Complicating the Narratives Toolkit
Jessica Boehm, The Arizona Republic: I really spent some time studying those questions and thinking about the importance of going beyond just the conflict that's in the story and really understanding why someone feels that way. It's really helped me to provide more nuance to my coverage.
I think a lot about a story that I wrote and had been covering for a year. It was a really controversial decision to add more shelter beds to a homeless shelter that's in a low-income area. The way that I was covering it before was very much: “Homeless service providers want to be able to house more people; the neighborhood doesn't want more homeless people in their neighborhood.”
Once I started really thinking “Why does the neighborhood feel that way?” I found myself asking better questions about their history. [I found out] these people have been living here for 30 years and they've watched their neighborhood not thrive in the same way other neighborhoods in our city have. They feel like they carry this burden for our entire region. They really had this long history, from before I was born, that I was missing in my stories.
And so I felt like when I...was able to bring that nuance back to the service providers who just felt totally under attack all the time, they started to understand and have more sympathy for the neighborhood too.
I remember after writing one of the initial stories I did after the [Complicating the Narratives] training, members of both sides reached out and were just so thankful that they felt heard for the first time in a long time. And they felt like their opinions were correctly presented to the audience. That was a really good eye-opening moment for me. This isn't just a good thing to do, this is an important way to do journalism, to be able to provide accurate information to our community as they're making these difficult decisions.
JB: We all have sources that throughout time have become distrustful of the media for whatever reason. Maybe they've felt ignored, maybe they have felt like they've not been portrayed correctly. And oftentimes, and I'm sure a lot of journalists get like this, you kind of dread having those interviews. You're like: “I know this is not going to be fun for me!”
I started to realize that those sources are the ones where this works most effectively. The people who already have a preconceived notion of how the interview is going to go are the ones that are most impressed to feel listened to at the end of the day. And that's really what these deeper questions do. They allow you to get beyond the: “I don't like x” and “I don't like y” type of reporting, and really understand someone. I think when someone feels heard, it just gives you an opportunity to build a better source relationship as well moving forward. So that's a hidden by-product of this. I feel like I've gotten better sources out of this as well.
JB: Some of the work that I do includes spending a lot of time with individuals, profiling them, profiling people experiencing homelessness which is a really difficult situation for someone to be in, obviously. I have found that a lot of people experiencing homelessness may have had contact with the media before, and it's been very superficial. And I think what's been great for me is that by just spending time with these folks and asking harder questions and challenging them on their own beliefs. We think of challenging people in their beliefs as a political thing, but it doesn't have to be. I've challenged people experiencing homelessness on their belief that they can't find housing or that it doesn't exist for them. And I've made them tell me the backstory and the nuance of why they feel dejected and why they feel like they're lost.
That deeper level conversation with someone really allows you to see the nuance that makes a person a person. I think that helps us tell better stories. I think when you think of your favorite book or your favorite movie, there's always the character that's complicated, who's not just one-dimensional. And that's because that's how all of us are. We're not all good or all bad. We're not all right or all wrong. So I have found that asking some of these more deep, complicated questions of people who might be in really difficult situations has allowed me to tell more complete stories of a population that is often ignored and written off to be one thing or another.
JB: I think that something that was interesting about the 22 questions, when you first learn about them, you spend a lot of time looking at them and making sure that you're using all of these different levels of questions. After you do it a few times, I found it to be really natural.
There are questions that just allow you to get a better understanding of someone. And eventually I didn't feel so attached to the list. I felt more attached to the reasoning behind the list. It didn't have to be asking a specific question, but asking a kind of question that was going to get you that response. And it was kind of amazing how immediate that happened. It just felt really natural over time. I feel like this is a really natural way to have conversations and it gets back to the idea that at the end of the day an interview should be a conversation. It helps provide this better understanding of a person and also makes the person more comfortable talking to you. So I was really amazed at how quickly that all came together for me.