NARRATOR: Reporters are often drawn to the loudest voices and the conflict that results when people are viewed as combatants and positioned on opposite sides of an issue.
While the ensuing fireworks can generate a lot of heat, and copy, the journalism it produces often spotlights the most extreme views at the expense of the vast middle ground occupied by the majority of ordinary people.
Journalists who live at the extremes and visit the middle often produce stories framed in conflict. If they lived in the middle and visited the extremes, their stories might better reflect the thinking of their communities.
(MUSIC AND PRODUCTION OPEN)
FRAMING A STORY: What's it really about?
RICHARD HARWOOD, PRESIDENT, HARWOOD INSTITUTE: Every story has a frame on it already so we're not talking about anything new.
NARRATOR: The challenge for journalists, says social scientist Richard Harwood, is to find the appropriate frame. Harwood has studied civic life and helped news organizations develop new ways to cover their communities.
RICHARD HARWOOD: A lot of stories have the frame of conflict. Or of a villain or a victor. Or of a winner and a loser. Or that people are concerned about money, power and politics. Those are all frames in a sense.
It so happens that lots of stories actually don't play out within those frames. And so it's not about creating new frames because we want to get away from the old ones. It's about understanding the essence of a story so that we can begin to understand what is the appropriate frame for the story that we're doing.
NARRATOR: Journalists who report two sides of a story and believe it's fair and balanced may be short changing themselves and their readers.
That's because balance is in the middle, where people are struggling with internal feelings and working through their thoughts.
FANNIE FLONO, ASSOCIATE EDITOR, THE CHARLOTTE OBSERVER: It's not like people actually live their lives where everybody is on one side or the other side.
NARRATOR: Fannie Flono is Associate Editor of The Charlotte Observer and a member of its editorial board. Her editorials help frame the community discussion of a wide variety of issues.
FANNIE FLONO: Occasionally, occasionally you will find maybe a more clearly delineated two-side controversy.
But that is so rare and so out of context with reality that when you initially come upon that you should question it.
I mean, you should ask yourself the question: where are the other views in this? Where are the intersecting views in this? [FIND OTHER VIEWS] And you should try to find those people who might have those views and present it to the public.
NARRATOR: Richard Harwood often hears those other views at a local diner where he finds that people are less interested in conflict than many journalists seem to think.
RICHARD HARWOOD: People don't want schools talked about in the mode of Jerry Springer. Or the National Inquirer, not that any respectful newspaper does that. But there is a notion in our minds, in journalists' minds, that the master narrative of conflict sells.
In the newsroom culture, when you go to a budget meeting or scheduling meeting or story meeting or whatever a different newspaper might call it, there's often a premium on: ok, what's the hot story? What kind of conflict do you have there? You've got to boil it down into a sentence, which is fine, but the sentence has got to be about what's really going on in this story here. That conditions people to come to the table with conflict.
I would offer an alternative. The master narrative of tension sells. If you read a good fiction book, watch a good movie, you're waiting to turn the page, you're waiting for the next 10 minutes in the movie, there's an unknown there. There's a tension that needs to be resolved.
Well, in most public issues there's a tension. [FIND THE TENSION].
There's a tension in schools between excellence and opportunity every day. There's a tension in communities around growth between further developing the growth of the community to increase the tax base and protecting the quality of life in that community. Not that they're mutually exclusive. But there's a tension there.
And we often pitch it as one or the other but most people want to reach some balance.
KIMBERLY KIMBY, REPORTER, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER: If I go someplace and there's something that's controversial, I don't find the people who are the most radical and colorful who are against it and for it. I may find those people but then I step back and I ask myself, well, what's really happening in the community that's the real story?
NARRATOR: Orange County Register reporter Kimberly Kimby's search for the real story often leads her out of the newsroom. To places like the picturesque southern California community of Orange.
KIMBERLY KIMBY: Downtown Orange is, has this historic district. And they have these nice cottages that they've kept so nice and neat. And I cover Chapman University, which is down the street from there. And they're erecting these huge, four-story buildings that are just towering over these little cottages. And I thought, I could write a story about how the community's really upset about these big buildings but that may not be the truth.
So instead of going to the activists, who I know hate those buildings, and then maybe talking to the Chapman officials who really need the buildings, and writing a story about that, I just walked the streets and knocked on the doors of everybody in the downtown area.
And what I found was sort of this rich texture of things where people were - like their community's changing and they have mixed feelings about it and really rich feelings about it that's fascinating.
And they want to protect it. But they also understand that it's better to have those four-story university buildings down the street than there is to have an industrial building.
I ended up writing this story about the character of a community and of a little college changing and growing up. And about those growing pains rather than just this story about conflict.
NARRATOR: Whether the issue involves a neighborhood in southern California or an entire city like Charlotte, North Carolina, it's sometimes hard to hear the voices of citizens who occupy the middle ground of a public debate.
JENNIE BUCKNER, EDITOR, THE CHARLOTTE OBSERVER: You need to have all kinds of voices...and you have to go out and seek them because those aren't the folks that necessarily call you up.
NARRATOR: Charlotte Observer Editor Jennie Buckner says contentious issues can be framed more accurately if journalists ask themselves a few questions before they start reporting.
