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The story doesn’t end for the people we quote

“In 2019, I hope to see us talk more about the implications of approaching journalism as the work of telling stories — specifically, what it means for the people in those stories.”

Back when I practiced law, I would get calls from journalists about my cases. I never had it in me to answer those calls; I always needed to breathe and collect myself before calling back. And sometimes, when we eventually did speak, I’d sense that they’d already written their stories — not because I took too long to call back (I was nervous, not a jerk), but because they’d constructed them, even if only in their heads, before they’d ever called me. I was just a character, and they were just looking for their quote.

Later, after I left law for journalism, I learned that journalists do, in fact, call the people in their stories “characters.” I remember how astonished I was when I learned that.

In 2019, I hope to see us talk more about the implications of approaching journalism as the work of telling stories — specifically, what it means for the people in those stories. Because stories have beginnings, middles, and ends. They don’t work without conflict. An arc. They elicit emotional responses. And they need characters — heroes, villains, helpers, and more — to do that.

But people aren’t characters — “characters” only exist for the purposes of a story. People, on the other hand, watch, listen to, and read those stories that contain “characters” who share their names. They often don’t recognize themselves in the narratives the journalists have spun, perhaps because their long interactions were reduced to a soundbite, or because what they see is such a small slice of who they are and what they believe.

What is the journalist’s responsibility to these people, who continue to exist long after the story’s publication — whose names may now have a new top Google result? Who may never want to speak to a journalist again, and who might tell their friends and family and community to do the same? How does this responsibility square with the journalist’s responsibility to the rest of the audience? And how can news organizations show audiences that they grapple with these and other questions of power and the possibility of harm, however inadvertent? Because this, too, is impact — just not the kind I think we want to be having.

Umbreen Bhatti is the director of the KQED Lab.

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