Journalism Meets the Art of Storytelling
I’m not a hard news journalist. I can best illustrate how I go about my journalistic work by running through an assignment. Let’s look at the “Drugs Canal” story I did for NTR Radio in November 2011.
The story opens with a streetgang bust in Panama, a typically hard news event involving gang violence fueled by the drug trade. In this scenario, though, I’m primarily interested in digging up the story that would otherwise be buried—the story about what leads to that gang violence, the story about the Emberá tribe caught up in jungle economics. The Emberá, who live in the vast no-man’s land bordering Panama and Colombia known as the Darién, increasingly find themselves pitted between drug-busting authorities choking off their lifeblood (the rivers they rely on for transporting goods and people) and the FARC drug runners, who both threaten and pay the indigenous people to supply the guerrillas with food and other daily necessities.
The Who, What, When, Where, Why and How can only go so far. What good would it do to simply report about police clashing with guerrillas and the number of deaths and kilos of cocaine the clashing produces? It’s the same story we hear time and again, and yet nothing changes. I wanted to shed light on the chaos by looking at the contextual backdrop. My story revolved around documents, interviews and evidential examples, but it wasn’t a dry rundown of facts. The story I filed was about people. It answered two key questions: How do people in the Darién deal with the uptick in anti-drug activities regulated by faraway Panama City (and the U.S.), and how might these people be affected by any corrupt public policies underwriting those activities?
When you listen to the radio piece, you’ll hear how I put myself into the story. I joined the police for the anti-streetgang operation, literally becoming winded from running while wearing a bulletproof vest. To see firsthand what happens at river checkpoints, I traveled by boat with the Emberá. I interviewed numerous Darién residents, and many of them told me about the double game: Panamanian security forces work for their higher-ups while also accepting bribes from the FARC; the Emberá must comply with the Outlaw rules of the authorities and the FARC alike.
This kind of journalism and storytelling takes time. It’s not about chasing after the perfect sound bite. It’s about holding people and institutions accountable through greater transparency.