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january 2019

On storytelling


by Hans Durrer
Next Left: Spiegel journalist Claas Relotius receives the Reemtsma Liberty Award for his forged piece "Königskinder" about two Syrian children amid the war in their home country (2017)

For many years, the journalism I most warmed to was storytelling. A story is commonly understood to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. In other words, it is is a construct, it doesn't represent the way things are but how our brains are able to understand them, what makes sense to us. It is fiction — for fiction we understand, reality we don't; it is too complicated.

Recently, the German magazine Der Spiegel informed their readers that it had been misled. Claas Relotius, one of their most renowned reporters, who had been showered with journalism prizes, had for years invented stories. When a fellow reporter, Juan Moreno, became suspicious, he was initially not believed. Eventually, however, due to his persistence, the truth came out — and Der Spiegel had a credibility problem.

  It's reaction was formidable: It laid open what it knew, invited critics to have their say — more transparency wasn't really imaginable. Then, however, I came across this, as far as I'm concerned, extremely stupid sentence: "Die meisten Reporter arbeiten absolut sauber, das muss hier noch einmal betont werden." (Most reporters work absolutely correctly, it needs to be stressed here once again). Well, this simply cannot be known. Moreover, it is the standard answer when the system should not be put into question.
  The system? Journalism, I once learned, means to report things as they are, to tell it like it is. A noble endeavour, no doubt, yet rather difficult to practise for there is not one reality we can agree on, there are different versions of reality. It goes without saying that this is not a journalistic problem but a fact and a challenge for pretty much all disciplines. Just think of the law that requires judges to be impartial — the Kavanaugh nomination in the US once again made clear that in the real world this is nothing but a rather sick joke.
  Differently put: What happens, happens in a social context in which people have opinions, preconceptions and preferences. Der Spiegel will hire reporters who share its ideology. There is no such thing as a Spiegel ideology? Of course there is — and it is different from Fox News — for Spiegel readers expect a certain worldview from the magazine. And, Claas Relotius delivered; his bosses were pleased.
Next A well-told story has not only a beginning, a middle, and an end, it also has a certain drive and makes life often seem adventurous (which it rather seldom is). I'm fond of gifted storytellers and rarely doubt the veracity of what they tell. Until someone comes and demonstrates that I had been fooled. This is not the rule, there are always some bad apples, the typical rationalisation goes.
  This presumes that journalism is telling the truth when it is merely telling stories. "People who read the news in the paper or on a website, who listen to a radio bulletin or who watch television news, usually imagine they are getting something approaching the truth. Instead, they are merely getting a version of what has happened," John Simpson writes in Unreliable Sources.
  Neverthless, I think the often used "Fake News" claim is bull. When Donald Trump uses it, he simply describes his pathological lying. I do however also believe that there is no such thing as unbiased reporting — to tell a story and to tell the truth often do not go hand in hand. As Jeff Jarvis writes on Twitter: "Storytelling is too often about the journalist's control of the narrative, too often about entertaining over informing."
  Although equating journalism with storytelling is highly common, it is also misleading. Jay Rosen, also on Twitter (Who would have thought that such debates can be conducted with merely 128 characters), opines: "I don't know how our journalists came to see 'storytelling' as the heart of what they do, and 'storyteller' as a self-description. I can think of four to five elements of journalism more central than 'story'. Truthtelling, grounding public conversation in fact, verification ... listening."
  I'm still fond of storytelling, the one that aspires to tell the truth. This requires self-knowledge and the right attitude, virtues that aren't too common among journalists — and among the rest of us.
  2019 © Hans Durrer / Soundscapes