What improv could teach newsrooms

Photo of Amanda Hirsch by Jared Goralnick

The critical success of Spotlight, the new film about the Boston Globe’s investigation into the Catholic sex abuse scandal, has prompted a lot of discussion about cinematic portrayals of journalism.

But there’s another way to look at the connection between theater and newsrooms, which is: What can acting teach journalists?

Amanda Hirsch has some thoughts on that subject. The former editorial director of PBS.org, Hirsch has consulted on projects with NPR, TED, and the Paley Center for Media, among many others. She is also a celebrated speaker and improv star who was voted a SXSW audience favorite for a talk she and her husband gave about improv lessons for freelancers.

We recently discussed the similarities and differences between theater and journalism, and what improv could teach newsrooms about innovation, community engagement and telling new kinds of stories. The excerpts from our conversation below have been edited for length and clarity.

Improv is all about making things up, and journalism is all about getting at the truth. How have you navigated these two kinds of work, and what do you see as the intersection?

My first reaction to this is, both improv and journalism are actually about listening to find the truth.

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Jokey improv is about making things up—“we’re on the moon, wheee!”—but the best, most sophisticated improv comedy is really about patiently discovering, with your partner, the truth that is already there on stage, from the moment the actors make their first choices. We step on stage. You register my body language, my facial expressions. I do the same. One of us says something. Line by line, we go from there… In that way, improv really is about listening with all of your senses.

The same is true for journalism. You can’t just come in with your own ideas about what happened, or what should happen—you have to put your own agenda aside, as much as a person can, and focus on listening to the community you cover, your source… the story.

Of course, journalists often come into communities with narratives already in mind that shape our coverage. In journalism as in improv, our stories are often circumscribed by our lived experiences. Real engagement with another person—allowing yourself to be pushed beyond those experiences—can create the conditions for discovery.

One of the central tenets of improv that reinforces that sense of discovery is “Yes, and…” Can you talk a bit about what that phrase means?

“Yes, and” means, you should accept what your scene partner offers, then add to it. So if I say, “That was a great party”… your response should accept the truth I’ve put forward, and expand the scene from there. “Yes, that was a great party, and please never let me drink tequila again”—not necessarily comedy gold, but at least we’re creating a shared reality. That’s what “yes, and” lets us do: create a shared reality, on the fly, together.

I can see how this idea intersects with the notions of listening mentioned above. But, to extend the metaphor, in journalism we’re taught to be skeptical and told, “If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out.” How do we square “Yes, and…” with that?

Well, saying “yes, and,” doesn’t necessarily mean you like or even agree with what the other person said. What it means is, you recognize that you need to work together to create something, and you are going to build on the information the other person has shared.

So, yes-and’ing a source doesn’t mean buying everything they tell you, hook, line and sinker. Honestly, it might mean verifying what your source tells you by talking to three additional sources—“yes, Source A tells me she loves me, and, Sources B, C, and D tells me she does not.” To simply accept what your source tells you at face value would just being saying “yes.” Additional verification is the “and.”

Outside the reporting process, are there other ways “Yes, and” might apply to how newsrooms operate? You and I both know a lot of young journalists working in newsrooms who feel like their ideas aren’t respected or aren’t even heard. So it seems like “Yes, and”—and improv more generally—can make room for more diverse voices inside newsrooms as well as outside them.

Absolutely. And of course, management sets the tone, but people at every level really can lead by example. If nothing else, “yes, and” helps you build goodwill and trust between teammates, and without that, true innovation really isn’t possible. And maybe something that comes out of exploring that idea you think is really terrible will actually be worthwhile.

I’ve been writing a lot about how we can build journalism with community, not just for it. How could improv shape the way we think about co-creating journalism with our communities? What tools or values might it offer for that kind of work?

I think it means being willing to treat members of the community as scene partners—truly listening to them and showing them respect. This is hard; it’s tempting to offer opportunities for input, say a polite “thank you,” and then proceed with business as usual. But this isn’t real engagement…and it doesn’t offer the potential for collaborative creative genius that improv techniques enable.

Let’s take an example. Maybe you publish a story, and in the comments, you see people saying, “Yes, this is true, but you missed this entire dimension of things. What about X?” Well, as a news outlet, you now have an opportunity to be responsive (to engage) and to say—either in a comment or in a subsequent story, or both—“We hear you. Let’s talk more about X.” Listening to the community helps inform coverage, the way listening to your scene partner informs the scene.

Right. And it doesn’t have to wait until the comment sections. In conversations, at events, on social media—“Yes, and…” is a reminder to be open, to respect that people are experts in their own experiences and have something to share that we can learn from and build on.

I could see newsrooms and journalism schools employing improv as a way of teaching engagement and prepping for outreach in communities. Anyone who has done community work knows that it can be messy and tough at times. Practicing for those conversations in advance isn’t a bad idea.

“Practice” is the key word there. We aren’t necessarily conditioned to say “yes, and.” So we need to practice.

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Josh Stearns is the director of Journalism and Sustainability at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. He minored in theater and dabbled in improv a long time ago.