Alex Tizon

Story by Polly Irungu
Photos courtesy of Amnon Buchbinder

Biology of Story is an interactive documentary that was researched, written and directed by filmmaker Amnon Buchbinder, an associate professor of screenwriting in the School of the Arts, Media, Performance and Design at York University. The documentary recently launched at SXSW Interactive.

According to the website, “Biology of Story is a whole new way to think about Story. About a story as a living thing. And about living as a story thing.”

Buchbinder asked a variety of people who are experts in their fields to explore different facets of storytelling. One of those experts is our own Assistant Professor Alex Tizon.

In his seven-part video series, Tizon talks about “The Difference Between a Topic and a Story,” the importance of “Doing Journalistic Stories You Care About,” “Emergence of First Person Journalism,” why “Facts May Be the Least Important Part, why he believes that “The News Is Not Going Away,” “News Judgment and “Recreating Scenes for Narrative Journalism.

We sat down with Tizon to continue the conversation and find out why he got involved with the project in the first place.

SOJC: How did you get involved with Biology of Story?

AT: In 2014-15, I was a Restorative Narrative fellow with an organization called Images and Voices of Hope (IVOH). In the summer of 2015, IVOH held a summit in Peace Village, New York. Amnon Buchbinder, the writer-director-investigator of Biology of Story, was at the summit. Amnon contacted me ahead of time and arranged to interview me for his project. So one afternoon during the summit, I ducked into a room with Amnon. He sat me down, turned on the camera, and we had a conversation about stories for about an hour. I really liked the way he conducted the interview. His questions were thoughtful and probing, and it was clear that he had a deep curiosity about all the facets of storytelling. The interview was both intense and strangely relaxed. It was intense because of the piercing nature of his questions, but also relaxed because he was so relaxed. He didn’t talk too fast like deadline reporters can sometimes do, and he wasn’t looking at his watch every 10 minutes. And here’s the most important part: He made the interview engaging for me. I didn’t get bored like I sometimes do when an interviewer asks the same old questions. You know it’s an interesting interview when the answers coming out of your mouth are new even to you. That’s what I experienced with Amnon.

SOJC: You say in one video that news is not going away. Where do you see it going?

AT: News will never go away, not as long as there are people who are curious about what’s happening on their street, neighborhood, city, country, planet. People need stories to make sense of their lives, and news provides a kind of up-to-the-minute narrative that partially feeds that need. What’s likely to change and what’s already changing is the way news is disseminated. There will be new delivery systems, business models, technologies. There may also be tectonic shifts in the way we define what is news. The Restorative Narrative Fellowship that I was a part of last year, for example, is trying to bring about a shift in how news stories are framed, from an approach that makes people feel hopeless to one that emphasizes the good and resilient and hopeful. There are all these mini-movements within the world of journalism, and I just get no sense that this world is disappearing. If anything, it’s expanding.

SOJC: What are your thoughts on virtual reality?

AT: On VR as journalism? I don’t have any thoughts beyond “How cool; let’s see how it pans out.” I’ve had minimal exposure to it. But it doesn’t take too much of a stretch to think that VR storytelling on a mass level is around the corner. How VR will intersect with journalism, or whether that intersection produces a hybrid, I couldn’t say, but I’m open to the possibilities.

SOJC: You have said that it is important to do journalistic stories that you care about. What advice do you have for current students and recent grads who want to write stories they care about?

AT: If you’re going to spend 40-60 hours a week working on a story, you might as well work on one that means something to you, right? Let’s say you’re hired by a publication. If you don’t have your own list of stories you want to do, that you need to do, you’ll end up being assigned stories from somebody else’s list — your editor’s, for example — and his stories may or may not mean anything to you. That’s just the way it works. So it would be good to know what you care about, what stories you want to tell and how you can pitch them so that your editor simply won’t be able to say no. The ideal state would be to work only on stories that you care about, but the reality is that most of us, particularly at the beginning, will have to do some work that we don’t exactly love. And even that can be beneficial to you as a storyteller. I covered City Hall for two years, and I hated it. I mean I really hated it — I used to cry in my car on my way to council meetings. But I learned so much about how politics and money and power and ego intertwine and play out. The dramas I covered at City Hall turned out to be micro-versions of the national and global dramas that would later occupy me. In other words, it was great training, and great preparation for the future work I wanted to do.

Polly Irungu is a multimedia journalist and social media strategist who plans to graduate from the SOJC with a degree in journalism this fall. She is currently working as a digital content creator for the SOJC’s Communications team, a campus editor-at-large at The Huffington Post and a freelance production assistant for the PAC-12 Networks. She’s also been published on CNNKVAL and YesJulz. A National Association of Black Journalists fellow in 2015 and 2016, she participated in the NABJ and National Association of Hispanic Journalists student newsroom to provide coverage of their historic joint convention for NABJ Monitor and Latino Reporter. She also worked in the Online News Association’s student newsroom Sept. 15-17, 2016. Previously, she has worked for TrackTown USA, Def Jam Records, Dell and Adobe. She made the 2013 and 2014 Daily Emerald Ducks Who Will Change the World list, and in May 2015 she was named the Women4Africa International Young Achiever of the Year. You can view her work at www.pollyirungu.com and follow her on TwitterInstagram and Snapchat @pollyirungu.