Here’s how we teach creativity in journalism (and why it’s the 5th habit of successful journalists)
In the fifth in a series of posts on the seven habits of successful journalists, I explore how creativity can be developed in trainee journalists. You can read the posts on curiosity, scepticism, persistence and empathy here.
Describing journalism as a creative profession can cause discomfort for some reporters: we portray journalism as a neutral activity — “Just the facts” — different to fiction or arts that appear to ‘create something from nothing’.
But journalism is absolutely a creative endeavour: we must choose how to tell our stories: where to point the camera (literally or metaphorically), how to frame the shot, where to cut and what to retain and discard, and how to combine the results to tell a story succinctly, accurately and fairly (not always the story we set out to tell).
We must use creativity to solve problems that might prevent us getting the ‘camera’ in that position in the first place, to find the people with newsworthy stories to tell, to adapt when we can’t find the information we want, or it doesn’t say what we expected (in fact, factual storytelling requires an extra level of creativity given that we can only work with the truth).
All of those are creative decisions.
And before all of that, we must come up with ideas for stories too. The journalist who relies entirely on press releases is rightly sneered at: it is a sign of a lack of imagination when a reporter cannot generate their own ideas about where to look for news leads, or how to pursue those.
Creativity has been the focus of a range of research on journalism, from the role that technology plays and tools that can help improve creativity to papers that explore “how journalistic creativity plays out in day-to-day journalism” or “ When Creative Potentials are Being Undermined By Commercial Imperatives”.
Recent waves of research on innovation in the industry are also often concerned with the barriers to, and enablers of, creativity that makes innovation possible. This is an era that requires creativity from the industry.
Three forms of interactivity
Creativity — and a desire to express it — is also one of the main reasons that people choose to study journalism.
The challenge for journalism educators and trainers, often, is how to transform that raw communicative impulse into something more journalistic than the formats it tends to express itself in: writing opinion pieces, for example, or video blogs.
Something, actually, more creative.
First, then, it’s important to separate those three forms of creativity and explore each separately:
- Creativity of story ideas
- Creativity in problem-solving (newsgathering and production)
- Creativity of storytelling (communication)
Creativity of ideas
Creativity of ideas is perhaps the form most highly valued by employers. A regular complaint when hiring is that job applicants may have technical skills, but no good story ideas.
So where do good ideas come from? Among other things, wide and regular reading. People who don’t read or listen to much news reporting make things difficult for themselves in three ways:
- Firstly, they are more likely to come up with basic ideas that are already being done;
- Secondly, they have less raw material (inspiration) to work with; and
- Thirdly, they are less likely to know what a good idea looks like.
So one of the most basic things we do in journalism education is to expose students to a wide range of journalism. We might do that through assigned readings, through regular newsletters and recommendations, or in-class.
Asking them to reverse-engineer a story is one particularly useful teaching technique to help students to understand where a reporter might have got a story lead from, and then developed that into a published or broadcast story.
A common mistake that journalism students make when brainstorming story ideas is to suggest a topic, not a story:
“I am going to write a story about climate change”.
A good tip is to be as specific as possible, and return to those 5 Ws and a H to help:
- Who can you write a story about? Is there a specific person who is doing something newsworthy?
- Where might a story be taking place, or have taken place? Is there a location which is experiencing some sort of change — or will do — or has done and this has topical relevance?
- What is new, or surprising?
- When is something taking place? Is there an upcoming event you can report on?
- How can you report this story in a way that is interesting? Could you do your interview in an unusual way? Is there a first-person experience you could write about? (‘A day in the life’)
- Why would a particular story be newsworthy now? Why would it appeal to your audience?
Mark Lee-Hunter’s Story Based Inquiry method, where the journalist outlines a hypothesis to guide their newsgathering, is another useful technique to use to help refine more investigative or in-depth story ideas.
So, for example, you might try some of the following:
- Find an article you like and substitute an element (e.g. same interview approach, different person). Or substitute the form (change an interview to a news article, or a report to a liveblog)
- Combine two ideas (e.g. do an FOI request and a first person story)
- Adapt an idea: what can be added to it? (more interviews, some data, a gallery?)
- Modify it: what can be changed? (the location? The timeframe?)
- Put an idea to another use: can you repeat a story from elsewhere in your local area, or field, or just update it?
