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From AIDS to Ebola: Journalism, disease, and the mentality of fear

I remember a day back in the 1980s when I first met a person who I thought had AIDS.  I was sitting at the front desk of the old storefront building of the Poynter Institute when a tall gaunt man entered through the glass doors and approached me with a question. I have forgotten his question, but I do remember being frightened by his appearance.

He had several lesions on his face, the kind that people got after their immune system had been compromised by the AIDS virus. I did not reach out to shake his hand, my usual gesture, but babbled some reason to direct him out of the building. I am not proud of this. I just want to establish my credentials as someone capable of panicky, irrational fear.

About a decade after that meeting, 1996 to be exact, I published a month-long series in what was then the St. Petersburg Times called “Three Little Words.”  It told the story of a seemingly normal Midwestern family in which father died of AIDS. I learned a lot during the reporting and writing of that narrative. The most important lesson: Be not afraid.

I learned, for example, that HIV was much harder to contract than I had originally thought. Turning back the clock a decade, I could have shaken hands with that man that came into Poynter; I could have embraced him like a brother; we could share a meal without fear of infection. It would have been different if we had shared a needle to shoot up drugs or if we had engaged in anal intercourse.

There is that phrase. Anal intercourse. The one that so many news outlets were afraid to use, paralyzed by their inhibitions over what was possible to publish in a “family newspaper.”  So they resorted to euphemism:  “the exchange of bodily fluids.”  As a result of such squeamishness, I believe that ignorance was spread and that lives were lost.

In addition, we unleashed a decade of hate and discrimination. Two groups felt it most harshly:  poor people of color who looked – in the eyes of suburban whites – to be drug addicts; and gay men, all of whom were suspected of dangerous sexual practices with dozens if not hundreds of partners.

While my series on AIDS was running, I was invited by Times sports editor Hubert Mizell to appear on his morning radio talk show. A couple of prominent athletes had been diagnosed with the disease, and Mizell thought the conversation would have news value. I remember one phone call from a hockey fan who said he would no longer attend games because he might become infected with the AIDS virus. We looked at each other, puzzled. Here was his rationale:  hockey players get into fights along the boards and if they bled, their blood might splatter into the stands, infecting fans with AIDS.

I can remember my response years later, almost word for word. “Yeah, you might die as a result of attending a hockey game, sir. You might get hit in the head with a puck!”

I am no expert on Ebola, just a concerned American and writer who has been following a lot of the news coverage. Much of it has been very good. But even the best, most cautious, most nuanced coverage, I fear, has a hard time gaining traction.

Journalists, medical professionals, political leaders, people of reason and good faith everywhere must remember that we are fighting one of the most powerful forces in human history: the narrative of the leper. To be called, even metaphorically, a leper means that you are someone who is despised and feared. You will wear a bell around your neck. At your approach, people who fear you will stone you or put you in quarantine to die: leper colonies. Only holy men and women – Jesus, Damian, Mother Teresa – owned the moral courage to comfort the afflicted.

To move from the sublime to the ridiculous, even our popular culture reinforces the ignorant fear of infection. Exhibit A: the zombie. How many thousands and thousands of cinematic zombies have had their heads cut off, their brains blown out, or their bodies torched?  If I lived in Zombie Land, that, no doubt, would be my reaction, too. Why? Because if I am bitten, I will become infected, and, after infection, I will join the legions of the living dead. At their core, most horror stories are allegories about disease.

There is another old narrative that has raised its ugly head, one that I have known as a boy, but existed much longer than that. It is the story of Darkest Africa, and it expressed the worst fears of a privileged white race. As great a literary artist as Joseph Conrad succumbed to it in his novel Heart of Darkness. In this narrative, the Dark Continent is a place of primitive and pervasive dangers, where wild animals abound and dark-skinned humans engage in barbaric practices such as cannibalism. Even the cartoons of my youth played out versions of this theme.

I do not believe the irrational public fear of Ebola would be nearly as great if the disease had not come “out of Africa.”

So there is a lot of work to do, my brothers and sisters in journalism. The more we learn, I will predict, the more reason and proportion we will bring to the process. It took me a decade to overcome my fear of AIDS. I know we can do better than that.

When I began this essay, my plan was just to compare Ebola to AIDS. That move led me to something much deeper, the narratives of the despised leper and the primal fears of the Dark Continent.  Fear of disease has always been linked to the enemy, the scapegoat. In Shakespeare’s time, the English called syphilis the “French disease.” European Christians blamed the Black Death on Jews, even as they would eventually carry diseases, such as smallpox, to the inhabitants of the New World.This is the mythology of disease. We blame its transmission on people we despise.

