Thesis of the week: The single – something unique in Danish journalism

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The single is a new term within the field of journalism, and for the same reason, there is not yet an actual theory for it. In that case, you just have to make up your own. This is what the three RUC students Anine Fuglesang, Kathrine Albrechtsen and Marie Louise Hagemeister did in their thesis, which also turned out to be their own single.

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A range of singles by the media bureau Zetland – Zetland introduced the single in Denmark. Photo: Zetland.

“Just do something fun. You’ve got half a year,” the supervisor told them encouragingly. Anine, Kathrine and Marie seized this opportunity when they chose to delve into a comparatively new topic and new journalistic product, the single – the journalistic story halfway between the article and the book.

The problem statement of the topic can sound pretty straightforward: “What characterises a single?” However, it is not quite that simple when the term is not really common yet. It only appeared in the US four years ago and has only existed in Denmark for close to two years. The authors of the thesis thus decided to contact the newspaper Berlingske and the media bureau Zetland, the first two to publish singles in Denmark. Both columnists of singles and publishers were interviewed by the students for the purpose of developing their own theory on the single.

So what is a single?

According to the thesis, the length of the single is between 25 and 100 pages. The good story is central, but it is also true and provides the reader with a socially relevant topic. It is important that there is a rigid red thread all the way through the story, and it is all about keeping the reader interested until the very last line.

“It’s about finding the little story in the big one. To zoom all the way in on this little story and at the same time zoom out to see what makes the story relevant to society and to make the readers even smarter,” Kathrine Albrechtsen says.

The thesis states that the single must be told well and be entertaining, and that it must contain literary aspects such as scenes, details, points of view and dialogue. Furthermore, you do not work with cases, but with characters that have to be described with enough detail that the reader can get insight into the person’s thoughts, feelings and actions. In this way, it can be a challenge to tell the whole truth, and the reader may be sceptical in regards to whether the story is fiction or reality:

“The real challenge is to use literary tools and still maintain that element of truth, because it has to be 100 per cent true. During our work, we discussed this delicate balance several times and were convinced that we did not violate it. Nothing must be made up,” Anine Fuglesang says.

An example of this is given in the thesis with the paedophile Henrik (the name is made up, red.): “Could we for instance tell about a given evening where Henrik as a child made a dinner of spaghetti with ketchup when Henrik hadn’t told us specifically about this one night, but about this action in general? We started off by writing: “Henrik goes into the kitchen. He is hungry and decides to boil some pasta. The ketchup is already on the table from last night.” It was to emphasise for the reader that Henrik often was in this situation where he cooked for himself. However, we ended up changing this, since the line between fiction and reality seemed to have been overstepped.”

You have to ask about all sorts of weird things, which you don’t really think about or are used to in a regular news article: “What did you do at this time?” and “how did you do it?” etc. And it hasn’t made it any easier that what we were talking about was paedophilia

En anden udfordring ligger i, at læseren skal oplyses gennem faktuelle afsnit, for det kan være svært at få de to dele til at smelte naturligt sammen:

“This has been one of the biggest challenges, that there have to be these factual parts and then the narrative itself. The transition between them has to be natural and elegant,” Anine Fuglesang says.

A journalistic guideline

All this research for the thesis resulted in a journalistic guideline on how to write a single. It consists of 11 specific requirements that must be observed. Apart from being socially relevant, these requirements include the story containing a wealth of details, the story being carried along by a lively language, and the use of quotations being kept to a minimum.

“We wanted something tangible out of what we researched. For this reason, we made this guideline for ourselves and for others so that we might offer a suggestion on how to write a single in practice,” Marie Louise Hagemeister says.

The two thesis products: The thesis itself and the authors’ own single about a paedophile man. Photo: Louise Akselsen.

The two thesis products: The thesis itself and the authors’ own single about a paedophile man. Photo: Louise Akselsen.

To test the journalistic guideline, the three students chose to write their own single. Overall it is about paedophilia, but it zooms in on a paedophile man who tells his story. The idea emerged from the media’s increasing focus on the problematic. For the authors of the thesis, the interesting part was who the paedophiles were, and this required an interesting character. After putting up a notice in the state prison of Møgelkær, the authors were contacted by several inmates who were imprisoned for molesting children:

“We hadn’t expected that it would be so easy to find someone who wanted to speak with us. We were very overwhelmed when they contacted us,” Anine Fuglesang says.

However, several interviews were needed before the authors found the right man. One inmate’s story was too violent, another was incoherent, a third one did not believe he had actually done something criminal. Then they found Henrik, who for the second time was in prison due to molestation of children, and he could give them some insight into the life of a paedophile.

Time-consuming journalism

Writing the single turned out to be a very long process for the aspiring journalists. The interview itself with their primary source Henrik took about ten hours divided over several visits, and in order to fulfil the factual aspect of the single, it was necessary to interview several experts about paedophilia. All in all, it took about three months to write the single, including research.

