Uncategorized | December 11, 2015

Journalism exhibit[1]

By Lise Saffran

When you’re telling true stories, it’s a temptation to think that all you have to do is, “tell it like it happened.” Particularly if what happened is amazing and interesting; the story should practically tell itself, right? But how do you tell the story of malaria in a few paragraphs?

There are a lot of amazing and interesting things about malaria, but where is the story? Malaria is life-threatening and maybe that should be enough to get readers’ attention. But perhaps the story doesn’t lie in the lives it takes (the World Health Organization estimates 438,000 in 2015) but in whose lives; two thirds of the deaths occur in children under five, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa. Or perhaps the most interesting thing about malaria is actually the fact that the incidence is going down globally. In that case it becomes a success story, a story about hope. When you add that malaria wasn’t eliminated from the United States until the early 1950’s, your story of hope might become, at the same time, a cautionary tale.

These were the kinds of questions faced by a group of public health students when they agreed to write explanatory panels for a collection of photographs from the Pictures of the Year International archives, now being shown in the lobby of the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute and called, “The Human Face of Disease.” Students from all over the world worked in teams to tell the story of five infectious diseases that threaten human health and have a non-human face, as well. Each team chose a disease and did their research. Then they began to craft their stories.

Once you know the general outlines of the story, you still need to decide where to start. If you’re telling a group of friends about how you were almost hit by a car crossing Providence at Stewart, do you begin your story in the middle of the road, at the moment when you jump out of the way with a yell? Or do you start further back with an explanation of how you were late to work that morning and failed to make eye contact with the driver of the car?

Similarly, how much do you need to know about malaria in order for the story to have impact? How much do you need to tell so that you don’t feel like you’re glossing over important details, or omitting necessary facts? Is it important, for example, for your readers to know that malaria is transmitted to humans via mosquitos (the non-human face of the disease)? What about the fact that it’s just the female mosquito or that transmission occurs in the form of a parasite? Why are you telling this story, anyway? So that people will know more things, or so they will take action (in which case, perhaps your story should focus on prevention strategies)? Is it so they will care?

The students did a terrific job and I think if you visit the exhibit, you will care. You may also be reminded that even tellers of true tales and holders of amazing facts are faced with the same blank page, and myriad choices, when they sit down to write a story, as are those working in the realm of imagination.

Lise Saffran is the Director of the Master of Public Health Program at MU and a writer of fiction and creative nonfiction. In SP16 she will be teaching a course, “Storytelling in Public Health and Public Policy.” http://lisesaffran.com/ 

Lise Saffran

Lise Saffran