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March 14 2011

17:53

What we’re watching: a town washed away, satellite images and covering conflict

With Muammar Qaddafi’s efforts to suppress armed rebellion in Libya and the events unleashed by the massive earthquake in Japan on Friday, it’s a wonder that those of us not involved in the immediate coverage or relief can do anything but sit and watch these images in horror, hoping for the best possible outcomes in the face of tragedy.

Japan Earthquake Aftermath” and “Libya’s Escalating Conflict” from Alan Taylor of the Atlantic’s “In Focus.” Ongoing curation of unforgettable single photos – a moving combination of human and epic images.

Satellite Photos of Japan, Before and After the Quake and Tsunami,” by Alan McLean, Matthew Ericson and Archie Tse of the New York Times. Dramatic interactive sliders use GeoEye imagery to show before-and-after damage done to six Japanese cities as a result of last week’s earthquake and tsunami.

Street-Level Footage of a Town Washing Away,” from Japanese television (via @geneweingarten). Gene Weingarten writes, “The anonymous videographer here is going to be remembered as a modern Zapruder.”

12 Must-See Stories about Covering Conflict,” from MultimediaShooter.com. A roundup of links to Magnum, VII, and other photojournalists and organizations reflecting combat in Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Coming Home a Different Person,” from The Washington Post, winner of the Documentary Project of the Year Award from Pictures Of the Year International (POYi). Dramatic visuals, personal stories, and a lot of context fill out our developing understanding of traumatic brain injury and its effects on those fighting in battle or caught in the crossfire. (Those credited for the project include Whitney Shefte, Marvin Joseph, Alberto Cuadra, Christian Davenport, Kat Downs and Marc Fisher.)

And in a quick switch from suggested viewing to suggested reading, those reporting on Mideast unrest or the aftermath of the earthquake might want to return to Nieman Reports’ Winter 2009 issue “Trauma in the Aftermath,”a thought-provoking take on covering conflict and tragedy.

January 10 2011

16:11

Narrative on deadline: stories on the shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords

Doing narrative stories on the heels of breaking news generally precludes the kind of lyricism often associated with the best examples of the form. Yet it can be a good way to get a framework established on a confusing story – such as the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords over the weekend.

Building a story from social media, NPR senior strategist Andy Carvin started a Storify timeline just two hours after the shooting began. Early on, NPR and several other outlets mistakenly posted that Giffords had been killed, which is reflected and then corrected in Carvin’s Storify account. (There has been a lot of discussion of the error since, including criticism of NPR and the station’s apology.)

The next day, The New York Times and The Washington Post sites posted text narratives of that deceptively sunny morning outside a Safeway in Tucson. In “Tucson shootings: How Gabrielle Giffords’s event for constituents turned to tragedy,” the Post’s Philip Rucker and Marc Fisher give readers some background on Giffords and her normal schedule, recapturing the feel of what started as a mundane event. When the shooting begins, readers feel the shock and horror of the moment. “A Single, Terrifying Moment: Shots Fired, a Scuffle and Some Luck,” Adam Nagourney’s piece in The New York Times, focuses more tightly on the chaos and violence, opening with a dramatic struggle between bystanders and the gunman as he attempted to reload.

And hours before the Post and the Times had posted their narratives, The Arizona Republic’s Jaimee Rose and Mary Jo Pitzl had turned on a dime to get their own angle by following Daniel Hernandez, Giffords’ brand-new intern, who may have saved her life. “Daniel Hernandez, intern, stays by Gabrielle Giffords’ side,” the brief story of events from Hernandez’s view, added a new perspective on not only the shooting but our understanding of Giffords’ condition in the moments just afterward.

We’ll continue to compile storytelling approaches to the tragic events of this weekend. Please send us links to any related narratives you see.

December 10 2010

17:02

Facebook as narrative: The Washington Post tries it out online and in print

This morning’s Washington Post print edition carried a story built out of an annotated Facebook feed. The piece was posted to washingtonpost.com last night with the title “A Facebook story: A mother’s joy and a family’s sorrow.” While I’d seen the Post and other papers structure stories around Twitter and Tumblr feeds, and Slate’s mock presidential feed has had a long run, I had yet to see a reported piece told via Facebook status updates.

Here’s a glimpse of what the story looks like online:

I spoke with the story’s editor, Marc Fisher, this morning about the project. Here are excerpts from our conversation:

Where did this story come from? How did you first find out about it?

The reporter for the story, Ian Shapira, heard about it through his wife, who heard about it through her work.

