Journalists leave a bad impression with the public when they call themselves “storytellers,” a new study finds.
Researchers at the University of Cincinnati found that roughly 80% of the U.S.-based Twitter biographies that included “storyteller” belonged to journalists or former journalists, including reporters at The New York Times, BBC, CBS News, Al Jazeera, CBC News, the Associated Press, Fox News, NBC News, Washington Post, and several local television news affiliates. (Overall, most of the journalists using the “storyteller” identifier in their bio have an affiliation, either past or present, with television news.) The study’s authors — Brian Calfano, Jeffrey Layne Blevins, and Alexis Straka — also pointed to examples of “storytelling” in journalism classes and programs at universities in the United States.
“It’s a term meant to reflect the very real and creative process journalists go through in relating information to the public,” Calfano said. Its widespread use seems to “assume the public views the ‘storyteller’ label as a title or attribute deserving public trust and respect,” as the study notes. But — do they? Turns out the answer is, emphatically, no.
For the experiment, a national sample of 2,133 adults in the U.S. was presented with a news article about local zoning ordinances, a topic selected for being “political, but generally not partisan.” Half of the group was informed that the reporter “describes himself as a storyteller on his LinkedIn page.” (The authors chose LinkedIn because they feared invoking Twitter or Facebook could “trigger negative audience responses.”) The control group saw the same zoning story without the note about the reporter and all participants then took a survey.
The results were consistent and statistically significant. Participants who were told the reporter identified as a “storyteller” were more likely to agree that the news story was biased; that the news site sensationalized the story, trivialized aspects of the story, and failed to portray everyone fairly; and that the reporter himself was biased. (Not great!)
There’s a wide — and widening — partisan divide in who trusts media in America, with just 35% of Republicans reporting they have at least some trust in national news organizations. Calfano and Blevins, two of the co-authors, said finding that the term stirred negative reactions among Republicans and Democrats at similar rates was the most surprising part of their research process.
“I really assumed the negative view of ‘storyteller’ was a Republican-driven outcome given how closely ‘fake news’ is linked to Trump’s rhetoric,” Calfano said. “But, as we show in the paper, Democrats are just as likely to offer a negative view of the term.”
Some of the most striking results, to me, came from the open response section. Participants were asked, “When you see the term ‘storyteller’ used to describe a journalist, what comes to your mind?” and they did not hold back. Of 1,733 responses, 67% were negative or extremely negative, while less than 13% were positive or extremely positive. The responses yielded some consistent themes; variations on “made up” appeared in 264 responses and “liar” appeared in 239 responses.
Some negative responses included sentiments like “Storyteller to me sounds like a well-trained liar” and “It makes me feel like they will make up a story. Like a tale.” (The authors said there were a number of standout responses featuring coarser language.)
Other responses were much more in line with what I expect journalists hope to invoke when they describe themselves as storytellers: “Tells the story so well that it draws you in” and someone “who can describe a story well.” One unpublished response referenced an ABC anchor: “David Muir comes to mind when I think of a storyteller. He goes into detail that few others can do. In my opinion I feel informed about the subject that he would be talking about.”
“But for each of those positive appraisals, there were three or four like this: ‘Pinocchio,’” Calfano noted.
Calfano, a political scientist who entered television news as a second career, said his interest in journalists self-describing as “storytellers” came from a viscerally negative reaction he had while watching a CNN promo that used the phrase. He remembers that he associated the term with sensationalism and thought to himself, “How about just some reporting?” instead.
Social media has its own logic, and there are professional demands on journalists that may influence how reporters present themselves on platforms like Twitter. The study’s authors have a hunch that journalists are thinking first and foremost about personal branding and others in media, rather than members of the public, when they label themselves “storytellers” online.
“The LinkedIn recruiter ads calling for TV reporters who are ‘storytellers’ are so common now that I see at least one a day on average,” Calfano said. “That’s clear evidence that ‘storytelling’ and being a ‘storyteller’ are industry-driven labels. That’s fine. But I’m amazed no one in the industry stopped to reflect on the dynamic the term sets up for a public conditioned to call any reporting they don’t like ‘fake news.’”
“This might be an example where industry groupthink ran afoul of dictionary-based reality,” he added.
I asked the authors what advice they’d give to journalists preparing their bios and online presence, given the results.
“Think carefully about how the public might perceive professional self-descriptors. The TV news industry might suspend disbelief in terms of the denotative meaning of ‘storyteller,’ but don’t assume the public goes along with that insider view,” Calfano said. “This is especially true for anyone getting anywhere near political coverage.”