In many cases, it is the role of the journalist to point the public’s attention to things they should be afraid of: that hurricane brewing in the Gulf; air bags that blast shrapnel onto drivers; that sinkhole near the bridge. But there is another – I am tempted to say more important – role. That is to take corrosive fear, the kind that leads to prejudice and hate, and apply the disinfecting light of cool reason and reliable information Read more

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Wednesday, Oct. 22, 2014

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Hysteria or proper precaution — a conversation with Michel du Cille

Michel Du Cille

Michel du Cille (Photo by: Julia Ewan/TWP)


Kenny Irby interviewed Washington Post photographer Michel du Cille about his work in Liberia covering the Ebola virus, but before we get into his work, we will address Syracuse University’s decision to disinvite the three-time Pulitzer Prize winner from its S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications Fall Workshop.

Each side stands firm that they were considering what would be best for the students on the campus of Syracuse University.

Last Thursday, du Cille had “cleared the 21-day monitoring window for Ebola and was symptom free,” when Syracuse officials told him not to come to the journalism workshop.

It is “pandering to the hysteria of ignorance,” said du Cille. “The most disappointing part of this bad decision is the disservice to the fine journalism students at Syracuse’s Newhouse School. What a missed opportunity to teach future media professionals how to seek out accurate hard facts; backed up with full details about the Ebola crisis,” he wrote in a Facebook post.

RELATED: “Covering Ebola: A Poynter Conversation”

Lorraine Branham, Dean of S.I. Newhouse, told Poynter via email that what du Cille “has not made clear in his criticism of us is that he was not coming to Syracuse to show his work from Liberia or discuss the Ebola crisis. If he were, I might acknowledge that my students missed something — that would have indeed have been a missed opportunity. But this workshop had nothing to do with Liberia or Ebola. He would have critiqued portfolios and reviewed student work.”

For Branham, the decision was more about the general greater good of the university then her personal position. Branham told local media on Friday that if it were just about her she would welcome him into her home for dinner and not fear for her safety.

“This was a tough call but I still believe it was the right one for us,” said Branham. “We did not make this decision lightly. We did so after talking with health officials and local medical doctors who suggested we exercise ‘an abundance of caution.’  A primary concern for us was the issue of the incubation period. While du Cille had not shown any signs of infection by the 21st day — the same day he was schedule to visit Syracuse — we knew that some people have a longer incubation period.”

The issue of how long the incubation period lasts is an open question, said Branham, who sent articles to back up her claim, including one from The Washington Post.

Poynter: How and when were you informed that you were being disinvited to the Syracuse workshop?

Du Cille:  I flew in from Atlanta and headed up to Cap Hill to photograph Centers for Disease Control director Dr. Thomas Frieden at a noon hearing. Got a text from home to call Bruce Strong.

Poynter: Was Nikki, your wife, disinvited as well? (Nikki Kahn is also a photographer with the Washington Post)

Du Cille: By the time I received a phone call from Bruce Strong the SU University leadership had already been in direct meetings before directly discussing with me…It seemed they did not want hear debate from me. Both Nikki and I were disinvited.

Poynter: Why do you think that the hysteria around potential Ebola contamination is so high?

Du Cille: It is a number of things. The mistakes centered around early control of the virus; the mounting deaths in West Africa; the misinformation by some of our own media colleagues; an irrational hysterical public; And I’ll have to say there is a great deal of xenophobia especially, from political leaders.

Poynter:  What alternatives might you have offered if given a voice in the process?

Du Cille: I would have offered to speak publicly about what I saw; offered personal detailed accounts on how the disease spreads. I simply would have offered the University an option to present an informational public forum. There had to be better ways to deal with their fears.

Girl with Ebola

Pearlina stands at the screen door while others talk outside on Sunday, September 21, 2014 in Monrovia, Liberia. Pearlina’s mother died in an ambulance on the way to Redemption Hospital two weeks ago; the child was rescued by Katie Meyler and is being care for by the NGO called More than Me. Pearlina is under observation for signs of Ebola.
Photo by Michel duCille / TWP

Poynter:  How did you draw the Ebola assignment in Liberia?

Du Cille:   I volunteered. I love working in West Africa and thought the Ebola story was historic. I didn’t want to miss it.

Poynter: Tell me about your research and preparation for this assignment.

Du Cille: This was my fourth trip to Liberia. I had great familiarity with the people and region. I also read everything I could find about Ebola.

Poynter: What precautions were you able to take in advance of your journey?

Michel du Cille in his Tyvek suit.

