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Beyond the Sound Bite:
Politics and Public Affairs for TV

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Elements of a good story: Beating the boring factor

By Taylor Elmore

A good political story contains the same elements as any other good, compelling story: conflict, suspense, character, humor and a reason to care. 

Deborah Potter of Newslab outlined the essentials of good political storytelling at a presentation entitled “Beating the Boring Factor.”

The most compelling reports incorporate a beginning, middle and end, Potter said. Unfortunately, broadcast journalists “tend to lead with the end a lot of the time” – a habit that leads to choppy, disjointed stories.  However, Potter said that by taking a more linear approach, “these stories can be narratives, in which they start somewhere and they lead somewhere.”

Part of the challenge for a broadcast reporter is “we’re up against our own expectations for what stories in this field should be.” Potter alluded to a sort of “producer fantasia,” in which a journalist will return with a political story only to have the producer say “wait, this isn’t what we discussed in the morning meeting!”

Additionally, political journalists occasionally suffer from an “attitude problem,” where it can be difficult to get excited about a story that has been assigned rather than chosen.  The best fix for this is simply to “get over it,” Potter said, and provided her own variation on the “Rule of Thirds.”

“If you have thirty minutes to drive to your assignment,” said Potter, “you can only spend one-third of that time bitching.” The remaining two-thirds of the travel time must be spent figuring out how to get over the privations inflicted upon the reporter and focus on the story itself.

This approach can turn what initially appear to be obstacles to a story into assets.  Using an example of a story on voter turnout – an assignment much maligned in television news as classically boring and uninspired – Potter showed a clip that turned the perception on its head.  The story focused on voter apathy, using long shots of silent and deserted polls and near-total voter absence to create a compelling, funny and very watchable story. 

“They turned the barrier, the obstacle into the story,” Potter said.  “Luck favors the prepared mind.” It’s up to the reporter to look for the story; it very seldom happens by accident, whatever surprises may present themselves along the way. 

Creating and maintaining a rapport with the videographer can go a long way toward capturing the little moments that can make a story exciting and memorable.

“One of the things we all agree on,” Potter said, “is that characters do drive stories.” To illustrate, Potter showed two clips about the same story.  The first was told traditionally, with full-screen graphics, talking-head consultants, and heavy B-roll footage.  The second eliminated the full-screen graphics, pared it down to a simpler structure and used real people to illustrate the point that the way the story is told makes it interesting, no matter what the subject matter. 

Part of the solution to political coverage problems can be to take just a few minutes to brainstorm how to explain the issue to viewers in a visually attractive way. 
Potter said that it helps her to think of story elements as Velcro, because “if you give viewers (information) that attaches to something they already have, they’ll remember it better.”

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