1. I. Introduction (20m)
  2. II. Pillar One: Listen Differently (15m)
  3. III. Pillar Two: Go Beneath the Problem (20m)
  4. IV. Pillar Three: Embrace Complexity (25m)
  5. V. Pillar Four: Counter Confirmation Bias (15m)
  6. VI. Conclusion (15m)

Complicating the Narratives Toolkit

Q&A with John D'Anna: Incorporating Complexity

John D'Anna

The Arizona Republic

John D'Anna writes for the Arizona Republic/azcentral storytelling team.

How have you been thinking about Complicating the Narratives since you were first trained in this practice?

John D’Anna, The Arizona Republic: One of the things Complicating the Narratives underscores with me, one of the ways it resonates with me is that a lot of the kinds of stories I do are not black and white. They're not just real cut and dried, in and out kinds of things, and they require you to think a lot and maybe look for the things that people aren't saying as much as the things they are saying. With me, I find myself often trying to put myself in other people's shoes, even though I don't agree with them, and try and see things from their perspective. Complicating the Narratives has really helped me do that.

The last point that you made is something journalists tell us is really difficult to do. How do you acknowledge your own biases when you personally disagree with a source, but also remain curious? How do you do that from a CTN lens?

JD: Sometimes it takes work. When I was stepping into a crowd of seething racists who were heavily armed on a town square in Prescott, Arizona, there was a big part of me that thought, "Good Lord, where did these people come from?" But then I tried to understand that a lot of them were coming from a place where they felt their way of life was threatened. Then I just tried to put myself in their shoes. How would I feel if my way of life was threatened?

That doesn't mean that I gave a full-throated voice to the people who were openly and violently racist. It's something that I didn't feel they really deserved, but they were there and I did talk to some of them. But I tried to get at the people who seemed more like average folks and who might have been caught up in something as opposed to the people who were just adamant on mayhem and what amounts to terrorism.

You wrote an incredibly interesting piece for The Republic about a politically divided street in Mesa, Arizona, and you questioned if a path to the center could also exist. When I read that piece I saw components of Pillar 3 of CTN all over it! Describe your process for covering this story.

JD: I just kept hearing this narrative of “Divided country! Divided country! Will we ever get back? Will we ever get back?” I have to admit that I'm a little partial to that Yates poem, The Second Coming, and that line, “The center cannot hold.” It just has always made me wonder, can the center ever hold?

I happened to be driving in a neighborhood that's five or six miles from where I live on an errand one day and I saw a Biden sign from the street corner. I thought, "Man, that's weird in that neighborhood." So I turned around and drove down that street and sure enough, there was a house with a Trump sign. So I thought, "Okay, maybe the house in the middle will be that center house."

Well, those people didn't want to talk, but the guy with the Biden sign was okay talking and the guy with the Trump sign was okay talking. So I started knocking on other doors in the neighborhood, and then I went across the street and there was the guy who was in the middle, the center, kind of the metaphor for the story. Some of it was dumb luck happening to see the sign, and then some of it was just plain shoe leather. But it was a fun experience to use a lot of the techniques.

With the Trump guy, I kept having to come back and say, "What I'm hearing you saying is..." and he's like, "Yeah, yeah, yeah,” or there were a couple of times where he says, "Well, not exactly.” We're talking about Second Amendment issues, and he was a big gun guy. He said there were points where he thinks that there are some things that can be done to control who has a gun and he doesn't think that's out of line. But by and large, he's afraid that a new administration is going to come and take his guns away.

We were able to get some of that, and it was a process and a conversation. It was more like a conversation than an interrogation which really helped. To be honest, there was so much Trump bravado in his yard that I was a little nervous about what I was going to get when I knocked on the door. But he was very open and friendly. I had covered a number of Trump rallies here where people weren't like that and were openly hostile to the press. But he was fine.

Then the other young man with the Biden sign, he was less well-spoken and just took a lot more to get at what he meant. He was really earnest in what he was saying, and maybe it was because English was his second language. But we really had to walk through a lot of what his positions were.

I gave both of them copies of the story and they both liked it, so it satisfied both sides. Neither one had ever heard of the Yates poem.

A number of the stories you write are complex, nuanced, and include interesting details. Do you find that certain types of stories lend themselves well to Pillar 3?

JD: I found that context is really a journalist's best friend, and if you can explore that context and get a fuller understanding of it for yourself and then find a way to convey that to readers, that's just going to improve your journalism and improve your story. That's what I try to do, even when I'm writing what we call in the lingo, a “quick and dirty story.”

A little context goes a long way, and it can provide, as you mentioned, some nuance. I guess, are there certain stories that lend more to it. Well, obviously I think the deeper dives, that definitely lends itself to it. But you can use it in your everyday reporting as well. We focus so much as journalists on the who, what, when, and where, but so often it's that why that makes your story so much richer and so much more meaningful.

What advice would you give journalists who want to incorporate complexity in their pieces, but due to word count constraints or deadlines, they don’t believe they can?

JD: My advice is pretty much just report until you get the story. You just have to keep reporting. There are things you have to do for daily, and you have to grind things out. But it's never the last bite of the apple. You can do things over time.

I think one of the things that we don't talk enough about in newsrooms is that people form opinions about issues over time and through repetition. They don't read an 8000-word story or however many I wind up writing and go, "Oh, okay. Now I've made up my mind." They consume a lot of different things.

If you don't have the luxury of spending more time or writing a much longer narrative, if you think about your reporting as a continuum as opposed to the end stage and the final product, you get another bite of the apple down the line. You can maybe add more context then or more nuance, or look at it from a different angle or a different side.

Any closing words?

JD: I think for journalists we're under incredible stresses and pressures, and then we have the added benefit of people hating us. But we're doing something that's really important. Human communication is one of the most fundamental things we do. If we look at it, our job is communicating with our readers as opposed to lecturing our readers or things like that. It's just going to help all of us, and it's going to help our country.

We somehow have to find a way to stop talking past each other and stop talking at each other and start talking with each other. I think we as journalists can take a big step [in that direction] and say, "Maybe you didn't think about this, but this is what I found in my reporting.”

Strategies for Embracing Complexity

CTN Story Recipe