- List the elements of your story and eliminate one or more to make it more focused
- Can you reverse the order of the story, or the elements being used?
Variety is important: a story from one field can inspire an approach in another; connections can be made across time and space.
Some educators have created card decks to help stimulate just these sorts of creative processes. Journalism+Design’s card deck forms the basis for students working in situations based on a combination of prompts (e.g. “make a mind map”) and limitations (e.g. time, audience) in .
“A working sense of how these ideas play out gives you the confidence to challenge them, play with them and mould ideas to fit — confidence and experience allow us to be creative.”
Creativity in problem-solving
Journalism often doesn’t go to plan: an interview may be dull or an interviewee pull out, events may be cancelled or underwhelm, a dataset is limited, or fails to show the pattern we were expecting. As I wrote in a previous part of this series: this is why persistence and tenacity is so important.
The difference between the journalist and the non-journalist is that we still find a story to tell.
When an event is cancelled, for example, a journalist has the problem-solving creativity to come up with a new idea.
It might be to write a new story about why it was cancelled, or the challenges facing this particular event organiser, or events organisers more generally. Or there is a piece to be written about the cost of security for the event.
Or the decision is made not to write about this event at all but go to a list of backup story ideas (always have one!)
When an interviewee pulls out we have to think creatively about ways to solve that problem: is there a way to persuade them to change their mind? Where can we find alternatives? How can we re-angle the story around a different interviewee and still use some of the material we’ve gathered? (This to some extent comes under the quality of adaptability.)
Working through some of these scenarios is a useful exercise in developing the sort of resilience that editors want from reporters.
A live news day is one of the most common ways that educators create situations for these obstacles to occur, as students are ignored by, or turned down by, potential interviewees.
The key is to frame this for students as a creative process, not a linear or binary succeed-or-fail situation. Role-playing some of the most common scenarios (the reluctant or boring interviewee; the cancelled event) may help give students more confidence in approaching those situations.
We can also introduce students to ways in which professional journalists have adapted to similar situations: the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 has provided endless examples of journalists’ creativity, for example.
From sports reporters who “once had a job dependent on their constant presence at both home and road games, practices, press conferences” and now have to come up with story ideas that don’t rely on the rhythm of the season, to working as a radio reporter from home; from conducting virtual interviews to designing a distributed newsroom. The industry press, reporters’ blogs and Twitter accounts have been overflowing with examples of how creativity can play a central role in the job — and those examples have been invaluable for those learning how to become journalists themselves.
Creativity in storytelling
In terms of expression, creativity allows us to recreate and work with the forms of news and feature genres in different media.
Like any form of expression, the first step is to look at lots of examples and learn the unwritten rules of those: the inverted pyramid, the fact-quote-colour rhythm of the feature, the kabob structure of the longform article.
But right now we are living through what must surely be the most creative era in the history of journalism: reporters are no longer constrained by their primary platform (print, radio or TV) and to one medium (words, audio or video). The addition of online as a platform has required reporters to creatively adapt to the challenges of multiple media and genres.
Moreover, the creation and ongoing development of new genres — the blog, the liveblog, the interactive, the podcast, the datavis, the infographic, the tweet, the audio slideshow, the social video, the livestream, the 360 video, the VR experience, the Snapchat/Instagram story — means a journalist’s creativity doesn’t stop with the ‘mastery’ of one particular form: there is always another to explore.
There is a risk, however, that this leads to too big a focus on technical creativity — the skills of storytelling — at the expense of time spent on the other forms.
For that reason it’s important to devote time to exploring these new forms editorially: what is generic about the liveblog or social video for example? (Answers might include a bullet list of key updates; or the use of text captions).
At Birmingham City University I’ve created a module dedicated to exploring new formats in exactly this way with MA journalism students, with its own Medium publication where students independently explore how professional storytellers have tackled the creative challenges of different formats before reporting their own stories across multiple platforms.
Of course, our enjoyment of creativity can stray into indulgence: we may be tempted to use long words to show off our vocabulary, where in fact shorter simpler ones may be more effective and more easily understood by our audience; or we might use a new storytelling form such as VR just because we can rather than because it works best for the story.
And that is where the sixth of the seven essential qualities of successful journalists — discipline — comes in: the subject of the next post…