Why heart, in storytelling, is stronger than horror

Every day in local news, we fill our broadcasts with stories of horror.

We discuss fires, crimes, murders, and more. We present images that, under any normal circumstance, would be described as unsettling … and yet rarely do they provoke a reaction. Rarely do we receive e-mails decrying those stories; rarely do viewers seem fazed by them. Perhaps many have become numb to them.

Last week I produced a story that broke through. I received comments after it aired, from both viewers and my WXIA-TV colleagues, that the piece was unsettling, difficult, and heart-rending — and far more powerful because of those qualities. The piece, I was told, drew its power from not shock and awe but something seemingly more elusive in present-day local TV news:


No, this was not a story about a local crime or a disturbing piece of video.

This was a story about a 100-year-old woman … in the final stage of her life.

Days earlier we had received an e-mail. A woman named Grace Beck, the viewer wrote, was set to celebrate her centennial birthday that Sunday. Her family and aides had prepared an old-fashioned birthday party at her nursing home. Knowing of Grace’s love for music and her church, they had arranged for a special performance — by her old church’s two-year-old bluegrass band.

It sounded, I thought, both precious and powerful. I flagged the e-mail and reached out to its sender.

Then I learned the upsetting back story.

Grace, I discovered, had become stricken with both macular degeneration — a condition that causes blindness — and dementia. She received hospice care and barely stayed awake for more than a few hours.

Her 100th birthday, I was told, would likely be her last.

Suddenly the story took on an additional poignancy and urgency. The day of the party, I began my shoot by attending a rehearsal by the bluegrass band, named Church Street Station. I appreciated the spirit of the members, who felt no doubts about their desire and ability to serve a purpose for a former member.

(I also enjoyed their music. As their organizer said to me, “Just about everybody loves bluegrass!”)

Then I headed to the party, arriving just ahead of the band. I had not yet met Grace and did not know what to expect; her aides, by law, could not tell me much about her condition, and the band members had only heard fleeting information about her health beyond the obvious.

A few minutes later, Grace showed up to a room of balloons, gatherers, and a band … and barely seemed to realize it.

She did not smile; she did not react; she struggled to keep her eyes open. The party ensued, and when the band played its first song, Grace appeared to fall asleep.

But then she began to turn around … literally.

As the music continued, Grace used her feet to turn her chair to face the band. When they played and sang “Happy Birthday”, Grace made a motion that brought nearly everyone who saw it to tears.

I won’t spoil exactly what happened, because I want you to see it in the story. I will simply say that it provided as much of a happy ending as could be possible given the situation. In a way, it brought home the theme of the piece: regardless of a person’s age or how many days that person has left, he or she can still appreciate and celebrate every moment.

When the story aired, those who reached out to me afterwards spoke about both that happy ending and the unsettling scenes before it.

My shoots with Grace had featured numerous moments where she simply struggled to survive. Aides came into her room and could hardly get her to respond; during the few hours of my visit, Grace stayed awake for maybe 15 minutes.

It was difficult to watch, and even more difficult to put in the story … and yet it felt extremely real.

Most of us have witnessed an elderly relative, parent, or grandparent in that person’s final days, wanting to do whatever possible to make those days meaningful and comfortable. We have seen loved ones experience dementia, becoming completely different people than the vibrant, dignified adults we once knew.

These are the types of emotions that transcend our stories.

And when people came up to me and told me Grace’s story was unsettling, they said so as a compliment. Each person universally talked about how the piece hit home, brought up personal memories, and elicited emotions and even tears. The happy ending brought positivity and redemption, but Grace’s condition — and how it was presented in the piece — provided power and poignancy.

I felt extremely gratified when I received those responses. They confirmed the importance of heart.

Even during the cavalcade of crime and destruction that fills most newscasts, the most memorable stories require a three-dimensional telling. They require care from the journalists assigned to tell them. They require an understanding of why their subject matter might resonate with someone watching at home.

When I think of the storytellers I admire, from those who produce features to those who deliver investigative reports, I always appreciate their ability to find the heart in their stories. Rarely is it the shocking video or disturbing image; more often, it is the person behind it.

I appreciated the chance to bring this person’s story to full light.

I appreciated the chance to celebrate her heart.


Watch Grace’s story below:

Matt Pearl is the author of the Telling the Story blog and podcast. Feel free to comment below or e-mail Matt at matt@tellingthestoryblog.com. You can also follow Matt on Facebook and Twitter.

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