.

So when I got to school the next day, in addition to pulling out the old familiar mentor texts, I dug into my iPad for some notes I’d taken at the NCTE conference back in November and found what I was looking for:  A guide to recognizing fake news.  

Recognizing is a first step–I also hope my modified unit will help my students refute and reject it.

Fake News, False Narratives

There are lots of excellent sources out there for combatting outright fake news–Politifact, Snopes, various charts, and sites like Allsides.com are excellent starting points–but my hope for this unit is to help students unearth the more subtle ways that journalism can mislead them.  

bias news

Image via Google Reuse Images

For every conspiracy theory promoted on an extreme website, there is a mainstream news article that conveniently omits an important detail, or misrepresents objective reality in the name of “balance.”

For every full-on fiction like the Rolling Stone article about a rape that never happened, there is a well-meaning but overzealous young internet blogger who misrepresents a public figure just a bit in order to titillate readers.  

Voice matters in Narrative (and Traditional) Journalism as much as it does anywhere else.  Helping students to see the way voice–all by itself–can change public perception suddenly feels as important as helping them to find their voice as writers.

We started with a look at one of the early scenes from Ben Mezrich’s Bringing Down the House about a group of students from MIT who beat Vegas through card counting.  Where I’d normally have them highlighting the text for things like levity and anecdotes, I instead posed a question to them:  When a writer like Mezrich develops “characters” who are actually real people, how do you think he goes about doing that in a fair, objective way?

Lots of silence after that one.

The answer provided in the excerpt we look at is that he tries to set up the main figure in the story as something of a dichotomy, juxtaposing his “nerdy” stereotypical life on campus with a Playboy-esque wild nightlife when he’s in Las Vegas.  It is equal parts shocking and enticing…and when you slow down and digest it, problematic.  It oversimplifies the character into a Hollywood cliche–we’re quickly reminded of Indiana Jones or Superman and Clark Kent.

Mezrich is an excellent writer, so he quickly complicates the picture and fleshes out Kevin’s persona.  The point, though, was enough to open an exploration with my class about how other writers characterize figures in their writing.  Consider all of the profiles of Trump voters a year into his presidency–how are they construed for readers who might feel animosity towards them?  For that matter, how does the same publication describe other “characters” in society, from Women’s March protesters to Black Lives Matter movement leaders?  Are there patterns?

Exploring such questions could become its own unit.  For us, though, it’s only a part of the work.  Being conscientious readers is certainly an admirable goal, but if they are going to think of themselves as writers, they must recognize their own responsibility to people they write about.  With the tools we examine in the unit–anecdotes perhaps the most powerful among them–my students will learn to characterize real people and then consider the implications of a particular word or phrase…or story.  

Every year I have at least one student introduce their fathers to their story using some anecdote or another that ultimate creates the same effect:  Characterizing dear old dad as the buffoonish dunderhead from an internet video the world laughs at and retweets into oblivion.   They’re doing what I ask them to do–I have a colorful sense of dad after chuckling at whatever mishap they’ve recollected in introducing him–but this year we’re going to go one step further and ask an important question.  What are you going to do to balance that perception of your dad?  What else do readers deserve to know about him?  What does he deserve?  

Characterization is one of many moving parts in a news story–I’m hoping to dig into everything from choice of evidence and data, to strategic omissions, to all sorts of other misleading stuff.  The important thing, though, is that the kids get a chance to wrestle with the sorts of choices other writers have made and then wrestle as writers themselves.

Beyond Mischaracterizations

The broader advantage to having students become narrative journalists is that they get to see how many choices go into producing a single story.  In an era where even a casual newsreader might encounter four or five bombshell stories in a single week, understanding the nuance involved in each is paramount.  

I won’t throw us into a political wildfire for the sake of a literacy blog, but if you’re looking for a current event where the sharing and withholding and construing of the same few details is making all the difference, look no further than The Memo that the whole country has been talking about for the past week.  Is it a  “Nothingburger” or a condemnation of an enormous investigation?  The laws of physics (or the laws of SOMETHING anyway–objective reality still exists out there!) tell us that it can’t possibly be both.  

I’d like to believe that when my students finish exploring excellent narrative journalism and then composing a journalistic experience of their own, they’d be more than ready–and happy–to guide you through the details towards the objective light of day.

–Mike

How do you help students wrestle with misleading or fake news?  Share your ideas with me on Twitter (@ZigThinks) or at Facebook.com/movingwriters.

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