Many of us in journalism talk a lot about creative storytelling. We turn to GIFs and charts, vertical video and embedded tweets.
I laud these efforts to break up the traditional 750-word, inverted pyramid that has defined “the article” for so long. But, while we’re getting more creative, I worry we’re not actually being more inventive. We’re making our work look better and feel better, but not necessarily be better.
Last weekend, I watched the second season of “Master of None,” the Netflix show starring Aziz Ansari. It’s the kind of craftwork that invites bingeing, like hours and hours of #goodreads on a Sunday morning. Under Ansari’s narrative spell, I smiled, I laughed, I cried, I pumped my fist: “That’s what I mean!”
And then I thought about our jobs and some lessons — warning, spoilers — we might apply to our journalism.
There’s more than two sides to a story
The whole series does a good job of depicting the world’s various shades of gray, but this nuance is expressed most profoundly during “Religion,” the third episode of the second season. Some Muslims pray five times a day. Some eat pork. Some fast. Some cover their hair. Some don’t. Journalism likes to set up dichotomies, for and against an issue, for example, but the world and its stories and identities are far more complicated.
We’d be a lot more honest if we captured that — and not just as a foil to our simplified expectations and presumptions.
That ambiguity is built into the structure of the show. The glory of season two is that it is interchangeable with season one — because that’s how much of daily life works. The seasons and epiphanies unfold naturally, and the ordinary becomes extraordinary.
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Shift the lens on your story
More than one person has told me they can’t get into this show because they “just don’t find a short, funny Indian guy all that attractive.” My response? “That’s the point!”
The sixth episode, “New York, I Love You,” makes an excellent case for rethinking perspectives. The Indian dude is barely in it. The story takes a terrible-sounding Nicolas Cage horror flick and uses it as a unifying event to focus on subjects that are often on the margins of pop culture: taxi drivers and doormen, New York City’s working class.
The treatment of subjects rarely in the spotlight was relatable as opposed to anthropological — cabbies razzing each other for their celebrity passenger tall tales, a doorman discerning which of two identical birds needs medicine. The episode also switched up its tone and delivery; the silence during the deaf woman’s segment, for example, is an acknowledgment of its subjects’ truth. This is how journalism might shift from covering communities to reflecting them.
Race is everything
When I was growing up, sitcoms inevitably had the “race episode,” where the characters dealt with prejudice and then returned to normalcy the following week. Notice how protagonist Dev brings up his background constantly yet casually; he takes offense at the use of the term “curry person” but then keeps up the banter because that’s how we roll in America.
His brownness is a fixed lens on the world, not an occasional one. His storytelling is not so much “diverse” as it is inclusive, meaning it nods to the realities of the main characters, the people and places around them, and, importantly, the audience itself. And yet race wasn’t front-and-center in the episode about a biracial wedding or in an episode that was nothing but a string of first dates.
Look for sameness
Over and over, my husband and I would laugh because Dev said something we say at home, or experienced something exactly as we do. It’s not just because, like Ansari, we too are Indian and were raised in the U.S. “Master of None” holds a mirror up to its audience in myriad ways, from typical first-date questions and the struggle to make small talk (“How many siblings do you have?”) to the breathtaking view upon arrival at Storm King Art Center.
I’ve been there. Let me experience it again, but differently — through your eyes now. So much of journalism often feels built upon telling audiences how different the places we report from are (dusty roads, colorful clothing, the sounds of foreign languages, pool halls filled with smoke — the stuff ledes are made of). What if instead we focused on sameness as an entry point, a building block upon which to start a conversation?
Get real; get vulnerable
My favorite episode was “Thanksgiving.” When I read about the episode after watching it, I wasn’t surprised to discover that Ansari asked the writer, Lena Waithe, to be true to her experience as a lesbian woman. When her character, Denise, comes out to her mother in a diner, the scene is so honest and vulnerable. Her mother, played by Angela Bassett, takes the words right out of our mouths when she says: “I just don’t want life to be hard for you.”
Writing on the internet needs to grapple with these moments more often — scenes of truth and vulnerability instead of sound bytes.
But vulnerability isn’t just about sympathy or empathy. Consider the vulnerability of Denise bringing home Nikki — a thirst trap who goes by nippleandtoes23 on Instagram — to showcase the easy, dumb choices we all make every now and then. That’s honesty.
Speaking of sound bytes, how about some silence?
Gosh, that Uber ride after “The Dinner Party.” The silence — three minutes and five seconds — was a risk. My husband and I looked at each other like, “What is going on? Is this thing working?” And then we got it. We’ve been there.
It let the whole episode sink in, allowed us to ponder what had just happened with the subject and the woman he let go. It made me remember a lesson from when I was writing my first book and struggling to write dialogue that sounded real. As I did interviews, I found myself listening for good quotes as if I were covering a school board meeting — instead of a moment or a scene that would matter later.
The internet is made up of so many such moments; good pithy quotes are less important than the circumstances around them, whether silence or soliloquy. We should remember that in our daily work.
Visuals establish connectivity
The poster of Jennifer Aniston in Denise’s room. The cross on the wall during “Thanksgiving.” Those videos of D’Angelo’s “Brown Sugar.”
I liked how pop culture set the scene and gave me cues as to what era we were in, breeding familiarity. Too often, we gloss over or anonymize these details in our stories when they can actually help orient readers to the time and place we are talking about. (“No such thing as a car in a news story,” an editor once told me.)
Similarly, Francesca’s ecstatic riff on the paradise of pharmacies — in New York City, they are here, there, everywhere — made the mundane transporting and evocative.
Of course Netflix customers, the originators of “Netflix and chill,” are obsessed with dating apps. As newsrooms talk about going “mobile first” or “digital first,” “Master of None” reminds us that includes investing in coverage of the mobile revolution.
“First Date” felt like it was reaching out from the screen, forcing us to stop swiping and pay close attention, even as it crammed multiple dates into one episode in a meta-statement about our desultory lives under social media. (One character starts swiping at a funeral.)
Get the basics right, then break all the formulas
This season showcases a different Ansari than the guy on “Parks and Rec” named Tom Haverford who was born as a guy named Darwish. He even feels different from Dev in the show’s first season of “Master of None.” In fact, each decision of season two feels like one big risk.
I think that’s where we’re at with digital storytelling. Earlier versions of Ansari demonstrated a mastery of the basics. Funny? Check. Good timing? Check. Emotionally resonant? Check. Reputation proven. We’re in the hands of a storyteller.
Now, what do we do to surprise, inform, engage, entertain and enlighten our audience? That’s where episodes like “Thanksgiving” and “New York, I Love You” feel like the revolution, finally, has been televised.
The power of the share
If you’re like me, your Facebook and Twitter feeds have exploded with people’s feelings about this show. For several years now, social media has forced journalists to think about shareability in their work (emotion, outrage, surprise, you know the drill), but I see newsrooms all too often focused on their official channels of distribution.
Think about the organic power of your audience — and what it means for them to message your message. This is one of those shows that you want to tell other people to watch. Some fans used 140 characters to do that. And then there’s me, clocking in at 9,190.
S. Mitra Kalita is the vice president for programming at CNN Digital and an adjunct faculty member at The Poynter Institute.