“You really have to be detailed and, for instance, tell everything about the clothes he’s wearing, and that’s why it takes such a long time. It’s a very, very demanding kind of journalism,” Anine Fuglesang says.

For the same reason, a lot of questions arose during the process, and they called and texted Henrik to get all the details nailed down:

“It was things like: How tall are you, what colour is your hair?” Kathrine Albrechtsen says.

“By asking him the same questions repeatedly, we could also verify whether what he said was true,” Marie Louise Hagemeister adds.

But also the interview part of the process was challenging:

“You have to ask about all sorts of weird things, which you don’t really think about or are used to in a regular news article: “What did you do at this time?” and “how did you do it?” etc. And it hasn’t made it any easier that what we were talking about was paedophilia,” Marie Louise Hagemeister says.

For instance, it was very taboo-breaking to ask for details on how Henrik sat in a couch with his wife’s ten-year-old niece in his lap and slipped his hand beneath her clothes, all the while his very pregnant wife walked around in the apartment without noticing anything. It was also transgressive and unpleasant for Henrik to talk about the episode, but the details were necessary to fulfil the requirements of the single.

All this hard work resulted in a single of 37 pages, and all 11 requirements were observed. The three authors are quite pleased with the result. So pleased that they are working on getting the single published right now.

Due to the anonymous sources used in the thesis and the hope of getting it published, the thesis is not publically available.

As soon as there is news about publication, it will be updated by RUSK here.

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The three authors of the thesis. Photo: Louise Akselsen.

Facts

The 11 commandments of the single

  1. The single must tell a socially relevant story.

All the singles by Zetland and Berlingske are very different and investigate many different topics. What they all have in common is that they tell a little piece of social history. Even the more personal singles point towards a socially relevant topic which may not be related to the agenda of the news, but which definitely relates to significant contemporary issues. Thus it is not enough to tell an interesting story; it must also describe a part of society.

  1. The single must zoom in as much as possible.

Even though the single is of significant length, it is no good trying to write about a very big topic, since it will hurt the narrative itself. If the columnist uses the scattergun technique, there is a risk that the reader gets lost during reading. Just like in a news article, the story in a single must be angled despite the many different perspectives the columnist often has available. But behind the little story, there must also be a perspective to the greater story, since the narrative still has to broaden the horizons of the reader, as mentioned in the first commandment.

  1. The single must have interesting characters that help drive the narrative

Just like in the world of literature, characters are the focus in singles, not cases. This character must be described with such detail that the reader can obtain an understanding and insight into the person’s thoughts, feelings, choices and actions. In this way the reader’s attention is better captured than through a superficial presentation of a case.

  1. The single must have only a few characters

The single may only have a few characters, which are followed closely. In this way the reader comes closer to the setting and the narrative. In addition to this, the columnist can make use of a number of other sources, for instance expert sources, which help relate the smaller narrative to the greater, socially relevant perspective.

  1. The single must contain a wealth of details.

While working on the single, the columnist must spend time on capturing as many details as possible to lead the reader into the desired universe, and also, as mentioned in the third commandment, to fully enter the character’s thoughts. For this reason, the columnist has to spend many hours with his or her sources in order to get this wealth of detail, so that the reader can get proper insight into the characters and the environments in which they live.

  1. The single must be carried by good and lively language all the way through.

The language has to report and be precise – language with etiquette and stage directions, as seen in news journalism, should be avoided. Even though the single draws inspiration from literature, the reader should not have to do any interpretation. The columnist must write clearly and unambiguously so that it the reader can understand. However, this does not mean that it is not allowed to provide details. It is actually a requirement.

  1. The use of quotations must be kept to a minimum in the single.

As much as it is possible, the columnist must incorporate quotations into the text so that it is the columnist who tells the story and not the sources via direct quotes. It would break the flow of reading and make the story heavy for the reader. As such, the columnist is not dependent on a heap of source references.

  1. The single must have a clear structure.

There must be coherence and a rigid structure in the single. The columnist has to take the reader by the hand and lead him or her through the narrative. There must be a strong plot. To do this, the columnist may make use of literary techniques and switch between change of scenery, reconstructions, dialogues and factual information to continually stoke the desire for reading.

        9.  The single must have a strong opening scene

The single needs a strong opening scene, for instance in the form of a prologue which evokes the reader’s curiosity. Drama has to be sparked from the beginning, after which the story unfolds.

In addition to this, a frame must be presented quickly to make it clear which narrative will be introduced.

      10.  The single must be a concluded narrative

The single must be a concluded narrative of a certain length. No less than 25 and preferably no more than 100 pages, although deviations may occur.

  1. The single must be non-fiction

Even though the single borrows techniques from the world of literature, there must be absolutely no doubt that the single is a piece of non-fiction that tells a story from the real world.

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