It’s all about the story - in journalism and in politics
By Joyce Pines
By Joyce Pines
The View from Kalamazoo
Journalist Steve Roberts has some advice for everyone trying to figure out who is going to win the presidential election in November - pay attention to the stories the candidates tell.
|Steve Roberts speaks at WMU's Fetzer Center. (Bradley S. Pines)|
feelings about candidates and journalists shouldn’t denigrate voters for this.
And the most successful candidates take this message to heart. One of
the reasons President Barack Obama got elected, Roberts says, is because he “found a way to say, ‘I’m just like you’.”
Obama told stories about his grandparents and the work they did, his mother and her struggles. He did not mention he was a U.S. senator or talk about his Ivy League education.
So far, Roberts adds, “the best storyteller on the Republican side is (Rick) Santorum.” He talks about his coal miner relatives and his daughter’s illness. “He has found stories to tell in stark contrast to the man” who’s about to defeat him - Mitt Romney.
A former New York Times journalist who is covering his 12th presidential election, Roberts’ was at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Mich., on April 2 to discuss “Politics, Democracy and the Fourth Estate: The Role of the Media in Campaign 2012,” as part of the Communication and Community Distinguished Lecture Series.
What will be interesting over the next few months, Roberts said, is whether Romney will be able to connect with voters. The key may be watching the role his wife Ann plays in the campaign. “She can talk about him. She can tell stories about him,” Roberts said, and perhaps make the connection to voters that Romney, so far, has been unable to make.
People want to know candidates have experienced tough times. We like redemption stories.
“I don’t think George W. Bush would have been president if he hadn’t been an alcoholic,” Roberts said. But just having a trove of good stories isn’t enough. Former astronaut John Glenn had a great story but he couldn’t connect with voters. So candidates must have both a great story to tell and be able to use that story to make voters like them.
Advice to future journalists
Speaking to about 200 students, faculty and interested members of the community, Roberts, who has taught journalism at George Washington University for the past 20 years, also said, “I might be the only person who’s optimistic about the future” of journalism.
Students, he said, are not being trained to make typewriters. The marketplace for information is not shrinking. The skills taught - how to write and how to be ethical in the application of your writing - apply across all media platforms.
“You’ve got to do multimedia,” Roberts said. “You have to sell your content on as many platforms as possible.” He also advises students to “think broadly. A lot of jobs you’re going to do haven’t been invented yet.”
As for the state of the media itself, Roberts talked about how he began his career in a system that was top down - reporters put stories together and it was presented to the public as a done deal. “I didn’t have any interaction with the people who read my stories,” he said.
He told a story about teaching his Media, Politics and Government class. He sometimes sends students reading material updates as close as 90 minutes before the start of class because of the speed at which the media moves today. During 2008, the “Yes, We Can” video debuted. The next time his class met, he asked how his students had seen the video. No one saw it on TV. It was shared peer-to-peer, horizontally, and that’s an example of how media works today.
People “formerly known as the audience,” Roberts said, “now have a voice, they can talk back.”
The Trayvon Martin story rose to prominence through social media and now it is being covered by the mainstream media. Roberts sees this horizontal sharing as vibrant and diverse and it still leaves a role for the mainstream media to fill.
This wide open universe also allows for a world of rumors. “When you raise the window, fresh air comes in and the flies do, too,” Roberts said. Both Barack Obama and Sarah Palin have been victims of a vicious
rumor mill. Fortunately, along with the increase in rumors, there has been a rise in factchecking.
Roberts also cautioned that all this new technology can also be limiting if people only use it to seek news sources that just confirm their own beliefs. It’s important to read a diversity of opinions.
“The worst thing you can do is apply some form of censorship,” Roberts said, “one of the problems we have in the media universe is who do we give our microphones to?”
The idea “good TV is conflict” is one that makes Roberts uncomfortable and he seldom appears on cable television anymore because he doesn’t want to be forced into taking a position.
Moderates, Roberts says, are the most under-represented people in America. NPR, which both he and his journalist wife Cokie Roberts also work for, is one of the few media organizations which works to preserve a sense of moderation in its news gathering.
"It's one of the last bastions of integrity - where you don't feel like you have to take a shower after you get off the air," Roberts said.