What is the overlap, if any, between storytelling and journalism? Well, that’s a tricky question. There should obviously be no overlap between fiction and journalism, because journalism is concerned with truth. If you profess to be a journalist but your reporting is a lie then at best you’re a propagandist and at worst you’re a fraud.
Storytelling is a murkier issue because the techniques that define storytelling are portable to almost any medium of communication. Not only do fiction writers tell stories but so do we all. Even children relate experiences not in a factual sense but as a narrative, picking and choosing among events, ordering events so they’re more compelling, and embellishing events so they’re more exciting.
It would seem, then, that journalists would be free to exploit storytelling techniques as well, but in fact they’re not — and they’re one of the few professions about which that can categorically be said. If you’re a journalist your first responsibility is to the truth of the facts you’re reporting, not to storytelling techniques that make those facts exciting at the expense of your professional obligations and ethics. (I know, I know, you’re blowing coffee out your nose because you know there are no journalistic ethics any more, but play along anyway.)
Yesterday, in announcing a new slate of programming, CNN’s new chief marketing weasel, Jeff Zucker, had this to say:
CNN President Jeff Zucker called [the new shows] “the foundation of our new prime-time lineup.”
In a statement, Zucker said, “The best journalism is, at its core, great storytelling. We are so pleased to welcome some of the finest storytellers in the business to CNN, the home to this kind of quality programming for more than 30 years.”
Coincidentally, as you may or may not know, for the past month CNN has been ruthlessly and brazenly exploiting the unsolved disappearance of a Malaysian airliner for the express purpose of making money. Using every storytelling trick in the book, including some of the most childish means of fostering speculation, morbid curiosity and lunatic thinking, CNN and its cast of purported journalists has turned an ongoing news event into an obsessive pursuit aimed not at the truth of the airplane’s disappearance, but at generating cash from the corpses of several hundred human beings.
Is that storytelling? Probably. Is that journalism? Not hardly.
Whatever CNN used to be, it’s noble heart died long ago. What’s left is not only an embarrassment to journalism as a profession, it’s an embarrassment to every storytelling profession as well. On the other hand, if you want to know how to make yourself rich off of other people’s tragedies, it’s easily the best example going.
— Mark Barrett