Tumblelog by Soup.io
Newer posts are loading.
You are at the newest post.
Click here to check if anything new just came in.

December 02 2010

19:21

While they're hot: Video now available from our "Slow-Moving Crises" forum

For anyone who missed the great forum on slow-moving crises--on those complex stories that never seem to get the right kind of coverage--video is now available on TechTV:


MIT Tech TV

Clips of the individual speakers are also posted:

  • Roz Williams, an MIT historian who uses imaginative literature as a source of evidence and insight into the history of technology
  • Abrahm Lustgarten, investigative reporter for ProPublica, who spoke about his coverage of the B.P. oil spill
  • Andrea Pitzer, editor of Harvard's Nieman Storyboard, who showed off examples of visual, audio and multimedia narrative reporting

Did their ideas spark some of your own for how we can better cover complicated, slow-moving crises? Share thoughts in the comments below.

November 19 2010

17:30

Covering a crisis more like molasses than quicksand

How do you cover a crisis that is not a crisis in the way we generally think of one — sudden, frenzied, tragic — but rather a tragedy that builds, slowly, tragically, over time? From the BP oil spill to Haiti’s pre- and post-earthquake heartbreaks to the world financial crisis to the war in Afghanistan — the latest conflict to be nicknamed, with only slight hyperbole, “the forever war” — to the even more insidious crises that are wounded social and political institutions: Some of the most important stories journalists can cover are not singular stories at all, but phenomena that stretch and wind through time. And doing them justice, in every sense, requires not only attention to context and nuance and explanation, but also patience: keeping up with them, unpacking them, and finding ways to sustain reader interest in and outrage about them, over long — sometimes years-long — stretches.

So how do you do it?

In a panel discussion at MIT yesterday evening, co-sponsored by the school’s Communications Forum and its Center for Future Civic Media, four experts tackled that questions, considering, from their areas of expertise, the idea of continuity as it relates to journalistic narratives. MIT technology historian Rosalind Williams discussed theoretical approaches to history as a function of human impact; investigative reporter Abrahm Lustgarten discussed his experience covering slow-moving stories for ProPublica; and our own Andrea Pitzer, editor of our sister site, Nieman Storyboard, discussed the role that narrative itself can play in unpacking stories and sustaining consumer interest in them over time.

“Journalism itself is in the midst of a slow-moving crisis,” the panel’s moderator, MIT writing instructor and science journalist Thomas Levenson, noted by way of context for the event. The web allows not only for a new immediacy in news coverage, but also for, of course, a new democratization of it. “There is this lovely possibility here,” he said. But our new tools also necessitate rethinking what “news coverage” is in the first place — and how we think about representing crises that are fluid, rather than solid.

“Slow-moving crisis’ is a contradiction,” Williams pointed out; when it comes to what we think of as crises, “our language has not caught up with the events” it tries to describe. The intricacies of the institutions we’ve developed for ourselves lead, she said, to what another MIT historian, Leo Marx, has has called a “semantic void”: a state of affairs for which we lack language — words, concepts, frameworks — that can adequately convey import and magnitude.

The word “crisis” itself, Williams pointed out, which comes from Greek word kerein (“to separate or shear”), originally had the sense of a static event: a singular, sudden rip in the continuity of human events. It’s since evolved into something much more amorphous and, thus, hard to capture — the result in part, she said, of a changing attitude toward humans’ relationship with the wider world.

It’s a problem we’ve seen throughout the history of technology, Williams noted, the result of an evolving recognition that the world is not a constant in the great equation of human experience, but rather another variable. In the past, she said, our general concept of history was rooted in the idea that history itself “consists of deeds and words that take place on the stable stage that is the world” — and the stage itself was predictable and solid, in contrast to the frailty of the human condition. Now, though, we generally recognize the universality of movement: Our context moves with us.

What that can lead to, though, when it comes to narrative, is a kind of reductive continuity. “If the sun never sets on history, then historians are really challenged,” she said — as are, of course, journalists. When there’s no arc to maintain, no ending to know, there’s no conclusion by which to calibrate context. There’s nothing to root our narratives. “If it’s a never-ending story, then you don’t understand the world — you don’t understand human life,” Williams said.

What we can understand, though, is the present moment. So it’s incumbent on us, Williams concluded, to try to match our rhetoric to the realities of the movements of history. “The point is to join up the crisis-feeling,” she said, echoing William Empson, with the realities of lived experience.

And, for that, simple storytelling — the ancient art of weaving together characters and plots and excitement — can be crucial, Pitzer said. Narrative “is really how people understand public crisis,” she noted; “it’s how they understand public policy issues.” Study after study has suggested the power of story not just as an artistic product, but as a cognitive function. Narrative buys people’s attention, allows them to retain complex information longer, she said. It is a teaching tool as much as an aesthetic feature. Indeed, if we journalists don’t provide narratives in our work, Pitzer noted — if we don’t consciously weave disparate facts into some a recognizable arc of action — “we are in some way denying them the ability to understand.”

Lustgarten applied that idea to his own coverage of the recent BP oil spill — a series of related reports that he and his ProPublica colleagues tackled (and are still tackling) over a long stretch of time. ProPublica’s aim with its stories, he said, is to capture reader interest with “a bit of a drumbeat of communication”: “rather than have one critical climax,” the idea is to “publish again and again, in incremental bits,” to help readers “find a pathway through the clamor that’s so distracting.”

In the outlet’s BP reporting, realizing that idea “was an exercise in commitment,” he said — a challenge of setting, and then sticking to, a vision for contextual, continual coverage rather than discrete reports. There were certainly moments, Lustgarten noted, when smaller scoops threatened to distract them; “it was very difficult to stay focused on what we had decided to do,” he said. “It was very difficult to stay disciplined.”

As to the broad question of completeness — how do you define an “event” against other events? How do you know when your reporting is finished? — Lustgarten gave a nod to Williams’ dissatisfaction with our current framings. ProPublica’s unique setup allows its reporters to see stories through “until their organic conclusion,” he noted; but determining that end point is a matter of serendipity and sensibility as much as anything else. Often, the conclusion point often comes down to reporter interest, he said. There are no clear borders between story and not-story.

So it was more fitting that ironic that the panel didn’t reach a conclusion in its own discussions. How could it? It highlighted, though, an idea that any journalist can put to practice: the crucial necessity of the long-view mindset, the insistence on placing even the most seemingly isolated events into the broader context of history. Always asking, in other words, “Why does this matter?” And that may involve being selective about the this we share. As Williams put it: “Our biggest responsibility is to determine which facts are worthy of being discovered.”

Older posts are this way If this message doesn't go away, click anywhere on the page to continue loading posts.
Could not load more posts
Maybe Soup is currently being updated? I'll try again automatically in a few seconds...
Just a second, loading more posts...
You've reached the end.

Don't be the product, buy the product!

Schweinderl