Funding Rural | Episode #15: Storytelling Can Be Dangerous with Torsten Kjellstrand

Torsten Kjellstrand, a Swedish immigrant, has always looked for the stories of the underrepresented.  Now as a Professor of Practice at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication, Kjellstrand uses his background in rural journalism to teach the next generation of media about authenticity and care for the stories that are told  because as he says, ‘storytelling can be dangerous.’

“Storytelling is dangerous: if you tell the wrong story, you can hurt people, but [storytelling] can also build trust and foster understanding.” — Torsten Kjellstrand

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More about Torsten Kjellstrand


Torsten Kjellstrand’s work as a journalist focuses on rural communities in the Midwest and West. He worked at small and larger newspapers for almost three decades and has made documentary films with Blackfeet, Sugpiat, Navajo, and Coeur d’Alene communities over the last decade, and has been National Newspaper Photographer of the Year, a Fulbright Scholar in comparative literature, and a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University. He is currently a Professor of Practice in journalism at the University of Oregon.

“We can only do what we can do, from our perspective, and there’s going to be shortcomings and we can—on one hand—try to educate ourselves and listen so that those shortcomings are not egregious and so we’re not speaking untrue things.” — Torsten Kjellstrand

Discussion Questions

  • How do you get your news and information? Especially work that informs your opinion of rural spaces?
  • The future of journalism is shaded right now; how do you and your organization support media literacy?  Are there programs that help share those stories?
  • Has a story ever been published about you, your organization, or your community that made you feel misunderstood or misrepresented? How can you take this experience and  evaluate today’s stories? What information could assure you the facts are accurate and the subject has been given a fair presentation? What information would give you pause, that perhaps there is more to this story?


“That’s a great reason to do storytelling: to be very, very careful about it because if we’re not careful, it tends to amplify power dynamics… if the stories are all told from an urban perspective, it tends to amplify that power dynamic between urban and rural.” – Torsten Kjellstrand

Transcript: Episode #15| Storytelling Can Be Dangerous with Torsten Kjellstrand

Erin Borla:  0:10  

I’m Erin Borla, Executive Director and Trustee of the Roundhouse Foundation. Stories are what stitch rural communities together, whether they’re about a shared history or an article in the local paper about this year’s football star. Journalism plays a role in how rural communities envision and understand themselves, and how those outside the community perceive it. As we know, local papers in America are an endangered species, about 3000 newspapers closed in the last two decades, that’s two per week. That’s problematic for a number of reasons. But one big one is that now it’s much more common for outsiders to come into rural communities, and presume to tell stories about the people who live there. I sat down with Torsten Kjellstrand professor at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication to talk all about this, and the power of stories, and who tells them. Thorsten has been a photo and documentary film journalist throughout his career, which has taken him from rural Sweden, to a small community in frontier Washington state, and indigenous communities in Alaska. Stick around after the conversation, and I’ll share some of my takeaways.

Torsten Kjellstrand  1:13  

I’m from a rural place, my family, we emigrated from Sweden when I was a boy. And all of the places that have any meaning for me in Sweden are the rural places where my family comes from. So when we came when I as I was growing up in the United States, that’s, that’s where I felt at home on this continent, and still do. {Yeah} And this every community I’ve ever worked in, and lived in the stories that were not being told, or not being told completely, or being told in ways that I thought were hurtful. Were about people who lived in rural areas, mostly. Now, I haven’t lived and worked in some of the big cities, there are those stories there as well. But the ones that I latched on to were the stories that were not, I was not seeing yet the news, the big newspapers, and such, so that I gravitated towards those. I, there, there are journalists who run in packs, because they want to be where the action is. I’m the guy who’s running away from the packs to see what else is going on, except the things making loud noises.

Erin Borla:  2:27  

So yeah, and being able to tell that story from that community’s perspective.

