Storytelling

The power of storytelling cannot be exaggerated.  Journalists like to say they are storytellers and the best are.  In this era of change in journalism, I find myself arguing that we need to produce storytellers for a new age.

At UNC we are producing storytellers. Those who can take big data and tell a story through numbers.  Designers who can create graphic presentations that clarify multi layered metrics.  Writers who weave on-line copy to entice the mind of multi-tasking Internet readers.  Visual producers who work images and video to enhance understanding of complicated ideas.

 This week the power of a great storyteller was driven home for me when Charlie Sennott, a talented foreign correspondent and entrepreneur who created the start up GlobalPost, spoke to the Media Revolution Class I’m co-teaching.   Dressed in the beige suit of a correspondent who has traveled the world and knows sartorial elegance is dependent on nonchalance not contrived choices, Sennott paced back and forth in the front of the huge lecture hall and captured the attention of this mostly first and second year students in a class of 300.

It was September 11th; twelve years after terrorism rocked the country and changed the way reporters and citizens look at foreign news.  He came to talk about international reporting and to share the perspective of someone who saw American newspapers shutter their foreign bureaus but who was determined to keep reporters on the ground, across the world, informing the American public.  He came to share his new venture: GlobalPost that has 70 correspondents in 150 different countries reporting daily on events that have an impact on American lives.

But that new venture wasn’t what he talked about first.  He told a story.  A story of one young reporter who with old-fashioned shoe leather reporting discovered how the world was changing.  He told the students how he found terrorism was a threat to America.  He described the first story he covered that revealed terrorism in the heart of New York City.  He said simply, he has been covering that same story ever since.

The story he told all began one afternoon when he heard an explosion in downtown New York City as he was walking through the streets.  At that time, he was a reporter at the New York Daily News.  “I heard sirens after that explosion and since it was my job to know what was happening when something was going wrong, I went to the site of the noise”, he told the students.

 It was 1993.  He arrived at the garage below the World Trade Center and police were pulling up. No police barriers were yet established. He told the audience—that was riveted on his every word— that one skill a reporter needs to perfect is to always walk with authority and determination right into a situation where no one wants you. He did that in 1993 and no one stopped him.  And then, like the good storyteller he is , he showed the class what he meant. He held his yellow legal paper by his side, and purposefully walked up the lecture hall’s side aisle.  “No one stopped me and I immediately saw a huge crater and knew that a bomb had gone off in this garage below the tallest building in NYC”.  He began reporting and calling sources and by that night he had the story of an anti-U.S. Egyptian activist who rented a van and carried the bomb right into that garage.

That night after he filed a story that revealed his deep reporting on what had happened, he met his old-fashioned, chain smoking editor in a bar.  Over a few drinks, Sennott  convinced the editor that he and a colleague should travel to Egypt to follow up on the story.  The editor didn’t remember he said yes, but Sennott was in Egypt the next day.

“ I worked the story like I would anywhere.  The streets of Cairo are just like the streets of Brooklyn,” he told the class.   Within weeks he was at a meeting of Muslim activists in the Sudan who were upset at the U.S.  There he met a tall, thin Saudi Arabian who was funding many of those activists.  His name was Osama Bin Laden.

 Sennott proved he can tell a story.    From that reporter’s encounter with the World Trade Center‘s first attack, he was able to reveal the complicated story of the past dozen years.  Of wars, and ethnic conflicts, of tensions between Sunnis and Shi’ites, of debates over Weapons of Mass Destruction, of indecision about U. S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, of a decade of the War on Terror, of the courage of America’s military.

By telling his story, Sennott moved into international stories that connected with the students.  These weren’t issues or countries in the news that seemed distant and uninteresting.  These were places and issues in this reporter’s story.

 Sennott put things in context. He raised questions about the current issue facing America over Syria and the question of chemical weapons.  He explored foreign policy, international reporting, motivation and a journalist’s commitment.  He finished by winding back to that shoe leather reporter who was committed to his craft and finding a way to do international reporting in a new uncertain economic time.

 When Sennott finished hands went up.  Questions about Syria, about objectivity, about reporting.

 One man. No PowerPoint.  A reporter with an ability to tell a story—a complicated one that could make 300 students think.

 Storytelling is not a superficial skill in this era of information glut.  Being able to take complicated ideas, conflicting issues, and important debates – both domestic and foreign – and weave them into a story is key to informing the public about the issues and events that are most important.

Headlines get out. We know there is a breakthrough in the standoff between Russia and the U.S. over Syria and chemical weapons.  We get that news on our smartphone.   But without the storyteller we don’t understand the why, what happened, the context and the analysis.  A storyteller that combines facts with observations and a deep understanding of culture and the issues involved is what makes the difference these days. Storytellers – sophisticated storytellers – are needed now more than ever.

I hope we are producing more Charlie Sennotts who are journalists and communicators who can tell stories.  I realized, as I watched these new students transfixed by one great storyteller, that they and America want to understand the story of their time.

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