Whither the News? How podcasts and storytelling are blurring the lines between news and entertainment … and why it matters

Judith’s Website

“Infotainment.”

I heard a public radio station’s podcast describe itself that way the other day, and it made me cringe.

That word tapped into something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately – whether the popularity of the podcast style of audio storytelling is blurring the lines between news and entertainment … and whether public radio’s panicked rush towards podcasting will prompt stations to put their scarce resources into entertainment (perhaps dressed up as “infotainment”) rather than news.

News vs Storytelling

There’s a difference between a news story with storytelling elements and a standalone story about an individual, an isolated event, or a quirky phenomenon.

You’ll hear a lot of the latter on excellent programs and podcasts like Snap Judgement, The Moth, This American Life, and RadioLab.

These programs are considered somewhat revolutionary in the radio world, but they are, essentially, audio documentary series. Like TV documentaries, they are well-crafted and highly produced, often fascinating, and usually extremely entertaining. They often raise important issues and questions about society. They’re an integral part of the eclectic tapestry of public radio programming and of audio production in general.

But they’re not news.

Not Better, Just Different

I don’t believe that news is intrinsically better than storytelling … or vice versa, as some in our industry seem to be implying these days. But they are different, and it’s crucial to understand that difference.

Why?

Because some public radio stations are slowly beginning to shift resources from one to the other, without even realizing it. More on that later.

First, to the differences:

The primary goal of a news story is to deliver accurate, unbiased information about an event or topic that’s relevant to a large number of people.

To that end, a news story must:

  • present all sides of an issue, preferably through comments from people representing those sides
  • provide all relevant facts and context
  • cast a critical eye over the arguments of everyone quoted.

The primary goal of a storytelling piece is to provide a compelling and immersive experience for the reader, viewer, or listener.

To that end, a storytelling piece might:

  • address a topic that, while interesting, is not broadly impactful enough to be considered newsworthy
  • include only one person’s perspective or one side of an issue
  • exclude facts that might contradict the storyteller’s perspective.

‘In news reporting, drama can never come at the expense of accuracy.’

By no means are these goals mutually exclusive. Quite the contrary, in fact.

Storytellers should always strive for accuracy, and journalists should always strive to make their news stories engaging and compelling.

The difference lies in the relative importance of these goals.

Glynn Washington, the host of Snap Judgement, inadvertently drew attention to that difference during an appearance at last year’s PRNDI (Public Radio News Directors, Inc.) conference in Salt Lake City.

During a lively Q&A session, he admonished public radio journalists for often spoiling the flow of perfectly good stories by sticking in the voices of … experts!

I’m the first to admit that public radio journalists tend to overuse experts and analysts. As an editor, I’m the first to insist that reporters include the voices of real people affected by an issue.

But I’ll also insist that the story include hard facts and unbiased perspectives, even if those elements aren’t as high on the drama scale and, yes, even if they might disrupt the flow a little.

For me, the bottom line is this: in news reporting, drama can never come at the expense of accuracy, balance, context, or journalistic rigor.

Borrowing from the Newsroom

Many local and regional public radio stations are testing the waters with locally-produced podcasting and storytelling projects. These experiments are exciting, and they’re starting to turn out out some really cool audio!

The problem is, unlike NPR and a handful of very large stations, most local stations can’t afford to hire dedicated staff for these trials, so they’re turning to their newsrooms.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but it’s important to see it for what it is: a decision – albeit perhaps an unconscious one – to take resources away from news reporting.

‘Stations must make conscious decisions about where to invest.’

Most station managers probably don’t see it that way. Good content is good content, right? 

News and storytelling can both be good content, absolutely! But once again, they’re not the same. And they both take a lot of resources.

If a station has the resources to do both things well, then by all means, do both things. But most stations don’t have those kinds of resources, and those stations must make conscious decisions about where to invest.

Personally, I feel strongly that news is the right investment for most local stations.

I’m not talking about boring, press-release-driven, space-filling news. I’m talking about high-impact, compelling, accurate, balanced, well-researched, well-reported, creatively written, well-edited stories that provide information about current issues affecting society in meaningful ways.

I admit, that path is not very sexy. It’s not the bright shiny object of the moment. But I believe it’s what our public service mission demands.

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Whither the News? How podcasts and storytelling are blurring the lines between news and entertainment … and why it matters

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