Michel du Cille preps in Tyvek suit; Liberia Sept 29, 2014.
while on assignment covering the Ebola crisis in Liberia. (Photo By: Katie Meyler)


Du Cille: Beside the normal medical prevention vaccines and meds, I consulted with photojournalists who had recently been there: John Moore and David Gilkey, both had just finished rotations. They advised me to get Tyvek suits, good gloves and masks, rubber boots.  They warned that vigilance on washing hands and spraying was critical.  But I also read everything I could find on how to get out of the suits to prevent contamination.

Poynter: Tell me about your biggest challenge will covering this story. Was it physical or mental?

Du Cille:  It was mental … I believe that the world must see how horrible and dehumanizing are the effects of Ebola. After eight trips to the African continent, I never tire or complain about the harshness of life. To me each journey there is an almost spiritual experience. I guess partly because I relate so well to the West African way. Growing up in Jamaica was very much the same; the cadence, body language of the people are pretty very similar.

Poynter: Was there a similar story that prepared you for such a risk?

Du Cille: No, nothing in my 40 years as a photojournalist was ever like this.

Poynter: Were there other international journalists covering this story?

Du Cille: Yes, but not the usual hordes. It is expensive and dangerous.

Poynter: How did you care for yourself and your gear during this assignment?

Du Cille: Vigilant cleaning and spraying with chlorine solution. The new Liberian handshake is elbow-to- elbow bump and no touching of any kind.

Poynter: Tell me about the frame of mind of the people that you met at the church on that Sunday morning?.

Du Cille: Strangely they were upbeat and almost normal. I expected sadness and emotion. I think after years of war and struggle, Liberians just focus on survival.

Poynter: What’s your most vivid memory now that you are back in the U.S.?

Du Cille: Sadly, I photographed a very ill woman who I presumed was too far gone. She was bleeding from the mouth. That situation really touched me. Her family arrived with their arms, feet and torso wrapped in plastic. They seemed so desperate. (Du Cille wrote a piece about the photograph for News Photographer, which will appear in its next edition. )

Poynter: How did you prepare for the multimedia requirement and what gear did you use most?

Du Cille: I did Instagram as much as I could and a small amount of video with my Nikon gear.

Poynter: Do you have any advice based on your lessons learned for visual reporters as the coverage continues?

Du Cille: Yes. Don’t go if you are not prepared to take the risks. It is different from bullets and guns. A simple dab to wipe your eye could get you infected.

Correction: Previous versions of this story spelled du Cille’s last name inconsistently. Read more

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Sunday, Oct. 19, 2014

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Bergantino issues sharp letter to Putin after detention in Russia

Joe Bergantino, New England Center for Investigative Reporting

Joe Bergantino, New England Center for Investigative Reporting

Joe Bergantino is safely back home in Boston but he is still steaming over being detained in Russia and fired off a letter to Russian President Valdimir Putin. “Was it really necessary to replay a scene from a tired, old cold war movie?” the letter said.

Bergantino, the head of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting was invited by the U.S. State Department to Moscow and St. Petersburg to teach investigative reporting techniques to Russian journalists.

As Bergantino told Poynter.org last week, he had just started teaching the class when Russian immigration officers walked into his classroom and demanded to see his passport and visa. A few minutes later, they came back to the classroom and ordered Bergantino and colleague Randy Covington, director of Newsplex to come with them. After hours of questioning and being hauled before a judge, the two Americans were told they had the wrong visas and would have to shut their journalism workshop down.

Bergantino dashed off a note to Putin Sunday saying, “Among our “subversive” topics: how to be fair and balanced, ethical and thorough, and how to use data to be more precise and accurate.” He continued, “The 14 journalists in the room in St. Petersburg were eager to learn. Instead they were recipients of a not-so-subtle message of power and intimidation, and a reminder of the obstacles they face while you’re in charge.”

Russian journalists interview Bergantino (photo provided by Joe Bergantino)

Russian journalists interview Bergantino (photo provided by Joe Bergantino)

Bergantino said even while he and Covington were being investigated, Russian authorities publicized the detention:

In the interest of fairness, I should note that your immigration service posted our names and the charges against us on its website while we were being detained. You can be transparent when you choose to send a message, which in this case was ‘We’re showing Americans who’s boss.’

And when a Russian TV crew unexpectedly arrived to interview us, your agents offered us tea and cookies.

Bergantino said he believes Putin is trying to send a message to NGOs not to come to Russia to teach journalism. Journalism training groups like Poynter, Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) and the New England Center for Investigative Reporting often work abroad training journalists how to strengthen their interviewing skills, how to be tough but fair and how to use government records in their reporting. Bergantino said he has taught in China, Vietnam and Serbia with no problems.