Torsten Kjellstrand  2:31  

That’s always the challenge. As a journalist in particular, you are almost always an outsider. And that maybe came naturally to me, because I feel like an outsider in this country. Even now, after, I don’t know, 180 years, however long I’ve been in this country. And, and, of course, there are big dangers in being an outsider, you don’t pick up on social cues, you don’t understand the rules. If you don’t do your homework, you don’t know any of the background and all of that. But there are some advantages, which is that you see things maybe with a little more fresh perspective. And also, nobody expects you to know anything. So you kind of have permission to ask really basic, maybe even stupid questions. And people just think, oh, that’s that guy that doesn’t know anything, we have to take care of him and make sure he understands. And you can use that if, if you have time. And if you have the ,unless it’s important for you to prove everybody are smart, you are all the time, if you have the patience to sit with people and listen. I think that’s true of all journalism, but especially in urban areas, because so much of journalistic storytelling in this world happens from the point of view of urban areas. As someone who comes into a community, rural community and tries to tell stories with that community. We can only do what we can do from our perspective, and there’s going to be shortcomings and that we can on one hand, try to educate ourselves and listen so that those shortcomings are not egregious, and so that we’re not speaking patently untrue things. But we can also be clear about what your perspective is. So both the people in those communities and the audience that’s hearing our stories can evaluate what we do. And then I think we also, and this may be totally off topic, we also need to know when not to to do this. There are situations that we walk into their situations where I walk into or I think this is not my story to tell. I should not be doing this, someone else should be doing this. Someone with who’s a different age, a different gender, a different background, it could be a whole number of things. And I don’t I don’t believe in I don’t want to live in a world where the only stories you can tell are about people who are exactly like me. Like I want to tell stories that are more broad than that. But there are boundaries to that as well.

Erin Borla:  5:26  

Why don’t you talk a little bit about your experience working with Native communities, because you’re from Sweden, {I’m from Sweden} and yet you’re working with Native American communities, Indigenous communities, Alaska Natives and things like that. So tell us about that experience. And what brought you to that work.

