Good stories explore tensions

Tension makes life, and the news, interesting.

Sometimes the tension is between characters, for example two candidates vying for a public office. Or tensions may arise over different points of view about an issue or event. A central character trying to decide what to think or do about something is an example of an internal tension. When the reader faces a similar choice – should I believe the politician, should the city council close that street, should I support a tax increase – reporting on a central character’s decision-making process can be both interesting and relevant.

Journalists trying to cover tension often find themselves reporting on the extremes. This is not surprising because the loudest voices are easy to find, reduce complex issues to a few quote-worthy talking points, and provide an unequivocal voice; there is no doubt where they stand.

The bi-polar approach, however, may not be particularly interesting or relevant because it leaves out the vast middle ground, the place where most of the audience resides. The reporter cannot explore internal tensions because the characters on each side have already made up their minds. So instead of participating in a decision-making experience, the reader is a relegated to the role of spectator.

Stories that focus on the extremes often result in a master narrative of conflict. There are winners and losers, villains or victors, or score-keeping about money, power, or politics.

Yet many stories don’t play out within conflict frames. The public, in fact, is ambivalent about many issues. It’s not that people don’t care or have no opinion. Rather, citizens continually gather information, weigh various choices, develop theories they test in conversation with others, and may not make a final decision until they have to.

If a journalist can get a character to share this thinking process – which is often about trade-offs – or eavesdrop on characters as they discuss their feelings and beliefs, ambivalence becomes interesting and also relevant to readers weighing the same issues or concern.

The master narrative of tension is an alternative to the conflict frame. “In most public issues,” says social scientist Richard Harwood, “there’s a tension. There’s a tension in schools between excellence and opportunity. There’s a tension in communities between further growth to increase the tax base and protecting the quality of life. Not that they’re mutually exclusive. But there’s a tension there. And we often pitch it as one or the other but most people want to reach some balance.”

The challenge for journalists, says Harwood, is to understand the essence of a story in order to choose the most appropriate frame.

This guide, like many of the others in API’s Journalism Essentials section, is largely based on the research and teachings of the Committee of Concerned Journalists — a consortium of reporters, editors, producers, publishers, owners and academics that for 10 years facilitated a discussion among thousands of journalists about what they did, how they did it, and why it was important. The author, Walter Dean, was CCJ training director and former API Executive Director Tom Rosenstiel who previously co-chaired the committee.