JENNIE BUCKNER: I think it's important to us to say, "Wait a minute, life isn't just about the black and white in here and, yes, there's conflict at this end but what about all the shades of gray in here and how would you trade some of these things off and asking smart questions about those tradeoffs and letting people see more than just extreme, loud voices on each end of the spectrum. [SEEK SHADES OF GRAY -- LIST TRADEOFFS].
NARRATOR: A case in point was the Observer's coverage of the Pulitzer prize winning play Angels in America, which opened on a Charlotte stage after a vocal debate over a nudity scene.
JENNIE BUCKNER: There was a very strong, vocal group on the one side, a very conservative group that was saying they represented the community on this and this play should not be shown and shut it down. And they'd gone to the district attorney and they were going to shut it down.
And then there were the people trying to put the play on and they were saying, "By God, freedom of speech, the show will, indeed, go on" and, "Ok, you're going to shut it down and we'll have a fight here in the courts about all of this."
And we said, "I wonder what average people think about all this? And we did a couple of things. We went out and got lots of different people to write about this for our op-ed page in short bursts and we found, gee, there were plenty of religious, conservative, people that weren't saying shut it down. They were simply saying: make a smart choice about whether or not you really want to go to this.
We did a quick poll and found, low and behold, most Charlotteans, the vast majority, were very moderate, the liberal, the seeming split, they were: "I'm not sure I personally approve of everything that's in that show but I absolutely believe that they have the right to put that show on and that government shouldn't be deciding that for me."
It changed the course of the discussion. When we went out and sought the middle-ground voices, it suddenly became more: "Well, how do we want to work this out kind of conversation?"
NARRATOR: Nowhere is the use of conflict framing more widespread than in the coverage of politics, where discussions of public issues often generate more heat than light.
DENNIS HARTIG, MANAGING EDITOR, THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT: If we had this conversation six or seven years ago and we talked about the role of a political journalist, fundamentally I think the story they would tell you that they're telling the community is really a story about contest.
NARRATOR: Dennis Hartig is the Managing Editor of the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk.
DENNIS HARTIG: I think we know what kind of story that is. That's a story that's always framed in terms of conflict. And it's useful in some ways.
But often times it hypes, it hypes and obscures what really needs to happen in a community.
I think in the last 10 years, particularly in the last five years, you've seen a remarkable shift in this paper. Where, we have a phrase that I like to use, we sort of start where the citizens are. It's a totally different place.
Rather than starting where institutions or officials or journalists are, you've got to be able to see the world through the eyes of individual people.
For us it begins now with a whole series of conversations with small groups of people, ten or twelve, over a period of five or six nights, two to three hour conversations, in which we really try to explore with people what's really bothering them in their gut. [TALK TO PEOPLE].
When we go out and talk to people, they always talk about it in the same way. There is an ideological talk in the beginning but it very shortly, this is the way Americans are, well, "what are we going to do about it?"
So a lot of our effort here has been to say, "OK, what would a more practical, problem-solving approach to journalism look like?" [POLITICS AS PROBLEM SOLVING].
How can we reframe our stories to serve what we hear from the community constantly, which is: "give us information we need to solve our problems." What does that look like?
So that's really the kind of journalism that we've been working on and trying to develop and really sort of invent because you won't find that in any textbooks.
We've developed a concept called visual story telling. And double editing, where we try to take this reporting that we're doing, that has some depth to it and extract the value, the true essence of the story and display it either visually or enlarge it with big words so that you can get the value whether you have a few minutes or whether you have an hour. [PULL OUT THE ESSENCE].
NARRATOR: Political coverage in The Charlotte Observer has also evolved from a candidate-centered discourse to a discussion of issues that feature a broad and diverse group of citizen voices.
JENNIE BUCKNER: We do look at what the top issues are for people living in our state.
We try to synthesize the candidates stands around those issues and make it really easy for people to compare and contrast with issue grids. And then we take questions from readers and go back to the candidates all the time.
We apply that to many other things too. Right now we've got some big changes going on in our schools here following a desegregation case and almost every day in the paper we're saying, "What are your questions?" And we'll take them and we'll get your questions answered from the schools. So we have an "Ask Eric Smith," who's our superintendent of schools.
Use any technique you have but make sure you're doing as much as you can to listen to people and ask them, "What's your stake in this? What do you want to tell the news directors? What do you want to tell the politicians? What do you want to tell the editor of the newspaper?"
DENNIS HARTIG: We're doing a better job for just average, ordinary people out there. We're doing a better job for our community. We're helping our community come to grips with real choices with real consequences. There's a lot more light and a lot less heat, I think, in the paper. So my sense is it's a lot better. Can I prove that? No. Would I go back the other way? No. No.
TRANSCRIPT: TAPE 1
Interviewing: New Questions, Better Stories >>
TRANSCRIPT: The Robert Lane Interviews >>
TRANSCRIPT: TAPE 2
Framing a Story: What's It Really About? >>
TRANSCRIPT: TAPE 3
Finding Third Places: Other Voices, Different Stories >>
TRANSCRIPT: TAPE 4
Tapping Your Community: What Don't You Know? >>
Order Form and Table of Contents >>