What’s the REAL story?

Chris Stanford is a journalist in Wichtia who’s worked in a couple top 25 markets, 10+ years experience.

I was 20 something interviewing for an anchor job in Kansas City and the news director offered up some of the greatest storytelling advice I’d ever heard. “You should be able to sum up a story in three words,” he said.

He’d shown me some early Steve Hartman packages, and then asked me how I would tell that story in merely three words. I hesitated (because my interview philosophy is that silence is better than saying something stupid). “Boy loves mother,” he said. He then shared what those three words really meant and how it shaped the story. There were no interviews with the father about how the boy loved his mother. Hartman showed interviews with the boy and his mother, that’s all that was needed to tell that story. Love was the theme, although I don’t recall him ever using the word. But that’s what his storytelling made me feel.

Of all the news philosophies I’ve heard, that is one that needs more attention.

I’m going to use a few different words to describe a bank robbery and each group tells a different story: Man Robs Bank. Search for Bank Robber. Teller Thwarts Robbery. Cops Catch Robber.

Those stories each have a different feel and should be told as such if the real story is recognized early enough. Reporters are told, “Chris, go to the bank. There’s been a robbery.” It should be YOUR job to find and tell the real story, then make sure your producers and managers know ASAP.

Another example helps illustrate how we can miss the mark on covering developing news because the real story was not understood soon enough. There was breaking news at 5pm of a murder. By 6pm, there was new information about the search for two suspect considered armed and dangerous, however it took about 60 seconds or longer to report the new and more important information. The story should’ve turned from Man Shot Dead to SEARCH FOR DANGEROUS MURDER SUSPECTS!

The newest and most relevent information should’ve been the first words out of the anchors’ mouths. This is a classic example of burying the lead. And, it happened because several people didn’t understand or know what the real story was. I was baffled that no one caught it.

In this example the public’s safety was in jeopardy. It was a diservice to them not to report that there were two armed men who’d just killed someone in a residential neighborhood running from the cops.

Bottom line: if you CAN’T sum up your story in a few words, then maybe you don’t know what your story is.

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