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Producer, filmmaker speak on storytelling

Robert Singer | Monday, November 3, 2008

During the “The Storytellers: Documenting Reality” presentation Friday night, Tom Bettag, Executive Producer of “Nightline,” summed up what he believed to be the task facing journalists working in a society saturated by information.

“It’s about people trying to help people dig out of an avalanche of information to find the path to understanding and even to caring,” he said.

In an age when the global economy is becoming ever more complex and news is easily available, Bettag argues that “we’re less and less inclined to care” about the issues affecting our world.

Globalization, international politics and environmental change are not easy subjects to understand, he said.

News has become “stacked in so high, so indiscriminately that we have diminishing returns,” he said.

The more information we take in, the less we understand its significance, and the less we are motivated to become caring citizens, he said.

Contributing to the lack of understanding and the apathy that results, said Bettag, is a belief in “truthiness.” Rather than attempting to grasp an issue’s full complexity, people essentialize it, conveying what they feel to be true instead of an objective consideration of hard data, he said.

According to Bettag, Oliver Stone’s latest movie “W” is an example of this kind of approach. Stone documented his perception of the Bush presidency, rather than analyzing it thoroughly for substantive meaning, he said.

However, this trend toward “truthiness” can be reversed, according to Bettag, if stories are told properly.

“Tonight is about the power of stories to make us care, to give life a deeper meaning,” he said.

While not compromising the complexity of topics like international economics, a focus on the experiences of people can make journalism interesting as well as informative, he said.

To illustrate his point, Bettag played several clips from “The People’s Republic of Capitalism,” a program that airs on Discovery Channel, which he helps produce with Ted Koppel.

The clips gave a portrayal of how the lives of ordinary people affect one another across international boundaries – Mexican migrant workers, Chinese children, and unemployed Americans cause changes in each other’s lives, even if they are unaware of it.

The film showed interviews with Americans and Chinese struggling to adapt to changing economies as well as with their more fortunate counterparts, the variety of circumstances that people face under a global system that allows business’ demand for labor to find its cheapest supply. Being able to relate to these experiences gives people the motivation to care about the effects of economic policy, said Bettag.

“Why didn’t people care about the subprime mortgage mess?” Bettag asked. “It’s boring. But with storytelling it’s possible to make it interesting and significant.”

Film producer Gita Pullapilly also presented some work from her new documentary, “The

Way We Get By.” She described the film as “a story that’s defined by making you feel like you care about a subject.”

The film follows a group of senior citizens in Maine who use hugs and handshakes to show their support to American troops fighting in the Iraq War. According to the film’s Web site, it “is a raw and intimate look at three of these troop greeters as they confront their own health problems, depression, financial debt, and the loss of meaning in their lives.”

Bettag emphasized that journalists and filmmakers should not compromise depth but embrace it while engaging their audiences through real human experiences.

“Gita and I believe that it’s possible to be better than essentialists,” he said. “Facts are important and we should strive to be documentarians.”