Torsten Kjellstrand  5:42  

In the mid 90s, our family moved to Spokane, Eastern Washington. And I was very excited. Because if you’re an immigrant from Sweden, if you were me, as a little boy, coming to the United States, your definition of the United States was the American west. It wasn’t Atlanta, or Florida, or Detroit, or New York, or certainly not Minnesota, where we moved to. It was the West like that’s what real America was so and some of that lingered. And when we were moving to Spokane, I was very excited about that, kind of in a child like way. And part of it was landscape, but also culture. I was surprised at how seldom the newspaper I worked for covered native communities in that area. And there are a lot of urban and rural and rural. And I didn’t, I don’t think I had a judgment about it. I was just surprised. And I kind of saw it as an opportunity. I thought this is how I’m gonna get out of town and go look at other parts of America. Because I think I’m, I’m like many journalists, many storytellers were primarily driven by curiosity. And I was just curious about this new place I lived in. So but, but the and I don’t want to, I don’t want to throw the the newspaper under the bus here. I think this is generally true that too often the stories when we did do stories in native communities, it was about Powwows or alcohol, or the whole casino thing was beginning about then in that area, or some event, that someone got an award or something. That we didn’t cover the schools or law enforcement or kind of how communities work, how people decide who, how they’re governed, and who governs. We didn’t cover that kind of, and we did everywhere else. So, I just, I just said to the photo editor, I’d like to do this. And he, he said sounds great. And boy, I got all kinds of messages, it was never going to work. You know, your, your Swedish, you look Swedish here, you don’t belong here, no one will ever talk to you. And occasionally that was an issue. But I’ll tell you what was almost always the big issue is how little I knew about the worlds I was entering. And just how diverse native communities even native communities that are very close together can be very diverse and well in every way. But I began and I made a ton of mistakes. And some of them embarrassing. And I relied on I didn’t know it. But I was relying on people who were gracious enough to pull me aside and say you kind of screwed this up. How about if we talked about that? But that evolved over the years. And I also as I did those stories, it became more and more apparent to me how hidden much, many of those communities were from the rest of America. And so I, it, there was no heroic act. I just began this work and then kept going because I made friends and connections and I found it satisfying. And there was always another story around the corner that was intriguing again seemed to need to be told. What did I leave out? Oh, and then and then when I began making films, it was just like most important things in our lives. It was a combination of some, a few choices, and then a lot of happenstance and good luck. That, that got me in that world and, and it, going back to the idea of being an outsider working for an outside audience. Most of my films are for PBS and most of the photography I did ended up in regional newspapers. The most precious thing was time. And as storytellers, specifically as journalists, who are storytellers, the biggest crime we commit most often is being in a hurry. And that’s when you make the mistakes or you default to your, whatever your head thinks is normal, which is normally a stereotype of some kind. And so as the, as I started doing more and more work, I made contacts and get to know people in it, it seems silly just to walk away from it, because there could be years of relationships. And those relationships made it easier to feel like the storytelling I was doing was meaningful. And I think that’s if we get back to messaging about rural America, I think that’s often the mistake made by journalism, I think, philanthropy, I think governments, state and federal in particular, the lack of listening. Just assuming that the preconceptions we have, or the way we see the world is normal. And that because it fits our life, living in Portland, or Chicago, or Minneapolis, or wherever that those norms can explain. All those other communities we come in contact with, which are wildly diverse. And that if that our idea of the right solution for problems, is necessarily, get that we can just kind of come in and apply it without input from the community. And we need that for telling a story about the community, we need that input from the community if we want to come in and be useful to the community by whether it’s to for education, or health care, or the arts, or whatever, that somehow our perception of what the right thing to do, is necessarily true. I think we can contribute those, but then be willing to listen and modify. And you use the listening you do to question your own sense of what’s real, or what’s true, and what’s valuable, maybe most important. And which stories need to be told and how, and, and why. And to whom. But, but sometimes it isn’t negotiation between people to where, or maybe it’s maybe navigating is a better word, where you meet someone who has very different life experiences, or seemingly very different life experiences. And you try to find some way to have a conversation where you build trust. And that you have to have that trust, because storytelling is storytelling is dangerous. You tell the wrong story. You can hurt people. And, but it’s also it can be it can build and nurture and foster understanding and all that. But for someone to really allow you in to tell stories with them, they need to trust you. And so you have to figure out a way to build that trust, and it’s rarely to come in and tell them how it is. You know, here’s my point of view. {Yeah} You tell me about your story and I’m just going to take that away from your community, I’m going to build something out of it. {Yeah} See you later, that it’s much more people will let you in to the extent that they, they trust you {yeah} with, with this fragile thing they’re gonna hand you which is stories and information and things that you could use, either on purpose but more often, because you just don’t know enough you, you could do us in a very damaging way. 

Erin Borla:  14:26  

I just I wanted to touch base and go back to what you were talking about around you mentioned that storytelling can be dangerous. That’s a really, really strong statement. Let’s talk through that.

