Category Archives: Journalism Practice

The Archetypes of News Stories

It was a mind blowing moment. Gilligan’s island was still (at that time) the longest continuously running program in syndication. I grew up on it. And here was my high school English teacher positing why it was so popular. It was easy to grasp, he explained, because all the character are archetypes.

  • The Skipper – The Hero or The Explorer
  • Gilligan – The Innocent or The Jester
  • Mary Ann – The Virgin
  • Professor – The Wise Wizard/Creator
  • Ginger Grant – The Whore/Temptress
  • Thurston Howell III – The King
  • Lovey Howell – The Caregiver
  • Extras (mad scientist, gangsters, surfer, Russian cosmonauts, etc) – The Outlaw

With this combination of characters – how could a show ever get boring? There is also, of course, the notion that in all of human history – only 7 stories have ever been told. SOURCE.

 

  • Overcoming the Monster — Stories like Beowulf, ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, Jaws, and many of the James Bond films, where a hero must defeat a monster and restore order to a world that has been threatened by the monster’s presence.

  • Rags to Riches — These stories feature modest, generally virtuous but downtrodden characters, who achieve a happy ending when their special talents or true beauty is revealed to the world at large. Includes any number of classics such as ‘Cinderella’, David Copperfield, and the Horatio Alger novels.

  • The Quest — A hero, often accompanied by sidekicks, travels in search of a priceless treasure and fights against evil and overpowering odds, and ends when he gets both the treasure and the girl. The Odyssey is a classic example of this kind of story.

 

(That’s right 80′s children. I went there!)

  • Voyage and Return — Alice in Wonderland, Robinson Crusoe on his desert island, other stories of normal protagonists who are suddenly thrust into strange and alien worlds and must make their way back to normal life once more.

  • Comedy — Not always synonymous with humor. Instead, the plot of a comedy involves some kind of confusion that must be resolved before the hero and heroine can be united in love. Think of Shakespeare’s comedies, The Marriage of Figaro, the plays of Oscar Wilde and Gilbert and Sullivan, and even War and Peace.

Fish out of water!

  • Tragedy — The terrible consequences of human overreaching and egotism. The Picture of Dorian GrayJulius CaesarAnna Karenina…this category is usually self-evident.

  • Rebirth — The stories of Ebeneezer Scrooge and Mary Lennox would fall into this basic plot type, which focuses on a threatening shadow that seems nearly victorious until a sequence of fortuitous (or even miraculous) events lead to redemption and rebirth, and the restoration of a happier world.

Even within these stories a familiar pace can be set. Just run through the paces and poof – you have a movie. If you’re a modern consumer of movies, you’ve probably even noticed this second order magnitude of similarity – it’s that moment when you realize a movie you’re watching is almost the exact same as another.

Avatar is the same story as The Last Samurai and is the same as Dances with Wolves: White man warlord ends up behind the lines of a native people. Learns and eventually respects native people’s culture. Falls in love with native woman. Fights alongside natives to repel the initial invading forces.

Guess what: Tropic Thunder was just a remake of the Three Amigos: Actors go on a journey – they think they are acting but end up in a real war situation, use cunning to win. Return (voyage and return) with valuable life lessons.

But news reflects the real world. And the world can’t be collapsed into simple tropes can it? For fun, let’s give it a shot! 

So I present to you: News Tropes.

It's not exhaustive (open to suggestions).

1. The Struggle for Power

Often in the politics section. These stories range from “X slams Y” to actual political movement (like votes or legislation… remember those!) taking place. Most horse race coverage falls into this category and is just leading up to a clear moment where the media can claim somebody as a winner and another as a loser.  See my love of The Daily Show for more. Put sports stories here – with the stakes being much lower (or higher depending on who you ask).

2. The fall from grace

People love a good fall from grace story. Everyone has a schadenfreude string to pull. News organizations turn into sharks that have smelled blood when they detect a fallen hero. Every detail about the hero’s life is curated to create the clearest picture possible about how person X who was a trusted and loved Y turned out to be a horrible human being because they did Z. It can be a sports star that has done drugs (Armstrong) a leading figure that has fallen for a woman (Petraeus, Weiner) or it can even be the absurd (Mante Teo).

