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Storyology In Sydney - A Second Instalment

Storyology In Sydney - A Second Instalment

By Stephen Olsen
9 August 2013


BBC's Lyse Doucet.

The disruptions that are reshaping journalism have been impossible to miss at the Walkley Foundation's Storyology event in Sydney, a summit of media and creativity intended to contrast the positioning of traditional media in the digital arena with the diversity of a growing new "media ecosystem".

Nuanced forms of news reporting, new revenue models for media startups, stress and success in an age of smartphones, and opportunities for crossing between mediums have all been given their fair share of airtime, masterfully mustered together by the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance and moderated by a slice of Australia's best in show. 

Certainly a packed programme of watching journalists and editorial content creators of all kinds in all kinds of conversation with themselves, their peers and those who would gladly nip at their heels, has offered any number of insights into what we in New Zealand might also be looking to on the near-horizon of changes within the media along with associated shifts in journalistic practice and skillsets.


The opening spot over the last two days of Storyology - which continues on with more presentations and workshops today and tomorrow - was reserved for observations about the essence of what makes for compelling news stories on broadcast television, as delivered by two world-leading reporters with longstanding and influential careers: the BBC's Lyse Doucet and Sarah Ferguson of the ABC. 

Doucet, speaking in a consummately hushed and deeply sincere timbre, fittingly began her address by employing the constraints of a 140 character tweet as a means of alluding to that most conventional of story forms, a fairy tale, framed by the classic lines of once upon a time and of lived happily ever after. 

"Why would anyone want to tell any other kind of story?" asked Doucet "Ones with delicious, happy endings... and then we grew up... and then as the saying goes we looked for bad stories or bad stories looked for us..."

By way of talking about the ability of stories to capture the imagination and to keep us listening, Doucet made a segue to affirming the point that modern media can still possess an "intensity and immediacy" to keep us engaged. 

And to communicate her own perspective on the audience for the stories she herself works on in a war-torn world, Doucet chose to quote from another famous Canadian, Margaret Attwood, who wrote (in The Handmaid's Tale): "But if it's a story, even in my head, I must be telling it to someone. You don't tell a story only to yourself. There's always someone else. Even when there is no one".

Doucet was clear in her view that the stories of our day and time are hard to tell, and hard to hear. "They never have happy endings, and don't have beginnings like once upon a time... they are framed in uncertainty".

What has changed in the traditional media, including the BBC she added, is that in an age of social media there is no longer an expectation that audiences are remote and silent. Turning then to the stories she has been a frontline reporter on in the Middle East especially, Doucet conveyed a sense of the ebb and flow of events she has witnessed at firsthand - being an "epic story" but one without any clear ending. 

"The hardest story is Syria, a story of war... a civil war, a sectarian war, a proxy war, a new cold war, a war on childhood, a humanitarian crisis," said Doucet. 

Offering sage advice that "to tell a complex story it's best to employ the simplest of tales from which to weave the more complicated tale", she then talked about a series of return visits to a single suburb in Damascus, each visit punctuated by about six months. 

At one point young people could be heard chanting anti-Assad slogans, while at the next juncture the same road was empty and silent barring a steady roll call of the names of people who had died that week being read out via a loud speaker at a local mosque. 

Describing a divided society in Syria - "divided in its loyalties and divided dangerously" - Doucet spoke of the courage she had heard in the words of a young boy standing next to his mother as she was speaking to the BBC as he spurred her on to "tell the truth". 

In another instance of the ability of children to speak with blunt honesty and humanity, Doucet's final tale was about a brave 12 year old girl whose ambition for the future was to work as a lawyer to get people out of prison. When asked to explain, this was a choice underpinned by the experience the girl had lived through of seeing two older brothers incarcerated and when released being unable to walk. 

The closing message from Doucet was that these children in the midst of a barely survivable conflict are story tellers too. "They just want to be able to grow up to tell their stories. So go out and find your stories, and tell them well, but listen to the stories people tell you. At the BBC we call it living the story".

For award-winning Australian journalist Sarah Ferguson the essence of best journalistic practice is to give people dignity. 

With the aid of footage from the ABC's award-winning">Four Corners programme Sarah Ferguson set out some of the prosaic but powerful principles she believes underpin the making of effective television. 

In particular she highlighted the work of one of her predecessors, Frank Bennett, as a craftsman of narrative. Clips and voiceover from a 1960s documentary about equal pay for Aboriginal stockmen served to illustrate the power of "brevity and pathos" that Bennett brought to a story. 

"Pathos can't be forced," said Ferguson, who used her platform at Storyology to issue some strictures against poor practice. On that list were the proliferation of too much talk and talk shows on so-called current affairs TV, boring and bad piano soundtracks, and stories that fail to hold back from "telegraphing" every single step of a story rather than letting it speak for itself. 

In her view being a journalist involves having to love the detail of a story, but not to kill it by positing it as yet another dull and dreaded "important issue". 

"We have to be more inventive (than that) ... story telling isn't going away, we just have to very, very good at it. And that's storyology!"

More instalments on Storyology, which continues through to Friday 10 August, will follow. Alternatively feel free to tune into @palavermedia and the #storyology hashtag on Twitter.

Note: Palaver Media is filing reportage for the Scoop Independent News site Scoop Media is currently working with other interested parties to form a foundation for public interest journalism in New Zealand.


© Scoop Media

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