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Forget the platform: The "elements of good storytelling are eternal," Pulitzer winner says

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Forget the platform: The "elements of good storytelling are eternal," Pulitzer winner says

Lindsay Kalter | August 25, 2011

As a reporter and editor in the field for more than 30 years, Jacqui Banaszynski has seen storytelling evolve with the ever-expanding platforms and tools that have entered the journalistic landscape.

Banaszynski won a feature writing Pulitzer in 1988 for her series "AIDS in the Heartland". She is currently a Knight Chair professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and editing fellow at the Poynter Institute.

In an email Q&A with IJNet, she discusses the fundamental aspects of effective storytelling - constants even in the frantic digital age - and the delicate balance of thorough but sensitive reporting.

IJNet: What is one aspect of human-interest storytelling that has remained constant over the years despite changes in technology?

JB: Certain tools work better for some things than others: audio (the human voice) is intimate; still photos freeze a moment and capture time; video allows action to play out; text (good old print) is best for complexity and connections and depth.

But the underlying elements of good storytelling are eternal:

· Find the humanity at the center of a situation.

· Look for the universal theme or meaning in individual situations.

· Be as specific and vivid as possible.

· And sometimes tell. Put stories in context so readers know what world they come from, time they live in, situation they are related to.  

IJNet: Some journalists find it difficult to master in-depth reporting on sensitive and personal issues without being overly invasive or exploitative. What advice can you give for striking a balance?

JB: If we do our work with genuine compassion, acute awareness and authentic curiosity, there is very little we can't ask our story subjects. The key is to set aside preconceptions or judgments and instead enter situations with a true desire to know, from the other, what their reality is. On a more practical level, briefly explain yourself to your story subjects. Tell them why you are interested in them, explain a bit about how you work, negotiate any conditions, ask about their concerns.

One last tip: Approach story subjects in ways that are appropriate to their place in life.

  1. Public officials or celebrities know how we work; you need to be honest and ethical with them, but don't need a lot more explanation.

  2. Ordinary people who find themselves in the spotlight deserve a little more in terms of explanation and context. But if they are adults capable of making their own "informed consent" decisions, let them.

  3. "Vulnerables" include young children, people with mental or emotional handicaps, people in severe shock or trauma and sometimes people whose judgments are impaired by drugs or alcohol. They may not understand the consequences of talking to a journalist. Assess the situation and ask yourself if they know what they are doing when they talk to you. Finally, always keep your word.

Banaszynski will be leading an October 22 workshop on narrative journalism in Bucharest, Romania.