3. Can you believe somebody did this?!

I prefer to call this trope: “Florida Man: Stupid people doing stupid shit.” Sometimes (but not always violent) they are red meat to a daily news org. These stories focus on a person doing something out of the norm of everyday accepted behavior. Crimes can almost be defined as such, so they almost always fall into this category. But so do random acts like scaling a building in NY. The story of Ariel Castro who kidnapped 3 women and held them captive for over a decade is a recent example. If you’ve never followed the Twitter account @_FloridaMan, give it a shot.  It’s filled with…. these stories. These are the stories that haunt you. Somebody died in a cockroach eating contest. That’s a benign example. Man kills wife and posts photos on Facebook. Now we’re talking.

Much like “comedy” these don’t  have to be depressing. This guy eats nothing but raw meat! This woman swam all the way to Cuba!

4. Longcat is long! The affirmation of something new

They are less about abnormal happenings and instead about slightly new ground made in a niche. Science stories fit here. This “smart” water will mark thieves with bacteria to prove their guilt. These guys built a robot that is going into space! Something was invented or happened for the first time. Press releases use this trope too often and that’s why they are ignored.

Check out this long cat cat. It’s Looooooong!

5.  Well that event just happened

These start out and we often call them “breaking news” stories. When they are natural disasters, they tend to stay in this category, with more detailed info over time. CNN is at their best when breaking news events are natural disasters. If it’s anything that involves the actions of people (a gunman, terrorist, etc) it can develop into other tropes like #2, #3 or if it’s given context – tropes #1 or #10. CNN is at their worst when breaking news events need to develop into another trope.

6. The Profile: Meet This Person

Occasionally the profile is negative, but most often – it’s highlighting an individual and their triumph in some personal endeavor. In larger stories they are just anecdotes, but sometimes it’s the entire story. The best place for reporters to lay big wet sloppy kisses on unsuspecting members of the public. This kid raised money for Haiti relief.

7. Shocking statement: Something was said on Twitter, TV, etc. You missed it. Here it is.

Personally getting sick of these. A ton of blog posts every day is just a breakdown of crap that was said on TV the night before or on Twitter. Useful…. I guess? The media became meta-aware of this trope after Twerk-gate on the MTV Music Awards. How did Cyrus get so much media attention when we couldn’t get any for Syria? Because she played RIGHT into this trope and news orgs all played along!

Are you an aging pop star that hasn’t gotten enough attention lately? Do something crazy on TV or say something mean on twitter and everyone will write about it tomorrow. Personally I’m not a fan of the Twitter guilt posts where an organization finds racist comments from people after something happens to shame them. Not condoning the racist tweets, but I see little value in collecting them. You might as well write an article: “There are racist people in the world. They say dumb shit.”

8. This financial transaction happened, X is the (potential/actual) result.

Most business/technology stories fall into this category. Perhaps this is just a niche of #4.

9. The inside scoop

At its best, this is Jay Rosen’s “thought scoop” and at its worst, this is an editorial column. Ezra Klein, Wonkette, everyone who is an “insider” into an industry/niche and peddles their closeness. Talking head punditry on TV. PandoDaily and other tech-elitist blogs that believe their opinion/analysis of something is brilliant/unique (Hint: unless it’s a “thought-scoop” it’s not).

(500 Journo points for whoever can identify the person Larry King is interviewing)

10. Data says X

Arguably one of the more respectable tropes. It’s when new data (or data set) is released and then a news story gives it context. A UN report comes out on the rates of malaria, poverty, etc., in various countries. A scientist publishes  findings in a journal, the government releases data on X (anything from census to the budget). Sometimes reporters get the information via FOIA requests, sometimes it is handed to them in a press release. The data doesn’t need to be in numerical form. Wikileaks, Edward Snowden, these are stories where “data” are documents. The idea is the same: A discrete bit of information that wasn’t known before is now accessible somehow and this new data becomes the crux of a story.

 

Are there more? Probably. You tell me!