‘If you want to find good stories, show up’

COLUMBIA, Mo. — To be a good storyteller requires a keen eye for a big story, attention to compelling details and a desire to listen for hours at a time. Four professional storytellers gathered at the Reynolds Journalism Institute to discuss their craft for two hours during the week the True/False films came to town.

The University of Missouri and the True/False Film Fest partnered to bring a range of panelists to the MU campus from Feb. 26 to 28 during a conference called Based on a True Story. Panelists included documentary film makers, film critics and journalists who spoke during sessions about topics from the art of documentary storytelling to telling stories about traumatic events.

Friday morning’s session brought together Tim Zimmermann, a correspondent with Outside Magazine and associate producer of the film BlackfishJoshuah Bearman, creative nonfiction magazine writer; Shayla Harris, senior video editor for The New York Times; and Lori Cheatle, documentary film producer and owner of Hard Working Movies.

Moderator Amanda Hinnant, assistant professor at the MU School of Journalism, directed the conversation throughout the session. Panelists discussed how they determine what constitutes a “big story,” and the benefits and drawbacks of print and film mediums.

Zimmermann responded to Hinnant’s question about the search for a big story.

“There are no uninteresting stories,” he said. “If you dig deep enough, you can find a big story.”

The panelists discussed how unexpected tips can lead to big stories.

Bearman detailed how he found a subject for one of his first big stories for Harper’s Magazine. He found his subject, a man who is considered the “master of Pac-Man,” on a whim at a local arcade and it was only through hours of hanging out with him that Bearman came to realize he would be the subject of a substantial piece. Bearman also discussed how he gets his story subjects to open up to him and tell him details of their lives that make great stories.

“If you hang around enough and spend enough time with people, and you’re a generally nice guy, you’d be surprised how often people want to tell their stories,” Bearman said.

The panelists disagreed somewhat when the session turned to a discussion of the power and impact of print versus film mediums. There was some consensus, however, that each medium has its pros and cons. Some stories are told more powerfully when viewers can see the subject talking, Zimmermann said. Others have more impact when they’re told through text and video can even get in the way of people understanding the story, he said.

Harris, a senior video producer at The New York Times, worked to create a documentary series about a woman with cancer called Life, Interrupted. She championed the use of images only if they’re the best means of telling a story. The Times  focuses elements of video, audio and text to tell a story in the strongest way, rather than using a video to tell the exact story told in print, Harris said.

The panelists each encouraged students to continue a relentless search for things that spark their curiosity. A journalist could spend his entire life reporting on one story and never make it perfect, Bearman said.

“If you want to find good stories, show up,” Zimmermann said.

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