3 GREAT STORIES: Starring Veterans Day and an Atlanta documentary

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 generally try to avoid using this space to promote the work of my colleagues at WXIA-TV in Atlanta. It would almost be too easy; the reporters at my station constantly impress me with their thought-provoking and emotional work.

This week I made an exception.

One of the “3 Great Stories” of the week is a long-form documentary that ran on our station on Friday. We tackled a harrowing topic in a big way, and our work made a tangible impact.

But first, I found myself divided on two terrific stories involving veterans — stories that would seem to contrast each other in terms of mentality.

Help veterans by taking them off the pedestal (11/10/13, The Atlantic): Veterans Day brings with it a cavalcade of celebrations, ceremonies, and commemorations of those who served in the U.S. military. It also typically brings, from a storytelling standpoint, reflexive pieces that unquestionably honor those who risk their lives in our country’s name.

Rarely does one find a story that questions that mindset — and does so with thought-provoking effectiveness.

But that’s what Alex Horton, a one-time infantryman in Iraq, does here.

Horton makes a compelling argument that, by putting veterans on a pedestal, our society is unintentionally hindering them. We tend to view veterans, Horton says, in one-dimensional terms — either as sacrosanct heroes or risky choices to serve us in civilian life. I particularly appreciated an early paragraph where he recounts discussions with members of the Greatest Generation:

I once talked to a World War II veteran about the experience of attending college after coming home, and asked if it was jarring to sit next to those who never served. I wondered if veterans huddled together under the umbrella of mutual understanding and thought less of civilians who never shouldered a rifle. His answer was surprising. They were proud of their time in uniform, he said, but for many, the war interrupted their lives, and education was a return to normalcy. Instead of a victory lap, they were more interested in getting back on track.

Very deep stuff here … bringing complexity to what is often viewed in simpler terms.

Veterans Day tribute: Coming home (11/11/13, ESPN): On the other hand, there’s this.

In what has apparently become a yearly tradition, ESPN compiled an overwhelming handful of military reunions — soldiers in uniform returning to their spouses and children, and doing so with the element of surprise.

It is a tear-jerker, in a very literal sense. Just try to hold back your emotions as the segment piles on reunion after reunion. Each one builds upon the one before it — no deep thought required.

Does a segment like this run contrary to the above article by Alex Horton? Perhaps. Certainly this is an unabashed celebration of service that may very well put our military on the same pedestal Horton longs to avoid.

And yet, I see something bigger. This is a celebration of service, yes, but mostly it is a celebration of family. It hits us as parents, children, spouses, and siblings. And I have no problem honoring the type of story that connects on such a universal level.

And from a storytelling standpoint, it is a 100% emotional slam dunk — a classic example of letting the images do the talking.

11Alive Dateline: Failed to Death (11/15/13, WXIA-TV): Now, about that production from my station …

The past two months have seen two Georgia children die in horrifying ways — ways that suggest abuse by their parents. In both cases, the children were reported in danger numerous times to the state’s Division of Family and Children Services, and their cases were closed with no action.

Our news department at WXIA tackled the issue in a big way — with relentless, incisive coverage that spanned multiple weeks, all leading up to the hour-long documentary that aired Friday night.

The documentary is a painful, horrifying watch, but it is an essential one. The storytelling across the board — from the emotional pieces to the more informational ones — is immaculate. It enabled our station to give a complex problem its necessary treatment. And the continuing coverage has even helped lead to tangible action.

It is a high point, both for our station and for local news in general — a reminder of the impact that can originate from one newsroom.


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

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