Robert and Gary Allen. Mrs. Waters of Bruce Randolph School. Kathy Proctor. James Howard. Jim Houser. Brandon Fisher. Not household names. Not celebrities. Not diplomats. All of these ordinary Americans were mentioned in President Obama’s State of the Union speech 2011. These citizens shared prominence with Gabby Giffords, the late Robert Kennedy, Dwight Eisenhower, the Secretary of Defense, al Qaeda, the Taliban and Sputnik.
The score is 7-7. Unofficial sources to offficial sources. Two presidents, a Congresswoman, a cabinet secretary, two terrorist movements and a Russian space capsule. All had the same number of mentions as four business owners, a school principal, a mom going back to school and a cancer patient.
What does it mean? So what? What may have become overused in the 2008 presidential race with Joe the Plumber is more widely evident today in all media. Our culture embraces the anecdotal power of the humanistic stories of individuals. And nowhere was it more noticable than in Obama’s speech Tuesday night.
As I stress to my journalism students at the Medill School at Northwestern University, the rise of unofficial sources needed to flesh out every news and feature story is undeniable. The age of “official source stenography” is dead. The president knows this better than anyone and capitalizes on it. When the president of the United States mentions real people as often as he names diplomats in his annual address, something big has happened.
I call it the Storification of America.
Thanks to crowdsourcing, social media, blogging and all forms of participatory journalism, there is a demand for communication to be inclusive. Away from top-down to bottom up, all in. It’s not such a rosy we’re-all-in-this-together appraoch, rather, it is a basic shift in the way that we understand information and how we look at the world. It is in thanks to a media relying on more unofficial sourcing in its reporting to articulate the truths of events, trends and issues, than in taking the word at face value of the official sources with the titles.
We not only as citizens want to testify, we want to storify. And I did not make up the name.
Storify.com is a new aggregating tool for social media users and anyone and everyone wanting to connect to current mainstream media and to add reliable sources to their blogs. As I see it, it is an attempt to upgrade the blogosphere from the “my dog is sleeping right now and I am brushing my teeth” to a more professional, polished arena for links to real stories, real posts, real video,real audio, real photos and commentary vetted and published elsewhere. I hope it punctures a hole in the balloon of hearsay.
My 2008 book, Everyman News, dealt with the overwhelming prepronderance of unofficial sources in news stories in domestic newspapers, and the growth of that trend. And why. There are many reasons driving the cultural shift to honor the individual and to consider the sanctity of story as peculiar to our time and place.
The use of “story” as a brand is nearly ubiquitious. It’s even on my drive to work where a billboard for a local college begs viewers to log on to read “mystory.”
Obama ended his speech with a reminder of the depth of reliance we have on story in America. He said:
From the earliest days of our founding, American has been the story of ordinary people who dare to dream. That’s how we win the future.
We need to understand the growing storification of our lives as we move ahead as journalists, observers and contributors if any of this is going to make sense.