Torsten Kjellstrand  14:40  

I believe that because I believe storytelling is very powerful. There’s a native scholar Thomas King, who wrote a book called The Truth About Stories. And in there he says The Truth About Stories is that that’s all we are. And so we define ourselves and we make sense of the world around us through stories, through narratives. And there are other ways we do it. But even when we have data, we tend to present it in the form of stories, here’s, here’s what happened, or what is happening. And so that’s a great reason to do storytelling, it’s also a great reason to be very, very careful about how we do it. Because it tends to, if we’re not careful, it tends to amplify power dynamics. Currently, the power is in urban areas. And if the stories are all told, from an urban perspective, it tends to amplify that power dynamic between rural and urban America rap. While if we do it right, it can help foster understanding and empathy and all of those amazing things that storytelling can do. So it, storytelling can be dangerous, it can also be healing, and bridge people to eachother. It’s how we understand people who are completely different. I think anyone who’s read great literature has that experience, you can understand people who lived 300 years ago, or 3000 years ago, you can understand people who have grown up in places that you have never been. And that’s the power of it. But it’s like most powerful things, it can be used in a number of ways, either on purpose, and we call that propaganda. But inadvertently, as well. So, but the reason I don’t stop telling stories is because they need telling. And just because I am not just like the people whose stories I tell, most, almost all the time. I mean, I am telling the story, my village in Sweden, but I’m not like them anymore, either. Because I’ve lived away from there for 40 some years now. So even there, I’m coming at it from a from a bit of an outsider perspective. But it, but it is a reason to make sure that the methods you use, that your approach, you’re to come at it with a certain amount of humility, and a willingness to tell stories with people rather than about people, all of that. But that, and in, especially in the case of native communities, but also rural communities, there are not enough people from those communities telling stories as well. We’re lacking a perspective. And I don’t think the solution to that is for me to stop telling stories in those communities. Because I think I do have a valid point of view, and a valid entry into those stories and a valid set of lived experiences that there are stories I can tell that use the power of storytelling for positive gain in those stories in those communities about and with those communities. At the same time, there’s a reason why I hang around at universities. It’s not because I love University administrative structure, which I do not wish to just say that. It is because it’s an opportunity to address another problem we have in storytelling. And I mean that very broadly. I mean it in literature, I made it an advertising, journalism, all the different ways that stories get told. And that is to open doors for people from communities who are unrepresented, who have not had the power to be storytellers. As a teacher, to help young people, typically young people kind of enter the storytelling professions, so that they can bring their perspectives as people from the communities, rural communities, native communities, under or misrepresented communities of filling the blank. And I don’t, I don’t see, there certainly is I can probably only do one of those at any one minute. And it is a constant tension for me. How much time do I spend at the university part of my work teaching and how much do I spend on my storytelling? Because I do need to sleep and do other things but, but I think those two together are a pretty effective way to address. That is to bring up new generations of storytellers who are not like the all the other storytellers. And, and again, I’m most familiar with journalism, but journalism has been a kind of persistently white middle and upper middle class endeavor that comes from that perspective, and even so many journalists come from a fairly small number of schools. It’s like our national politicians in that way really, and that’s not that being any of those things is evil. It’s just that we need the voices of other people. So as a teacher, I can help bring that in. And teaching is just one way to do that. There are many other ways I think of doing that. That’s just the one, the avenue that’s open to me. And can I go on another tangent, {yeah, please, please, please } maybe that the way we have done journalism for a very long time, has changed dramatically, and almost certainly will continue to change dramatically. There are some good things coming out of that there is more attention paid to small things like ethnic press, and such. But it’s also left, the survivors in the world of newspapers in particular, are the big urban newspapers that come to visit the rest of us on occasion, {how lucky we are} how lucky we are that they graced us with their presence. Yes. And, and there’s some great work at those places that they’re there. And but there’s some persistent kind of ongoing issues, like the ones we’re talking about. You know, when I worked in agricultural journalism in Minnesota, for these tiny little papers, the joke was that the big folks in the East Coast would show up when they needed a goofy story about the man who has the big world’s biggest ball of string or something like that, that we were not in his way of saying that. They never can talk about water or soil or any of the things that really impacted life. So I think the question, but what’s been lost is in so many communities, there isn’t a place, there are not people who are systematically gathering and vetting information and putting it back out into the community. And that has left, people want information, and they want stories to help them make sense of what’s happening. And if there isn’t a system for accurate information to get out accurate is that’s a loaded term right there. We can talk about that for another hour. But but but some kind of some kind of vetting some kind of system of verification, then it will be filled with something else, which is often hurtful information. And, and part of is just to, it says, it’s as simple as economics, little papers can’t make a living anymore in a lot of places. And I hope we can find a way to replace them with something.

