The Universe Within Your Living Room

By Tayla Bosley

Introduction

Storytelling is within all of us. It is people that a story consists of, and it is people that create the story. But what makes storytelling good is the ability to make every story about you; the reader. It is the inclusion of the fundamentals of humanity; the traits, hopes, beliefs and failures that reside within all of us that transforms their story into our story.

Profile writing is the journalistic medium that elucidates this transformation, and thus epitomises good storytelling. Through the explicit journey into the life of another, we as the reader gain the greatest ability to see ourselves within their pages. We are narcissistic creatures, always centred upon ourselves before any other, and consequently we look for ourselves in the stories we read. When we find our reflection in the life of another, it sticks with us; it leaves an impression upon our soul as we realise we are not alone; that there is always someone else that understands your pain, understands your joy; understands you.

However, in a world powered by apathy and distance, this connection with the other diminishes with each passing day. Contemporary journalism is obsessed with the here and right now, because that is what society demands of us. Everything is condensed into 140 characters or less, and is instantly created and published to appease our society’s growing impatience and decreasing attention-span. This leaves little room for the typically long and detailed profile writing that perpetuates our ability to connect completely with a story. This brings the consequence of increased apathy; we no longer care about the other because we no longer know about them. And thus good storytelling is becoming more difficult and rarer in journalism as we secede to the commercial value of the masses, as Deuze believes, “New roles for journalists [will be] bottom–up facilitators and moderators of community–level conversations among citizens rather than functioning as top–down storytellers for an increasingly disinterested public.” (Deuze 2005)

Not that profile writing is dead. We still experience moments of pure connection with other members of humanity, only this form of storytelling has become even more poignant as we decrease its presence in everyday life. And through its perpetuation journalists are able to decrease the apathy of our world as we enter the life of another, but also our own.

Storytelling is the life of each individual. Good storytelling is reflecting the reader within the life of the other.

Details

Profile journalism breaks down the stories of others into the details that are truly interesting. We still gain the facts that our fast-paced society demands, but we also gain the details, and the story of the issue.

Without this detail-orientation we are left with bullet-point facts that we could have grabbed off Wikipedia, we lose the journey of reading, and the journey of discovery. As David and Son say “We are a Game Boy, instant message, instant gratification culture.” (David & Son 2008) Whenever we do have the time for such a trivial thing as the news of the world, we slice it up into bite-size pieces; easy to consume as we’re rushing out the door.

We no longer have the time to sit and digest.

We no longer have time for storytelling. We ignore the experience of the other because it does not fit into our schedule, and without storytelling we lose the ability to understand the perspective of another human. This has resulted in an overwhelmingly apathetic society, we no longer have time to care.

This growing trend of our society is something that Brandon Stanton also realised. In 2010 Stanton began taking photos of people in New York, and it was only meant to be photos, “…but somewhere along the way, [it] began to take on a much different character. I started collecting quotes and short stories from the people I met, and began including these snippets alongside the photographs. Taken together, these portraits and captions became the subject of a vibrant blog. With over eight million followers on social media, [the project] now provides a worldwide audience with daily glimpses into the lives of strangers in New York City.” (Stanton 2010).

Humans of New York is one of the most inspirational and engaging pieces of contemporary journalism. With each individual piece we dive into the average and extraordinary life of the other, and through their story, recognise our own.

Whether it be the universal human theme of regret and love, “I’d always wanted to be a teacher, but when my son was born I had to drop out of college and enter the workforce. I was depressed about it for a little while. It felt like my life was in vain. I watched my best friend finish college and become a teacher and a coach, which is exactly what I’d wanted to do. I was stuck working as a carpenter and doing odd jobs. But once my kids began to develop, it started to feel like my life had meaning again. Both of them graduated from college. And both of them are teachers now.” (Stanton 2015)

Or simply the innocence of childhood, “Do you know what you want to be when you grow up?”

“A train.” (Stanton 2014)

And although Krissy Clark argues that effective storytelling helps people discover where they are so they can decide where to go (Clark 2010), I believe that good storytelling helps us discover where others are, so that we can better understand ourselves.

