3 GREAT STORIES: Starring MLK, the March, and dreams

Every week, I shine the spotlight on some of the best storytelling in the business and offer my comments. “3 Great Stories of the Week” will post every Monday at 8 AM.

I had a fascinating mini-discussion this week with a storyteller for whom I have great respect.

Like many reporters this week, he put together a piece about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Wednesday was, of course, the 50th anniversary of the speech from the March on Washington. This reporter — no doubt noting the flood of stories that had already been and would be done — tried something different. He hit the streets and got interviews with residents about how King’s speech impacted them, both 50 years ago and today, but he also had them hold a large picture frame. Once back in the newsroom, his editor cropped Dr. King’s speech into the frame so that it looked as if the speech was playing inside of it.

To me, it seemed forced.

When I watched the story, I felt his interviews seemed unnatural on several levels. For one thing, the people he was interviewing seemed awkward trying to speak sincerely while holding a bulky picture frame. Secondly, the video playing in the frame both visually and mentally distracted me from the content of the interviews.

But most importantly, I felt the reporter was using a gimmick on a subject that did not require it. To me, the “I Have a Dream” speech is so powerful on its own — and people’s emotions and reactions so visceral even 50 years later — that it did not require trickery. It required elegance and poignancy, and it required a more subdued approach that allowed the speech to, well, speak for itself.

The beauty of storytelling is, of course, there are no right answers. What works for some may not work for others. I should point out that the reporter who did this story has built an ultra-successful career out of stories that beautifully capture the human spirit, so he is no stranger to understanding what makes for a powerful moment. I, for one, am a huge fan of his work.

In this case, though, we disagree. When I chose my “3 Great Stories” for this week, all directly or indirectly MLK-related, I found they reached me by simply illuminating their subjects’ natural power.

Revisiting Martin Luther King’s 1963 Dream speech (8/28/13, The Big Picture): In doing my own stories recently on the Civil Rights movement, I found the raw materials to be extremely absorbing. From old footage to newspaper headlines to poignant photographs — both iconic and not — I found myself enthralled by the history of everything.

Leave it to the Big Picture blog to capture that history and present it in a glorious display.

Here, the editors post a collection of 20 photos, mainly from the March on Washington but also from the Civil Rights movement in general and a few present-day shots for good measure. Photo galleries like these are Rorshach tests — you interpret them however you choose — but, for me, this particular gallery provides some great introductory context to that time period and the struggles involved.

Martin Luther King’s other great speeches (8/28/13, Washington Post’s “On Leadership” blog): Speaking of context, I really appreciated how writer Jena McGregor chose to commemorate the “I Have a Dream” anniversary.

McGregor is one of the authors of the Washington Post‘s always-compelling “On Leadership” blog. In this case, she uses the speech as a jumping-off point to delve into Dr. King’s other famous orations. In the examples she mentions, King uses a Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech to preach nonviolence, a church speech in New York to talk about Vietnam, and his final speech to proclaim, “I’ve been to the mountaintop.”

This article is also the latest example (see last week’s SNL article in the New York Times) of how to harness the power of the Internet. McGregor’s article stands just fine on its own, but it also allows the reader to delve further. McGregor provides links to speech transcripts, videos, and articles about King’s style and impact. For example, if you like the excerpt McGregor chooses from King’s Nobel Prize acceptance, you can click on a link to watch the speech in its entirety.

All in all, McGregor provides worthy comment on the 50th anniversary while also offering a far deeper picture for those who desire it.

What do you want to do before you die? (8/27/13, KUSA-TV): This story is not directly about Martin Luther King, but it absolutely represents a dreamer’s spirit and is a worthy present-day supplement.

Scroll past the photo gallery on this page and click on the video. Reporter Kevin Torres documents an artwork called “Before I Die”; it is a giant chalkboard that stands in downtown Denver, on which passers-by can write their dreams. Torres introduces the story with a beautiful 15 seconds of poetry disguised as journalism:

“There are more than 600,000 dreams floating around this Mile-High city. Yet every day, people pass them by and forget … forget that life is moving much faster. And before we all die, our dreams must live.”

So sets the tone for a two-minute trip to Whimsy-town … and I mean that in the most positive way. The chalkboard, after all, encourages people to indulge their dreams, and Torres rides that spirit throughout his story. This is no small part due to his photographer, Michael Driver, who uses quick edits and chalky close-ups while framing his interview subjects alongside the dream-filled board.

One sound bite sums it all up: “I think it’s powerful,” says one of the dreamers, “because when you write things down, they become a lot more real.”



Have a suggestion for “3 Great Stories of the Week”? E-mail me at matt@tellingthestoryblog.com.

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