What did you use to put the story together? Was it an existing tool, or something the Post’s developers put together?

We actually had to develop something expressly for this, so it took an enormous number of work hours on the part of both the designer for the web and the print designer as well. So neither was done with any template, really. Both had to experiment to get the Facebook look down right.

The challenge with print was to make it legible. That went through several iterations. And the challenge online was to make it look plausible and recognizable. We struggled with how much in the way of links to have in there. We couldn’t pick up the entire Facebook page as is, so we had to recreate the links on that page.

It’s a story told via a Facebook feed. Does that feel fundamentally different than the long-form narrative the Post has done so often and so well in the past, or is it just a question of presentation?

It is fundamentally different, because the narration is provided by the original source. We had a little bit of a struggle early on in the project about just how much of our voice would be in the story. I was pushing all the way through for us to be very much on the sidelines and providing just the necessary bits of context, so that people understood who these characters were.

One of the gifts that Shana left behind was this extraordinary narration that she provided in great detail. This is the blessing and the curse of Facebook in that people are narrating their lives in this very intimate and granular sort of way, which creeps out some people and is literally fascinating to many others. That really was one of the main reasons we did the piece.

It was a way to get people talking about how people are portraying their lives on Facebook. The story in and of itself has a power, and there’s almost a voyeuristic appeal to it. But I think what makes it worthwhile beyond that is the questions it raises about just how much we’re living on Facebook and whether and to what extent that displaces human contact.

Did you at any point consider doing the story straight and just quoting some sections of the Facebook feed?

My thought from the beginning was that we would do it in the form of a Facebook page. The reporter wanted originally to do it as more of a traditional narrative, and then he very much embraced this idea. There was definitely debate about it in the early stages, all with an eye toward how to tell the story best and how to push the envelope on using Facebook as a storytelling tool.

It’s a story about a death. Social media has a reputation for being light and entertainment-focused. Did you worry about bridging those two ideas, or were you hoping that any tension between them would heighten the impact of what is ultimately a heavy story?

It is a heavy story, but it isn’t so much a story about death as it is love and loss. It’s a tough story, and we’re hearing form a lot of people that it hits them hard. We debated over quite some time whether to leave the death as a surprise in the narrative or to give it away at the very top, and we decided to let the story take its natural course, the way it had in real life, that that was truer to the story.

There is an inherent power to this story, but I think what was equally appealing to us was the chance to talk about what Facebook means and to use this as a vehicle for getting people to think about what kinds of stories we tell on Facebook.

There are real issues about what happens when someone dies on Facebook and who owns the page and how long it stays up. There are lots of users who believe that the page belongs to the person’s friends and should stay there as a memorial, and there are relatives who in a number of cases are fighting with Facebook to get control of someone’s page or to take it down. These are real issues about who owns someone’s story. That came up in the construction of this piece.

We decided we would not do the story unless the family endorsed our doing it in this way. They were totally on board and supportive, but they might not have been.

I was just predicting last week to our sister site, Nieman Lab, that we’d be seeing a lot more stories built out of Twitter and Facebook feeds in 2011, and here you didn’t even wait for January. I was also hypothesizing that these new forms of storytelling might be clumsy for a while. Did anything about the process or the end product feel messy or awkward to you?

It’s a little different, because the restrictions of the form made it more difficult. You can’t go in and edit or change the basic text of the story, because it’s her words, and we didn’t feel we had the right to play with that the way we would with our own copy. The version that’s in the print paper is heavily condensed, but we didn’t change anything that she wrote. The version online is much more full, though it, too, is shorter than the original. It is a more difficult and more time-consuming form to work in, because what we can bring to the story really had to be super-condensed into these little annotations we included between her status updates.

It’s a restrictive form, but if you have the right kind of story – and it has to be a narrative; it has to be something that is very tightly told. Not every story lends itself to this, but I think there are these human dramas and revealing tales that take place on Facebook, and we should be exploring ways to use them to tell them in a compelling way online.

Telling it in print is probably not going to be an everyday kind of thing because of the space considerations. But as an online storytelling tool, I think it has tremendous power and promise.

What else should we know about the project?

For people trying to do this at home, it really was remarkably time-consuming, and the designers – Grace Koerber on the online side and Greg Manifold on the print side – put in lots of long nights trying to make this work. There is no template for this. The upside is that no one can steal our copy on this because it doesn’t transfer, so they’re actually going to have to link to us. But the downside is that it was many dozens of hours of work.

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