You’re clearly playing by the bully-strongman playbook.  Strip away freedom of the press and do whatever you please because no one’s holding you accountable. It’s easy being ‘leader’ when those who dare to question you face intimidation and punishment.

Bergantino told me last week that the judge told him that he could return to Russia if he could get the proper visa next time.  Most likely, this letter to Putin lowered the chances of that happening. Read more

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Wednesday, Oct. 15, 2014

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Here’s a peek behind the curtain of a televised debate

In the next two weeks, candidates from 11 hotly contested elections will face each other in statewide debates. Candidates in nine other states faced each other in debates already this month. In these days of the tightly scripted message-of-the-day campaigning, debates might be the closest voters get to hearing unscripted viewpoints.

Screen shot 2014-10-12 at 8.24.44 PMMy Poynter colleague Jill Geisler, a veteran journalist in her home state of Wisconsin, moderated one of those high-profile TV debates last week. Republican Gov. Scott Walker faced Democrat Mary Burke. Walker is sometimes mentioned as a 2016 presidential possibility, but he has to get past Burke first and the polls show it is a tight race. The debate focused on typical fare; jobs, increasing minimum wage, social issues including abortion and health care, especially involving health care for women.

Geisler said a key to a successful debate lies in part to holding the candidates to strict time limits and even having the power to cut a long-winded candidate’s microphone off (which happened in the Wisconsin debate.) The Wisconsin debate also included a rule that can allow the moderator and journalists to try to force the candidates to deliver specific answers.

Jill: When I agreed to serve as moderator, I proposed the addition of a “moderator’s option” of an additional 30 seconds each in the event a topic called for it.   Both candidates’ camps agreed. (The negotiations around debate formats are fascinating, by the way. Right down to coin flips for order of questions and who gets to stand where.)  When the campaigns agreed to that proposed “moderator’s option,” we used it to press for specifics.

For example, the topic of Wisconsin’s current minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. A panelist asked the candidates what they felt the state’s minimum wage should be. When only one of the two gave a number (Burke proposed raising it to $10.10 over a multi-step process), and Gov. Walker talked about aspiring to create jobs that pay much more than the minimum wage, I exercised the moderator’s option to follow up with Gov. Walker on a request for a specific number.

I asked Geisler how the journalists on the debate panel decided what to ask:

Jill: In our case, the journalists were aware of the subject areas their colleagues on the panel intended to cover. This was done to avoid duplication of effort and provide the greatest possible array of subjects. Because we live in a world today in which candidates throw around “facts” that are often in dispute, the panel and I agreed on the goal of asking well-researched, fact based questions that, whenever possible, cited non-partisan, verifiable sources.

Al: How did you go about selecting questions that people really want answered?

Jill: We discussed our goals – serving the greatest possible number of voters with specific answers. Then we discussed issues where there were clear differences between the candidates. We also discussed issues in which candidates had, until then, refrained from providing specifics on their platforms. We also wanted to respect the fact that there are issues of statewide importance and some that are hotter in the area of the state from which we were broadcasting. That’s how the topic of sand mining found its way into the questions.

Do televised debates matter?

It may very well be that televised political debates do little to change voter behavior. But lots of academic research shows they do have value. The main value of political debates, researchers say, is that voters learn new information about the candidates, especially important for newcomers to the political scene. The FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver says in presidential debates, the challenger nearly always has the most to gain, and sometimes does gain from the exposure. Mostly the gains, Silver says, come from undecided voters, not from the other side. Why? Debate watchers tend to see what they want to see, and debates tend to affirm what they already believed about candidates.

John Sides, writing for Washington Monthly, pointed out that even the most famous TV debates may be misunderstood. The Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960 is often cited as a game-changer after Richard Nixon sweated profusely and Kennedy calmly answered questions. Sides points out:

In Theodore White’s famous recounting of the election, Kennedy appeared ”calm and nerveless”while Nixon was ”haggardlooking to the point of sickness.” Two Gallup polls suggest that after the debate Kennedy moved from 1 point behind Nixon to 3 points ahead, although it is difficult to know whether that shift is statistically meaningful. Both Stimson and Erikson and Wlezien find that Kennedy’s margin after all of the debates was only slightly higher than his margin on the eve of the first debate. Moreover, any trend in Kennedy’s favor began before the debates were held. Clearly 1960 was a close election, and many factors, including the debates, may have contributed something to Kennedy’s narrow victory. But it is difficult to say that the debates were crucial.

Absent any big gaffes or headline producing news from the candidates themselves, which are rare in televised debates, the moderator can become news.  Viewers critique whether the journalists are too soft or too tough on candidates.  Geisler said she didn’t want to become a focus of any post-debate chatter so she even had to consider what to wear.

