“If the world worked well, we’d be out of a job,” a journalist colleague once said to me. More likely we’ll be subsumed into advertising, entertainment, propaganda or writing history. Nonetheless he was betting that terrible situations would continue to provide stories for reporters: war, economic and natural disasters, fraud and abuse, disease and poverty.
Reading student documentary proposals recently, I was struck by how many described a situation but hadn’t yet delineated a story. A story holds the promise of new information, emotional involvement with characters we care about, and effective or ineffective action to bring about change. A situation makes us shake our heads and say, “Tsk, Tsk, there but for the grace of God go I.” Describing a situation, we answer the question, “How bad was it?” Telling a story, we explore “How did it happen?” and “What can we do about it?”
Once while producing for CBS Sunday Morning, I was asked to cover the aftermath of wildfires that had destroyed homes in a wide swath of Southern California. I needed to show how awful it was – flames engulfing homes and threatening lives, firefighters dumping chemicals from airplanes and spraying water to ward off fire on the ground. But I wanted to do more. I saw a photo of a cul-de-sac in a suburb near San Diego in which two houses on opposite sides of the horseshoe-shaped street stood untouched amid the charred remains of the rest of the neighborhood. How that could happen and what could a family do to protect their home if they lived in a fire-prone zone? Talking to environmentalists and fire safety experts, I learned that you could do several things to increase the chances of your home surviving a wildfire: build your house back from the edge of a cliff – you won’t have a sit-down view at cocktail hour, but flames from a valley won’t leap over your deck and onto your home; clear the brush from your lot and cover the ground with ice plant – a water retaining succulent; don’t have a shake-shingle roof as if you were living in New England.
That was in the late 1980s before the Internet. As people continue to move into wildfire areas, more information is available about how to protect your home as I learned in a quick web search: http://firecenter.berkeley.edu/buildingfireproneareas.htm
So if you are fascinated by a terrible Situation, ask what you want to learn and consider how you can advance our common knowledge, then you’ll begin to tell a Story.