On the evening of Wednesday, November 28, 2012, G. Wayne Miller of the Providence Journal spoke at the Pell Center to discuss the power of story-telling in journalism. During the lecture, titled Where Stories Take Us: Story in the Public Square, Miller described the art of story-telling and provided specific examples of how some works in the Providence Journal made an impact on Rhode Island public policy.
To give story-telling context in the news world, Miller explained the three elements of a story: character, narrative, and emotion. The first two elements, character and narrative, are always found in hard news as seen in major news broadcasts from CNN, MSNBC, or Fox. It is emotion that touches people and makes the story memorable. When writing about public policy through the lens of story-telling, establishing an emotional connection with readers is important because it evokes a strong response.
The incredible thing about story-telling, as Miller pointed out, is how good stories can persist over time and be told in a number of different ways. For example, Homer’s Iliad persists not only through literature, but also through film, literature, plays and, even for infants and young children, comic books and children’s books. Babies certainly cannot have a full-length discussion about The Hobbit or Madame Bovary (why you would ever read those books to infants is questionable in itself), but babies become familiar with feeling a connection while being read child-appropriate book such as The Little Prince, or Miller’s example, The Very Hungry Caterpillar.
Miller transitioned to defining expository journalism. When first published in 1829, the Providence Journal declared its interest in the reporting of facts and promoting the interests of the community. Miller showed a few old newspaper front pages—Lincoln’s assassination, Pearl Harbor, landing on the moon, President Obama’s re-election. This demonstrated how writing about facts and statistics is important, even though it does not necessarily evoke as emotion as a story.
Miller and his colleagues at the Providence Journal combine the elements of story-telling and expository journalism to shed light on public policy issues in the state or the nation. The Journal frequently publishes stories on the weak health of Rhode Island’s economy. Since March, the Journal publishes stories Reinvent Rhode Island, a series of articles that shed light on how Rhode Islander are affected by the economy and possible solutions to fix the state’s problems.
“Going it alone and losing ground: Single parents struggle to stay afloat” is one article Miller wrote for the Reinvent Rhode Island series in July. The article does talk about the facts and figures of single-parent incomes, but Miller tells the story of one woman, Ms. Crystal M. Tetreault of Cranston. It is through Ms. Tetreault that the reader understands the struggles of being an unemployed single parent in Rhode Island and builds an emotional connection in recognizing that the problem is very real. Miller said that most people responded positively to the article.
After the presenting several more beautifully told stories of people and their relationship to public policy, including the profiles of Afghanistan War veterans featured in the Providence Journal’s documentary Coming Home, Miller concluded that if you tell a good story, readers will listen. The story does not end when we as readers finish reading. According to Miller, “it’s a question of what we do with it.”
On Friday, April 12, 2013, Miller and The Pell Center of International Relations and Public Policy will be collaborating on “Story in the Public Square,” a day-long event that will focus on the “ethical” use of story-telling in the public arena. There will be panel discussions, a film screening, a student focused contest and the presentation of the first annual Pell Center Prize for “story in the public square.” To stay updated on the event, please follow Pell Public Stories on Twitter @pubstory.
To learn more about G. Wayne Miller, please visit his website.