Welcome To The Era Of Me-Journalism
And what that means for podcasts...a recap of the Hot Docs Podcast Creator's Forum panel that featured Tanya Talaga, Michelle Shephard and Connie Walker
Two weeks ago I was sitting in a small theatre on the third floor of the TIFF building for the Hot Docs Podcast Creator’s Forum.
For the first time, on the occasion of the 30th year of the documentary film festival Hot Docs, it brought together both documentaries and podcasts under the same roof.
The official topic of the day was “Crossing from Docs to Pods;” but the conversation steered into territory well beyond that.
And on this day, sitting in front of me on the stage were three impressive Canadian women who work in and around the journalism/filmmaking/podcast world. From left to right on the stage were:
Tanya Talaga, an Ojibway journalist, author, and filmmaker…she’s published widely, including the book Seven Fallen Feathers (now being made into a podcast and a film) and the 2018 Massey Lecture series All My Relations, also broadcast on CBC Radio.
Michelle Shephard, is a journalist by training who began at the Toronto Star. Michelle has also written books and made many great podcasts over the last few years (Do You Know Mordechai?, White Hot Hate, and others). She also had a film at Hot Docs this year, The Man Who Stole Einstein’s Brain.
Connie Walker, a Cree journalist and the host/producer of numerous investigative podcast series both at CBC and Gimlet. Her series Stolen just scooped BOTH a Pulitzer and a Peabody last week.
Stolen Season 2 uncovers the story of her late father, who worked for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in the 1970s. One night he pulled over a suspected drunk driver and beat him up; but the man in that car wasn’t a stranger to him. He was a priest who had worked at St. Michael’s, the residential school they were forced to attend in the 1960s. Connie’s father also recognized this man as his alleged abuser. This podcast is hard to put down for many reasons…it’s tough, it’s beautiful and it’s ugly all at once. It helps to unwind a legacy of trauma and abuse and looks to reckon with it, decades and generations later.
Together, these three women have a lot of combined experience.
They’ve all been in front, behind, and beside the microphone, for upwards of a decade.
The session began with the question: How do you know when something makes a good story?
Then the conversation veered into a different discussion: how the host of a podcast sometimes also becomes a “character” in the story.
“When we started in journalism, we never did ‘Me Journalism,’” said Tanya Talaga.
Michelle Shephard nodded. She admitted, with laughter, that she and Tanya actually shared a desk at the Toronto Star back in 1995 when they began their journalism careers as newspaper reporters. Michelle said that for those who went the route of journalism school, the training was for the reporter to be objective and more or less completely removed from the story.
It was at this point that Connie Walker leaned forward and turned towards them and said: “I think that’s where we are different because I’m always trying to insert myself in a story!” And then laughed heartily.
At this point, the panel discussion moved into some interesting territory
When it works, and when it doesn’t work for the Host to be front and centre. And then when to remove yourself completely, like in the episode of Stolen when survivors spoke for themselves about the horrors they had experienced while at Residential Schools. Connie’s point was: I’m there when I need to be, and I get right out of the way when I should.
Tanya, who has done a lot of storytelling in and around Indigenous communities, said: “Someone once said [to me] that every time you tell the story, you’re a little bit less broken…” which was a nod to why it’s important to keep telling these difficult stories, like the ones about the legacies of trauma and abuse.
Michelle shared that she didn’t feel that the Host “must” have a personal connection, at least a first (but then this grows as you work on the story).
And then Connie shared that in her experience, in order to have impact, you have to believe in yourself and your passion for something.
All of this got me thinking
Is there are a time when is the role of a narrator a bit too much?
Is it never? Is it always?
Is it dependent on the story?
Does it depend on the type of story you’re telling?
The tragic death of Heather Armstrong due to mental illness, the OG Mommy-Blogger known as Dooce, is a reminder of the roots of Me Journalism. The all-out-there style of blogging helped to reinvent, or perhaps expand, the rules of what is journalism, grew and morphed alongside the Internet in this century.
Over the last decade, podcasts have had their own impact on what journalism is, how the stories will be told, and what the conventions are.
At the centre of it all, I would suggest, is the narrator. The Host.
And due to the odd confluence of the age of the Internet, the style of the stories, the fact that podcasts are mostly listened to alone, often through headphones, we have all developed a strange and oddly-close relationship with the hosts of these podcasts.
Because, as all of these panelists pointed out, it’s not just a 3-min television spot any longer; it’s not even a 5,000-word article that you might read in one 30-minute sitting. It’s a relationship, and a connection, which is developed and then nurtured, over 4, 6, 8…sometimes 10 hours. That’s halfway to a new television season. It’s akin to a book.
It’s a lot of hours spent “with” someone
The role of the Host is no small job. It’s not the place to plunk a “Somebody” who is actually a “Nobody” to the series. This is why I cannot get through Ultra, with Rachel Maddow. She’s a great journalist…but without my own connection to the subject, I just don’t get there with her. Or maybe you were also pushed over the edge by Witney Cummings in Bunga Bunga, the comedic biopic of Silvio Berlusconi?
My point exactly.
There’s a fine line between somebody and nobody. And there are often many hours between the start and the finish of these projects.
We are in the era of Me Journalism. But that doesn’t mean it should always be done, or done the same way each time.
However it’s approached, it’s a responsibility, and a job, to do with dignity, respect and connection.
Further listening from Connie:
Further listening from Michelle:
From Tanya: The 2018 Massey Lectures: All Our Relations
Something to put in your listening queue:
Coming up soon, Bingeworthy will sit down with The Sisters…yes, the Sisters Prest, Kaitlin Prest and Natalie Prest…to talk about The Heart mini-series.
Make sure to listen ahead so you know all the good junk:
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