Telling upside down science stories in the media
By Toss Gascoigne
Sometimes in our media skills workshops I tell the story of Little Red Riding Hood.
Image: Kevin Phillips from Pixabay
It’s to illustrate the difference between the way scientists tell a story, and the approach the media takes. Scientists often talk about their research in a chronological way, or as Alice in Wonderland put it:
‘Begin at the beginning,’ the King said gravely, ‘and go on till you come to the end: then stop.’
So, to find out what happens in accounts of research, readers should generally turn to the last page.
The media though, likes to start stories with the most important and interesting facts, and then add detail. So:
A fire burns out the Brisbane CBD (paragraph 1)
Three people were killed and 42 suffered smoke inhalation (paragraph 2, etc.)
Damage bill will run into the billions
Iconic buildings destroyed
Traffic chaos as CBD streets closed
Eighteen fire engines race to the scene
Cause as yet unknown but electrical fault suspected
Nothing chronological here. This method of storytelling supports the ‘flit and sip’ approach taken by many readers of the media. Their eyes slide over the headlines, stop when something attracts their attention, and they read until they’ve seen enough or get bored.
It also supports the way stories are fitted into the newspaper, web site or broadcast. Journalists will over-write, providing 400 words when there’s only space for 300. For the subeditor putting a page together, the solution is simple: cut off the excess words, starting at the bottom.
The story should still make perfect sense wherever the cut is made, as a 6-paragraph story or a 10-paragraph story. It’s just less detailed.
Another way to tell a story is to begin with the problem. A science journalist once described a perfect newspaper story: a problem, the solution, a photo and a graph.
But there is power in the Little-Red-Riding-Hood approach. It still has the capacity to fascinate readers or listeners, especially when combined with other classic elements like the ‘Rule of Three’.
There is a reason fairies always grant three wishes, or traditional tales have three parts or three main characters (Three Blind Mice, Three Bears, Three Wise Men …). Have you ever heard a story beginning, ‘There were these four blokes who walked into a pub …’?