Regardless of geographical location, we are all Humans of New York, and it is this form of powerful, soul-recognising journalism that truly tells a story.

Unknown

As Deuze recites, “Journalism must re–engage with their audience as fellow citizens rather than potential customers. Lasica describes this as the emergence of a participatory journalism, stressing the symbiotic nature of the evolving relationships between mainstream and ‘grassroots’ news media.” (Deuze 2005)

Deuze defines ‘participatory journalism’ as a collaborative method of storytelling, he argues that journalists need to redefine their audiences into collaborators, lest we lose them to the ever-growing power of user-created content.

We must reengage with our audiences, and so we must reengage with ourselves. Journalism and indeed all media seems to be plague with the ideology that we are not a part of the content that we create, that we are above it, looking down; separate and unaffected. Yet this is not the truth of media content; we are all influenced by it, and as we become more distanced from the story of others, we become distanced from our own story.

Profile journalism is the answer to our technology driven apathy of detail. Through this medium we are driven into the life of the other, the foreign, the unknown, regardless of our interest in it prior, we begin to care about the issue of the person that previously we were entirely ignorant of. This revelation of the unknown is essential to rebuilding storytelling in a society that Campbell states has become overrun with apathy and ignorance of the world around it (Campbell 2012).

This is exemplified in a New York Times piece that profiles, Doctor Jennifer Doudna, a biochemist at the University of California, Berkeley (Calif 2015). Doudna developed Crispr-Cas9, which is meaningless to many people, and certainly to me. However, I sat here, wrapped up in her world as Pollack led me on her journey on creating a new genome editing technique, which provides a way to easily organise an organism’s DNA.

And it is because I recognised myself within her story.

“As a child in Hilo, one of the less touristy parts of Hawaii, Jennifer A. Doudna felt out of place. She had blond hair and blue eyes, and she was taller than the other kids, who were mostly of Polynesian and Asian descent.

“I think to them I looked like a freak,” she recently recalled. “And I felt like a freak.””

The opening sentences to the profile piece do not mention the niche subject of genome editing, on which the story it supposedly centred. Dounda’s story begins with a very human and very common emotion; feeling alone and feeling out of place, something that we all have experienced.

Calif builds upon this shared experience as the foundation for the science discovery story, using tone and imagery to keep me captivated despite the traditionally dry subject. While I read it and learn about Dounda’s research and her battles with keeping it hers and keeping it ethical, I also learn about myself.

I discover how humanity can be corrupted, and I discover how we can marvellous inventors. I discover how we can be individuals, and I discover how we can become a part of something much greater.

I discover how Doudna maintains her perseverance and her passion, and I reflect on my own struggles and achievements in life, I think about her, and I think about me.

All the while I’m reading my first science article in three years.

Profiles connects us all, even in the most obscure ways, and this is what makes it good storytelling.

Empathy

Good storytelling also means, ethical storytelling; a way to fairly deal out the facts and the life of other human beings. In profile journalism this means providing a safe opportunity for the interview of the subject, respecting the rights of the subject, and being fair to the subject’s story; all the while remembering that they are not, in fact, a subject, but a human being with the strength to share their life with you.

As Jonathan Bernstein puts it, “Empathy is a wonderfully human word and characteristic. Not surprisingly, it’s also core to storytelling and ethical storytelling… Honesty, humility and compassion will connect journalists with their audiences.” (Bernstein 2012).

As journalists we must exuberate the empathy that seems ever-decreasing in our world, without empathy there are no ethics, without ethics there is no storytelling, without storytelling there is no us.

And one of the greatest empathic stories of our time is the story of Malala Yousafzai.

“Everyone who laid eyes on Malala Yousafzai knew the Pakistani schoolgirl was something special. When her mountain town of Mingora, in the Swat Valley, fell under Taliban rule, her courage made her a powerful symbol. And now, after last fall’s near-fatal attempt to silence the 15-year-old, she is more dangerous to Pakistan’s status quo than ever before.” (Brenner 2013).

