“Pop the top, toss the stump” – The strange dance of the ‘told’ and ‘untold’ in journalistic storytelling

The question of how that which is left untold determines the characteristics and essence of journalistic storytelling is very important and continually changing for any journalist inspired by real life informants and situations. However, it takes time to reach this comprehensive question, it takes constant self-questioning: what am I supposed to tell and how much am I supposed to tell?

A recent example of this questioning occurred last week during a trip to Istanbul, because if you are an enthusiast of social relations and interactions who writes monthly columns based on them, it is impossible not to recognise the underground life in the pubs of Beyoglu as a consequence of COVID-19 restrictions. By law, the last call for bars is 20:30 and closing time is 21:00, but the reality is very different … First, the bar owners with whom we have friendly relations offer their upper floors and keep serving until midnight with a closed rolling shutter. When police bust their place, they give us a narrow map of other ‘open’ places. We walk the deserted streets after curfew, reaching the appointed address, and someone lets us in. We enter, leaning down beneath the rolled-up shutter, a party with a DJ, tens of dancing and talking people: old/young, tourist/local, straight/queer, drunk/sober… I am now in a real-life storyworld which is a potential home to tens of different angles on tens of different stories. Until the journalistic instinct kicks in: What am I supposed to tell? How much of it can be told by staying loyal to the value of the story? Is it worth endangering this fragile economy and solidarity for a story, or tens of them?

Image: Closed rolling shutters of Istanbul

While struggling with these questions, I remember an anecdote from the legendary comedy show Seinfeld. I now shout over the loud music into my friend’s ear: “Do you remember the episode when Elaine starts to eat only the tops of muffins? The story goes to such weird places; an “only muffin-top store” opens, they toss the stumps and give them to the homeless, but the homeless get too offended and ask where the tops are?! So long as journalists keep their good intention of protecting the communities they are involved with, this community has to remain as a stump for its own sake, and journalists will continue talking only about how the economy is affected. On the other hand, stumps are much more tasty and interesting to approach in this kind of sensitive political environment, but what do you do with them?”

A journey through research based narration

It is indeed an important question for journalists, especially in research based narration, which I have practiced for several years – ever since I made the choice to taste the stumps. If a reporter goes to the scene of an earthquake, the picture speaks for itself… If that reporter talks to football hooligans, they speak of their own anger. On the other hand, a journalist needs more to put what they see or hear into words, and this is especially true if what they see and hear is not acceptable to mainstream media providers and their audience, who are often motivated by nationalist, sexist and conservative values. Therefore, research based narration has been the key method for me to develop storyworlds from the real-life incidents which happen during my personal and professional everyday life. Because to reach to the top of the muffin, the stump has to grow first. Hence, the story that the audience read becomes only the tip of the journalist’s journey. Only the part they are confident enough not to hide, confident enough to publish to serve the purpose of the involved task.
This project based working is surely a bonding concept for the journalist; you reach out to the scene or informant to receive an insight which is already decided in the agenda. On the other hand, the journey to get that confirmation is much more complex and inspiring, which has to be left out based on the task based agenda. This little inevitable fact causes the journey of the journalist to become more worthy and insightful rather than the final piece. Therefore, it is not a coincidence that the journey of the journalist has been used as a popular culture phenomenon while developing adventures for children and adults. This is why we have famous journalists in whose lives we feel involved, to get the whole story.

Image: Adventures of Tintin

Remember the adventures of Tintin, Clark Kent (Superman), Peter Parker (Spiderman), and think about how dry their adventures looked when cases were resolved in a newspaper article at the end. The creators of these storyworlds were aware of the attraction of the ‘untold’ and used them as such effective storytelling tools to charm billions of viewers over years. Indeed it is a very well formulated success standard in the framework of show business; the reality, however, is much different if you consider the journalist as the main subject to decide what can and cannot be told. In contrast to these iconic characters, a regular journalist does not have a camera and storyline writer to accompany their journey, to capture its essence. A regular journalist’s camera and filter is no one but themselves. In their world the ‘untold’ means any other person and incident which led to that particular story, furthermore any other event which has happened to reach to the final script.

