Wick Communications

The single story dilemma

In Writing techniques on 17 Apr 2014 at 3:36 pm

single story

Well, the Pulitzers were announced. Did you win one? Me neither. Andrea Elliott and Ruth Fremson of the New York Times didn’t win one either and it wouldn’t surprise me if they were a bit more disappointed than I am today.

Elliott wrote a thoroughly stunning long, long story of a single Brooklyn homeless girl named Dasani. Her incredible writing and Fremson’s equally stirring photos were up for a local news-reporting prize but were beaten by The Tampa Bay Times, which had its own story on a local homeless shelter.

This week I stumbled on a discussion of the Dasani story in the Columbia Journalism Review. It is an examination of subtle troubling aspects of the Dasani report and I found one complaint particularly interesting. Have you ever heard of the risk of the “single story?”

Bill Grueskin is a professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. He uses the term to describe one problem with stories like the Dasani narrative. He notes that reporters often define a story first and then seek characters to flesh out that perception. They tell a single story in hope that it illustrates a wider truth. New York Times reporters find one homeless person to tell the story of thousands in New York’s boroughs. Television producers find one precocious kid in Georgia to stand in for all child beauty pageant winners. And community papers like ours find a single cancer survivor, a single Muslim, a single student-athlete to tell the travails of others we often mistakenly think of as more or less the same. …

It’s a seductive problem, and really no criticism of Elliott’s absorbing story. We are storytellers. Generalizing from the specific is a big part of the way we have always told feature stories. We just need to understand that it can be reductive and paint a less-than full picture of wider societal problems. In other words, these stories are only part of the story.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard the “single story” dilemma put quite the way Grueskin puts it, but I cop to making the same mistake from time to time. Hopefully, I’m a little more aware of the problem and I can thank Elliott and Dasani for that.




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