Erin Borla:  23:02  

And so as philanthropic entities, I know there’s a big push right now to fund journalism and ensure that there’s local journalism and accurate journalism. Do you feel like there, what are the opportunities in that space?

Torsten Kjellstrand  23:18  

Boy, so I’m a storyteller. So I mean, this is all gonna lead this story, I’m sorry. But I think if we can get journalists to live in the communities that they cover, that there’s a danger in that you can pick up a whole set of biases, and you might be unwilling to speak truths that need to be told. But it, it helps remind you daily, why you’re doing this and for whom you’re doing it. And it also keeps you honest, in your work that if you’re going to tell uncomfortable truths, or something that will be hard to hear that you do it with the spirit of a candid friend, which is who is both candid, and a friend. You can’t you have that both sides of that. You can’t just be candid, and be a jerk about it. That’s, that’s, that’s cruel. You can’t just be a friend and just tell people everything because we’re gonna be okay. Because sometimes you have to say things that need to be told. And that’s what when storytellers come from the outside, because a problem is there. {yeah} And then leave, it part of the feeling is you didn’t let us tell you what’s good about us. You only showed up because something was broken there. But there are things that are intact. And there may be things that we’ve fixed, that nobody’s noticing that. And so back to how do we help journalism happen in these small communities. I hope, I would hope that it isn’t by having more people fly in on occasion, but that we have, and that’s part of what we’ve lost even at big papers in this country, is there fewer correspondents living, there’s more kind of now oversees the big news operations have started using more local people. But I think part of that is money. {yeah} But, but I would hope that we can place people in community so that they live in the place that they’re covering. 

Erin Borla:  25:34  

Well, I certainly appreciate you spending time with me today. And so thank you for being here. Thank you for doing the work that you do.

Torsten Kjellstrand  25:38  

Thank you. Thanks for taking time to be interested in this.

Erin Borla:  25:49  

The concept of folks parachuting into community is similar to what we’re talking about throughout this series around funder is doing that same thing, right. Coming in and trying to fix a problem, right, we’re gonna fix it. And I think there’s consequences to that on becoming the norm of how we do, whether it’s philanthropy or journalism in this country. We lose trust from the communities, and frankly, the problems don’t get fixed. And it’s not our job to be the fixer, right. It’s a community’s job to come together and have buy in around that, it’s our job to support it. And what do we do about that, as funders? I think one thing that Torsten said, that really stuck with me is more journalists need to live in those rural places, not just be sent out to gather stories. And that can be difficult, right? How do we fund those types of things? And there’s some really great examples, the the Fund for Rural Journalism here in the state of Oregon, that’s pulling some of those things together. We’re also seeing some great things happen at the university level. I know at Washington State University, they have the Rural Plunge in their Journalism School. Where students in the J school are actually going out into community and writing those stories as part of their practicum. And learning about being authentic in places that you’re not from. I think that’s such a critical, critical thing. There’s other opportunities, maybe underwriting a local staff reporting position, maybe providing funding to a community college to offer a writing for media class. So folks that are in that community learn those skills.  Maybe there’s opportunity to work with local papers to create practicums, and things like that encourage local folks to write for their local paper. There’s lots of opportunities. I think it’s more about how we all perceive what we’re hearing. And I know that Torsten touched on and I just think it’s so powerful, that storytelling can be dangerous. And I don’t want to I, don’t want to just keep pounding on that. But it is, so dangerous if we don’t have the authentic voice of the community that’s really ringing true. If the story is only written for those whom are, who are reading it, further afar, then we’re missing the whole point. And we’re not celebrating the successes, as well as highlighting those challenges that we can come together on. Thanks for listening to Funding Rural. Again, we’ll have show notes and all sorts of information at

Transcribed by A.I. Please forgive any errors.

Published On: June 3rd, 2024 / Categories: Funding Rural Podcast /