No, I’m not abandoning the term “storytelling”, Alberto — just the opposite (and here’s why)

A digital storyteller looks like this

digital storyteller image by Darren Kuropatwa

Alberto Cairo provoked quite a bit of reaction this week when he tweeted that data journalism and data visualisation ought to abandon the term “storytelling”…

Given that in two weeks I’ll be doing exactly the opposite (my first intake of MA students begin a new module in Narrative at the end of the month) I thought I should add my own reaction.

A major challenge facing modern journalists is the ongoing proliferation of platforms and of storytelling techniques. Those learning journalism in 2017 not only need to be able to tell stories in multiple ways — but also to adapt to new platforms and techniques as they arise.

Modern data journalists, meanwhile, need to be able to do more than just generate charts: using video, audio, shortform and longform are all things I wanted my students to be able to do.

So storytelling is one of the core elements of the new MA, as well as its sister MA in Multiplatform and Mobile Journalism, for a very obvious reason — but also for less obvious ones too.

Stories are problems

Journalism is a routinised practice — for various reasons: to maximise efficiency, but also to minimise risk through optimising opportunities for (if not always achieving) accuracy, objectivity, and verification in various ways.

But when new platforms and practices have to be adopted before routines have been established (or where routines are flawed), sometimes the result can be a focus on the technicalities of storytelling at the expense of the (journalistic) story.

So Alberto is right: storytelling is a problematic term. But that doesn’t mean we should abandon it — it means we should problematise it.

The law of narrative gravity and other dangers

This is the question I raise in Narrative: what are the problems in telling stories? Do we focus on compelling characters at the expense of those who are dull but newsworthy? Do we impose meaning where there is only noise? Are we responding to the (wonderfully coined by Zach Grosser) ‘Law of Narrative Gravity‘, or seeking out counter-narratives?

Equally, however, we need to recognise what storytelling makes possible: research into news consumption, for example, has found that ‘narrative news’ “elicited stronger affective and cognitive involvement” (but not recall) and made “better informed” young readers (albeit with lower satisfaction), while melodramatic TV news coverage increased recall (but not comprehension).

Erik Neveu‘s research comparing the ‘story’ model and ‘information’ model of reporting articulates just some of the advantages of story-based approaches (including revealing unseen aspects of the social world, and “access to the subjective dimensions of life and experience”). As he summarises:

“Genres are like the instruments in an orchestra, producing different effects, impressing different audiences, inspiring different reactions and thoughts. The art of journalist … is to combine them rationally.”

As journalism students are in the position to help formalise emerging genres, their next role is to create multiplatform narratives in a way that meets journalism’s civic objectives best.

Exploratory or explanatory


ChicagoCrime was exploratory data journalism

Beyond genre, what Cairo also taps into is a tension between the traditional linear form of journalism and modern, interactive and nonlinear forms. As data journalism has moved more into mainstream practice, it has increasingly bumped up against this tension.

Historically, data journalism pioneered exploratory forms of presenting data: Adrian Holovaty’s seminal map, for example, wasn’t a story: it was a tool to help people make sense of data about their area.

The Guardian’s crowdsourcing of MPs’ expenses wasn’t a story — it was an exploratory, ludic and social way of engaging with information.

But as data journalism techniques are more widely used, and refined, and with the rise of longform formats that require thought about narrative structure, storytelling has become more important.

Xaquín González Veira’s response to Alberto Cairo, for example, articulates many of the reasons why storytelling is important.

And Stuart Thompson, graphics director at WSJ, in Cairo’s doctoral thesis Nerd Journalism explains how we got here:

“So there’s period of maybe like a couple of years ago, or probably longer where data dumps were really popular, so you will have this huge dataset and you put it Online, you have this big splash visual with a thousand bubbles or something, and you have like 16 filters and like 12 drop downs, and you can just like get so into that data, like you can tab right into one specific piece of it, and everyone’s like “ah cool, that’s so much fun!” and then we just see that readers just don’t use that and they don’t want to spend half an hour digging into data, if there’s something interesting in that data, just show it to them. […] So that’s the change that we’ve seen here. And we’re trying to encourage everybody to do, is focus on the story first.”

