Episode 89: Stories from Troubling Times

On April 4, 2020, Kasie and Rex took on the responsibility of explaining story types to our audience who may be confused about what they’re seeing/hearing/reading lately. Here are the show notes:

Theme for the day

The Stories You Can’t Stop Seeing “in these troubling times”


  • Different story categories
  • Overused and cliche phrases
  • How to know you’re being fleeced
man in black shirt and gray denim pants sitting on gray padded bench
Photo by Inzmam Khan on Pexels.com

Link to the podcast

Segment 1

I want to work today for our readers’ benefit and talk about all the hucksters, hacks, and asshats writing stories out there. This comes with a pretty big mea culpa: we are writers and writers write to metabolize and we have been discussing the current crisis on this show, too. So we should be clear about the fact that when it’s popular it sells and when it sells, people write about it.

That said, here are some of the headlines in my Medium (Medium is a blogging platform) news digest Thursday:

  • I Lost My Husband to COVID-19
  • Why Trump is Making Corona Death Toll Projections
  • No Need to Stock Up or Disinfect Your Groceries
  • The Big Shock: How Midnight of a Crisis Will Bring a New Dawn
  • Come On, People, Enough With These COVID Conspiracies
  • We Wish to Inform You That Your Death is Highly Probable

Not making those up. Copied verbatim from the email I received. So what kinds of stories are being written right now? We can use journalism categories for them:

  • Personal Interest — put a human face to the crisis, show us what suffering looks like, what survival looks like, etc.
  • Political commentary — tell us which party or politician is getting it right and which ones are failing big time
  • Public Service Announcement — clarifying the confusion coming from authorities who ramble mindlessly at microphones, these stories work to interpret and confirm or deny what we’re being told
  • Instructive — give advice on how to get through this: everything from working from home to putting kids on a new schedule to surviving being locked up with your family to overcoming the depression you’re experiencing due to isolation; these stories should include examples of others you might recognize as having your symptoms and provide a list (bloggers love lists) of proactive steps you can take.
  • Predictive — these are in the business press because businesses are preparing for what things will look like six months from now, but they’re essentially fortune tellers reading tea leaves; no one knows how long this will go on or what we’ll do when it’s over; go back to normal? Who knows.
  • Ironic / Scathing — some writers are taking this chance to excoriate public officials, individuals, businesses, and really anyone they want. The ironic stories are sometimes satirical looks at the confusion and dismay; in the spirit of Jonathan Swift, suggesting how things might be worse

Content is being created in that old Chinese proverb one-grain-of-rice way. It’s multiplying at the kind of rate that when others predicted it, we said “yeah right.”

Segment 2

So what do you do with all these stories? There’s a “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” thing happening right now. If you Google some overused phrases you’ll see what I mean:

“These challenging times” 4.4 million results, similar searches: 

  • challenging times quotes, 
  • we live in challenging times, 
  • famous quotes about challenging times, 
  • in this difficult time coronavirus, 
  • when times get hard, 
  • challenging times in a sentence, 
  • during this challenging time covid

So if you’re a writer, avoid those. Also, “these trying times” 1.75 billion results, similar searches:

  • Use trying times in a sentence,
  • In these trying times quotes,
  • Trying times synonym 
  • These are trying times meme
  • Trying times band
  • During these trying times covid 19

So, yeah, a lot of writers are already googling the cliches and looking for alternatives.

Why do cliches, or common phrases, surge at a time like this? What can a cliche offer in terms of perspective? Well, like this episode told us, cliches are short cuts. Like euphemisms, cliches give us a general idea of what the writer means to describe.

We’ve said the writer should do the work — actually describe what he means to describe — and not rely on cliches. But that doesn’t stop if from happening.

Here are some of the subject lines of marketing emails I received this week:

  • COVID-19: How to Manage Your Marketing Team Remotely
  • Employers Playbook for the Families First Coronavirus Act
  • Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security
  • Fast track your SBA COVID loan application
  • Work from anywhere essentials
  • Coronavirus survival tips
  • The five levels of remote work and why you’re probably at level 2

The last one was the lead story in another Medium digest that included these other headlines:

  • Emperor Joe’s New Clothes
  • Is Everyone in a Zoom Party Without Me?
  • The (new) Great Depression
  • Coronavirus is a preview of our self-isolating future

So we’re seeing some repeated phrases and words: 

  • Coronavirus and COVID — I don’t subscribe to news agents that would call it the China virus
  • Survival, management, and playbook — strategies for coping and changing
  • Aid, relief, essentials — the things you need to have, the shortfalls you can expect to experience
  • Remote, isolation, distant, telecommute — all the “we’re apart” messages and the grief, confusion, and frustration that comes therewith

Segment 3

I’m especially concerned with the stories that are circulating on social media and going viral and getting likes and shares where the author has FOX-news’d the story — meaning he or she has taken a few facts to make the assertions sound credible and then peppered in false claims that the reader is thereby led to believe might be true.

This rampant misinformation does a disservice to the reporters who are trying to deliver the most factual stories they can. Click here for a Media Matters investigation into this “two truths and a lie” phenomenon.

Beyond “fake news” and the sowing of mistrust of media, outside of perspectives and slants and all the other nuanced ways we call journalists liars, one basic principle matters: selling fiction as nonfiction is grotesque.

As part of our national crisis cycle, we have social media campaigns that distort reality and exacerbate the circumstances with the intention of disrupting positive action.

We’ve always called writing “the craft” on this show and taken a kind of professional pride in the work we do because it is for 1) entertainment, 2) exploration of the human condition, and 3) profit. We have talked about writing be cathartic and exploratory of our darkest desires and fantasies. We have talked about the safety of fiction to push limits and walk edges.

But we don’t expect writers to intentionally distort their stories for nefarious purposes. We don’t expect propaganda to be the order of the day. And yet they do and it is and we’re living in a world where many readers (consumers) don’t know the difference.

With the chaos surrounding this virus and the conditions in which we’re living, we must all be fact checkers. We have to try multiple sources, evaluate them for accuracy, then form our own opinions on the validity of the claims.

Part of the reason we’re in this mess is that we allowed the fabrications to go unchecked. We accepted fiction as nonfiction. And when the peddlers were called out for their fictional stories, they just made up new ones and we let those go, too.

We are a society that doesn’t know (or care) the difference between stories we should trust and respond to and stories we should dismiss as fabrications.

How do we fix that?

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