Vanity Fair’s profile of Yousafzai entitled ‘The Target’ brought the empathy and attention of the entire global community to the rural Pakistani town of Mingora, and to the struggles of each individual forced to live under Taliban rule.

And we witness and experience the hardships of the teenage girl; her fight for education and freedom in a cold, cruel oppression.

We live her fight.

“I would like to be a politician. Our country is full of crisis. Our politicians are lazy. I would like to remove the prevalent laziness and serve the nation.”  (Ibid).

Without our empathy for Malala’s plight this story would never have come to light, it would have been swallowed under the weight of the hundreds of thousands of stories of other people affected by Taliban rule.

But hopefully now that we’ve been made aware of our apathy and ignorance of the world around us we can begin a new chapter of Malala’s story.

This is the power of good storytelling.

Conclusion

Good storytelling is created by reflecting our humanity back at us, by revealing ourselves in the stories of others.

Through detailing the life of the other we take a break from our apathetic and busy society to recognise the humanity within us all. We pause to remember that the people around us are just as important and full of life as we think ourselves to be; the more we forget, the more we lose ourselves.

Through exploring the unknown regions of the galaxy, to reveal that the entire universe was within our living room the entire time. We read to remember that we are not alone, and it is the truly great storyteller that can make us recognise that we are never alone, because we are each within the other.

Through empathy we discover that the words on the page are not just a story, but someone’s story. We travel their journey with our own feet, and once we return home, we’re not quite the same as when we began.

Good storytelling makes the world’s story, your story, and makes your story, the world’s story.

References

Bernstein, 2012, ‘Poynter symposium on journalism ethics in the digital age’, Poynter.Org, http://www.poynter.org/news/mediawire/192569/livestream-watch-poynter-symposium-on-journalism-ethics-in-the-digital-age/

Brenner, 2013, ‘The Target’, Vanity Fair, http://www.vanityfair.com/news/politics/2013/04/malala-yousafzai-pakistan-profile

Calif, 2015, ‘Jennifer Doudna, a Pioneer Who Helped Simplify Genome Editing’, The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/12/science/jennifer-doudna-crispr-cas9-genetic-engineering.html?ref=topics&_r=0

Campbell, 2012, ‘Easy to blame politicians and media for apathy, but public need to take a look at themselves too’, Alastair Campbell.Org, http://www.alastaircampbell.org/blog/2012/11/17/easy-to-blame-politicians-and-media-for-apathy-but-public-need-to-take-a-look-at-themselves-too/

Clark, 2010 ‘Journalism on the Map: A Case for Location-Aware Storytelling’, Nieman Reports, http://web.b.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.uow.edu.au/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=ec75d4d2-2bd2-4504-912d-62f6db150dc8%40sessionmgr113&vid=1&hid=115

David and Son, 2008, ‘Is Educational Technology Shortening Student Attention Spans?’, Learning & Leading with Technology, http://ey9ff7jb6l.search.serialssolutions.com/?ctx_ver=Z39.88-2004&ctx_enc=info%3Aofi%2Fenc%3AUTF-8&rfr_id=info:sid/summon.serialssolutions.com&rft_val_fmt=info:ofi/fmt:kev:mtx:journal&rft.genre=article&rft.atitle=Is+educational+technology+shortening+student+attention+spans%3F&rft.jtitle=Learning+%26+Leading+with+Technology&rft.au=Marcovitz%2C+David&rft.date=2008-08-01&rft.pub=International+Society+for+Technology+in+Education&rft.issn=1082-5754&rft.eissn=1945-080X&rft.volume=36&rft.issue=1&rft.spage=8&rft.externalDBID=IAO&rft.externalDocID=194279658&paramdict=en-US

Deuze, 2005, ‘Towards professional participatory storytelling in journalism and advertising’ First Monday, http://journals.uic.edu/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/1257/1177

Stanton, 2010, 2014, 2015, ‘Humans of New York’, Humans of New York.com, http://www.humansofnewyork.com

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