At the heart of this move from the exploratory to the explanatory is a problem that game designers have grappled with for years: how much do you let someone explore a world (of information, in this case), and how much do you exercise editorial control in order to create an experience that larger groups are going to want to engage with?

The problem is made even more important by the real-world implications of journalism: given that humans naturally construct stories when presented with pieces of information, to what extent are we allowing misinterpretation when we allow exploration? Did a user of tell themselves true stories about the data points that they explored?

How much responsibility to we have for the stories that people tell with our information? And how much responsibility do we have for delivering as much information as someone needs? This is the story vs information problem in a nutshell.

I’m not really arguing

Of course, this whole post has been a piece of storytelling too: conflict was used to establish a narrative hook, point and counterpoint was used to create movement, and now we head towards a resolution…

Because in reality, Alberto’s point isn’t about storytelling, but about the use of the term. ‘Storytelling’ is woolly, and uncritical. We agree.

But those narrative techniques, hopefully, served a purpose: the information was delivered and you got to the end.

Or perhaps it wasn’t, and you didn’t. Tell me the story — it sounds like a tragedy…

UPDATE [Feb 28 2018]:

As the debate resurfaced again with another tweet from Alberto (embedded above), there has been more reaction, much of it in the thread sparked by that tweet, plus this post from Anna Noble:

“Alberto Cairo mentions Jon Snow’s Cholera map as an example of data viz that is not a story at all. In one sense, he is right — there is no beginning, middle, or end to this communication of information. But the placing of shapes on a map does tell a story. The map outlines where you are, a legend or title will tell you what you are seeing, and there are some hints to the why and the how when you see the concentration around the water pump … It’s this idea that we can ask better questions by telling stories that I try to implement.”

It’s also worth highlighting that Snow’s map had very little impact at the time, as described in the book Ghost Map. As a piece of storytelling, it actually failed. So what was the point?


3 thoughts on “No, I’m not abandoning the term “storytelling”, Alberto — just the opposite (and here’s why)

  1. Linda Aragoni

    As former journalist and eternal teacher of writing, I vastly prefer the term narrative to storytelling when the context is factual information (although narrative seems to imply chronological order). My students — even those mid-career people getting employer-paid degrees — think storytelling means fiction, fabrication, invention, or what Donald Trump calls “fake news”. Perhaps there’s a better term than either narrative or storytelling in some other language we could borrow. Suggestions, anyone?

  2. Alberto Cairo

    Hi Paul, thanks for the thoughtful post. It’s a much more appropriate venue for discussion than Twitter.

    I’d just like to add that what worries me the most is not even the word “storytelling” itself, but the kind of mindset that this term instills and fosters among journalists (not just news graphics editors, reporters and designers,) one in which seeking causality no matter what is paramount and anecdata is often presented as data, and cherry-picked cases used to prove patterns. This is a case that I mentioned in a tweet as an example:

    This is why I prefer to use terms like “narrative” (as structure,) “argument” or even “essay” to refer to my own projects. An essay consists of building an argument, not of telling a story.

    I’m aware that this may sound as mere semantics to most people out there, but I’m convinced it’s not. I have the hunch that certain words can shape thoughts at an unconscious level. Maybe a solution is to “problematize” the term, as you suggest, but this something I don’t think many of us, instructors and professionals, have done so far.

    1. Paul Bradshaw Post author

      Thanks Alberto. What’s quite clear is that the boundaries have been blurring for some time – between tabloid and broadsheet, between newspaper and magazine, broadcast journalism and documentary, and of course citizen and professional journalism, and art and design and reporting. I keep finding the same themes in different literature. It’s liberating in one way but with freedom comes responsibility… and I guess we’re just entering that stage of working out what that is and how it plays out when the rules haven’t been established.


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