If you’re a fan of fine art, you’ll know how impressionist paintings work: the artist uses tiny dots or streaks of paint to suggest a scene, rather than using the traditional method painting literal lines or sheets of color.
When you stand back from the painting, it is quite clear what the scene is, perhaps bathers on a beach or waterlilies under a bridge, a ship pulling into harbor.
As you get closer, however, you begin to see the white spaces between the dots. The picture becomes less and less distinct, until at very close hand, it breaks up into a scattering of splotches on the canvas.
Photographs work in a similar way: what looks like a sharp, clear, literal depiction of reality eventually resolves into a series of tiny spots as you get closer.
News stories are like this as well.
All human stories are, in some way, complex and full of details. There is a long build-up or background, there are the varying thoughts and perspectives of those involved. There are central characters, and peripheral players that helped influence events. As events unfolded, there were digressions, pauses, changes, tangential happenings, unintended consequences.
A reporter is trying to capture that story, but he or she is trying to do so in as quick and efficient a manner as possible. The reporter collects as many facts and comments time allows, then tries to tell the story as succinctly as possible – a few hundred words, a few minutes of audio or video, a handful of pictures.
That collection of information is intended to capture the essence of the story, to convey what happened to readers who were not there or are unfamiliar with an issue or event.
And as long as you’re standing back some distance, that picture looks pretty complete.
But as with an impressionist painting or a photograph, the closer you are to the story, the less that news report resembles what you saw or experienced.
People who are deeply immersed in a story see not just the dots of information included by the reporter, but the white space around them – all the facts, characters, events, and developments that the reporter omitted, forgot, didn’t have room for, did not know, simplified for clarity, or just got wrong.
That’s why activists at a meeting or sports fans at a game will often wonder if they were even at the same event as the reporter who wrote the account in the paper the next morning.
We as reporters often get questions like “how could you have left out…” or “how could have possibly missed…”
And often those questions are perfectly reasonable. There are multiple ways to tell a story, multiple ways to see an event. Sometimes we make a choice on deadline that seems sensible but upon later reflection was a mistake. Sometimes we necessarily see things differently than an activist or fan simply because we’re required to try to understand and represent all sides of an issue or event.
And sometimes, as often happens in emergency situations, there is just no way for anyone to know what’s really going on in the hectic first minutes and hours.
But ultimately what we’re trying to do is collect and place all of those dots of information as completely and fairly as we can in order to create a coherent picture.
No news report, however long, detailed, and vigorously reported, reflects reality in all its complexity and texture. To do so would simply be impossible.
All we can hope for is that when you step back a little bit, the shape of the story becomes progressively more clear and recognizable.
You can reach Sean Scully at 256-2246 or email@example.com.