Art drawing of a person holding his head and screaming as if in pain from a headache

By Jacqui Banaszynski

That political hangover I mentioned several days ago, as I braced for the first (and maybe last) presidential debate of this fraught election season, has turned into a full-blown intellectual headache. It was especially interesting to follow the cascade of news during the week that the U.S. celebrates its independence from rule by the British monarchy and subsequent founding as a self-defined nation. Now the pundits — Zow, there are a lot of them! — are either decrying the end of history’s most noble experiment in democracy, or crowing that democracy is being rescued from entrenched forces of evil.

Wherever you stand on the tug-of-war over these dis-United States, there’s no denying that these are epic times — times that both deserve and require the best that journalism can offer. Every day’s news is like a graduate course in history, civics and law — not to mention human psychology. The legitimate press needs to deliver coverage of complex, touchy issues in ways that are both clear and compelling.

That’s no easy task. Getting the public to engage in stories about public affairs has been an uphill battle most of my career. The hill has gotten steeper and rockier in the face of social media screeds and politicized disdain. The press also needs to remain fiercely independent — something under harsh assault by economic realities and political threats.

I have no expertise on the business side of journalism. My flag is planted in story craft. Fundamental craft presents its own challenges as journalists scramble to stay on top of rat-a-tat news, sort necessary news from sensational blather, stay above the fray of finger pointing, remain open-minded, confront falsehoods and get some occasional sleep. Add to that the fascinating challenging of finding moments in the chase of news to shape that news into stories. Not just reports, but stories — stories that are grounded in verified facts but also provide broader context and what I think of as emotional truth (small t).

Whatever you call it — narrative, literary nonfiction, literary journalism, nonfiction storytelling — such story craft requires a sophisticated set of skills: Ensuring the foundational facts are in place, then going further to report for character, scene, dialog, relevant detail and, yes, emotion. It requires writing that is structured, paced and always proves what it presents. And it requires a clear-minded thought process about when and how to employ those skills. Along with creativity, it demands the most intense application of journalistic ethics. The best investigative reporters make a practice of reporting against their premise to ensure that final findings are solid. Similarly, narrative journalists must report against personal bias (we all have them) to ensure that a chosen story frame is fair. That, of course, requires being self-aware enough to know our biases in the first place.

The possibilities and pitfalls of narrative

Narrative is both seductive and powerful. You don’t have to scratch very hard to see that it is used far more for propaganda or promotion than for truth (small t). If you want to drill down into that, consider the smart and sobering book by literary scholar Jonathan Gottschall, “The Story Paradox: How Our Love of Storytelling Builds Societies and Tears Them Down.”

Or indulge in a rewatch of “Darkest Hour,” the fictionalized account of how Winston Churchill — not a very popular dude — used oratory to convince Parliament to reject appeasement with Hitler and instead fight to the death against Nazi invasion. There’s a moment at the very end of the movie in which Churchill, according to one of his harshest critics, “mobilized the English language, and sent it into battle.”

The true origins of that statement are credited not to Churchill, but to others, including John F. Kennedy to Edward R. Murrow. I reference it not as historical fact, but to underscore the point: Narrative, used effectively, has power. It must be wielded with skill, but even more, with care.

My thoughts about all this will, no doubt, continue to trip over each other as the news tumbles forward. For now, I’m gong to try to take the long view: This is far from the first time societies have found themselves at a crossroads; I wish I could live another 50 years to watch it all play out and read the full narrative; and challenging times tend to bring out the best in independent journalism (emphasis on independent).

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