Building storyworlds by relying on impressions rather than quotations

Therefore, I would like to present three samples from struggling with being both the camera and the filter of my own adventures. A couple of months ago, I was interviewing Turkish feminist cartoonists for a Swedish periodical and I learned that one of my interviewees experienced sexual violence for years at an early age. How did I get this information? Just as an answer to my very first interview question: “How did your drawing journey start?”
Secondly, a few months back, I was interviewing a friend for my column and chasing insights of the decision making processes of refugees when migrating to Europe from Turkey. While I was overwhelmed with my technical questions he started to give an example of his visitors from last weekend. A young couple had visited him in Istanbul to seal the deal with a smuggler. The woman is actually a Turkish citizen but she chooses to go as a refugee by pretending to be a Syrian like her husband, and also receive the rights of one. Also, they are thinking of a three-destination escape…I ended up listening to them for 40 minutes without any of my technical questions being answered.
Finally, a few years back, I was contributing to a “Mother’s Day compilation” for a magazine and we were interviewing “The other mothers, or the mothers of others” about their marginalized children and the challenges that comes with it. My task was to interview the mother of a guerrilla. We talked over the phone for an hour for one paragraph of written content. She cried half of that time, complained that she did not know if her son was alive or not, and prayed for me to listen to her. At the end I had transcribed so little material, I asked her permission to compile sentences randomly so that it could be publishable.
In all three stories I did not involve the details above completely in my final scripts for two reasons: Protecting informants and commitment to the task oriented nature of journalism. However, would the piece still be relevant without these anecdotes? If so, how? I think of two effective ways of still telling the story while operating as a regular story collector: editing and rewriting.

Editing: hiding for good, Rewriting: fictionazing with the crooked truth

Since I was there to collect one specific story, it is impossible to hijack the main task and talk about the other one. Hence, here is the concept of hiding for good which is in direct relation with the editing process. For instance, I chose not to mention the abuse in the cartoonist’s  background too much, but I did try to highlight her work, which is centred around sexual abuse and wounded personalities. I focused on her insights about post trauma and its contribution to artistic creativity. Basically, I tried to get the message out without letting anyone be exposed. I use my own fragility filter unless told otherwise by the informant.
I used a similar operation for the third story as well, keeping the mother’s name anonymous (fake name) but the places and incidents real. It was, however, extremely difficult to tone down the drama from the interview and reflect it as sharp truth. Considering Turkey’s sensitive political climate around the Kurdish-Turkish conflict, I needed to simplify the message of the guerrilla’s mother to remain relevant and impartial, which led me to leave out a lot of very powerful emotional statements and focus on the naked experience of a mother.
In the case of the second story (smuggling story) I even chose to hide it all because the story could be told much more powerfully with a resourceful re-writing. Hence, when editing is not possible anymore, it is time for rewriting. Since there was so much to hide in the essence and the incidents involved in the smuggling story, it was better to stick with the full version so as not to lose the core, but instead tell it by twisting any real indication. Re-writing is a way that I choose when I want to create a story of what has been told to me but I cannot due to the complex interplays of protection (informants’ and mine), power relations, political strategies, etc. However, re-writing is quite vague, since the bind of sticking to reality is lifted. It comes with great responsibility, considering the owners of stories and their reactions when they read the piece.

Power of observation and responsibility of co-creation

Observation becomes a vital tool to capture the essence of the stories, in impressions as well as situations especially when a journalist is willing to tell the “untold” in journalistic story seeking.

Image: Elaine and the Muffin Stumps

Eventually the capability of observation gives the strength to capture the moment, and creates the paradox of telling without telling. While editing by ‘hiding for good’ provides the necessary space and model for journalists to exert their choices, re-writing comes forward as a more challenging yet rich area for creating storyworlds from material collected through research. When the journalist chooses to re-write the material to assign the value that ‘untold’ deserves, it is no longer reporting. Journalists take the liberty to narrate the research based material to make the most insightful point out of it. Hence the responsibility of co-creation begins. Because even though journalists take the liberty of narrating the material anonymously, there is still a level of responsibility to the story owners in order to not exploit it by using it against informants’ initial purpose of sharing.

Considering this strange dance between the told and untold, if a journalist goes through all these steps and chooses to develop storyworlds anyhow, it proves the level of dedication to the cause. It is also good to know that what makes the muffin tops that crunchy and tasty is what it is built on. Any journalist who does not want to miss it and works around research based narration has their own methodology and ethical dilemmas about working through the stump. That alone could be a good reason to take a closer look into research based narrations: to catch the real story behind the true event, to reach the real understanding beyond what was presented.


Alev Karaduman

is a research-based writer and cultural consultant from Istanbul who works mostly within the area of diverse communities and identity issues.
She is currently based in Malmö and writes a column (in Turkish - https://otdergi.com) about humourist human situations related to migration.