Jill: I met with the panelists several times for some terrific brainstorming in which we talked about potential topics and how to frame questions fairly. Then there were the usual production details that TV folks sweat over — writing my opening remarks to set a tone and share the rules so things were transparent to the folks at home, working on camera angles and lines of sight for countdown clocks, determining how the panelists and I would use the “moderator’s option” to press for more details, and even how I’d make sure that I had a decent “back of my hair day” because the moderator is seen from behind in so many of the wide shots, and I didn’t want anything regarding my clothing or hair to be a distraction. And one more thing: although my wardrobe has quite a few red and blue jackets, I chose pink, so no one would presume a political message.

A 2013 Washington Post story pointed out that a wide range of factors including post-debate spin can heavily influence debate watchers. The Post’s story points to a number of studies that showed how different network commentators affected who people thought won a debate. And there were other more subtle factors that come into play, including how good-looking the candidate is on TV.

John Wihbey at the Kennedy School has compiled a list of studies on debate effects, and many study factors that one wouldn’t think would have any impact at all, like what television setting a voter is using. But these things do matter, at least a little bit.

Several studies suggest that a candidate’s appearance during the debates could have a big impact. MIT’s Gabriel Lenz and Chappell Lawson have found that attractive candidates disproportionately benefit from debates, with new support coming especially from less informed voters. The College of Wooster’s Angela Bos, Bas van Doorn and Abbey Smanik found that HDTV hurt John McCain in 2008, with viewers reacting negatively to his appearance on higher-resolution screens.

 

Screen shot 2014-10-12 at 8.25.09 PMEvery election season, it seems, there is one final question that journalists turn to to reveal something personal about the candidates. Over the years panelists have asked candidates if they know the price of a loaf of bread or a gallon of milk. I have seen journalists ask candidates what their favorite “drink” is. In one especially memorable debate the first candidate said gin and tonic, the rest of the candidates said milk or orange juice and left the first poor sucker hanging. In the Wisconsin debate, the journalists asked the candidates to say something, anything nice about the other. I asked Jill what the journalists were fishing for:

Jill: I think it might be seen as the antithesis of the very negative advertising in today’s races. It’s a check to see if the candidate can rise above the rancor, however briefly.

But in our case, the question also served a very practical purpose. Debates involve tricky timing. The moderator has to end the questions in time for closing statements from both candidates. But what do you do if there’s only one or two minutes left before the time you have stop in order to get to those closing statements? You need a question that, in fairness, does not require a complicated answer. So during our debate prep, when one of our journalists told me he’d thought of asking such a question, I asked him to keep it ready in case we needed it. It turned out, we did. I told the candidates we had only a short time left before their final statements and could only fit in one with a brief reply. So “can you find something positive” was asked. Now you know the inside scoop.

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Monday, Oct. 13, 2014

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Here’s what journalists miss when they don’t leave the office

Today let us pay tribute to reporters who, in their quest for a good daily story, boldly defy the Production gods and do the unthinkable: Hang up the telephone and leave the office.

Granted, doing a “phoner” often seems like the only recourse when your responsibilities for the day include preparing a story (or two or more) for multiple platforms, posting to social media, and any number of other special projects.

But rare is the story done by phone that successfully transports the viewer or reader to that place where they actually can experience something.

Joy. Pain. Anxiety. Relief.

The stories I remember best created an opportunity for me to experience an emotion, a realization, a sense that I was there. And the reporters who created those opportunities had one thing in common: they were there.

It was just before 2 p.m. on a recent Friday when Doreen Carvajal, a reporter based in Paris for the New York Times, received an email from the city of Paris. She immediately dropped the story she was working on.

She also left the office.

The email announced that the city of Paris was taking steps to unlock the hundreds of thousands of padlocks that lovers from all over the world have attached to the railings of the city’s famous Pont des Arts bridge.

“I headed to the bridge,” Carvajal wrote to me, “in search of brides in satin and lovers.”

Here’s the story she found. Take a read.

Carvajal, with whom I worked at the Inquirer, sent me her story after I invited reporters to send me stories they had reported and produced in a day.

“I wrote it at a cafe with wifi because I had no time to return to the office from the Pont des Arts,” Carvajal wrote. “I quickly settled on my characters (my favorite: a street cleaner with a green broom) and wrote.”

For me, Carvajal’s story was an invitation to remember the times I stood on the bridges that span the Seine. Her characters, the details she chose, the quotes she selected—all combined to take me to that bridge.

Her story apparently touched a lot of people. It climbed the Times Top 10 emailed list, and was shared more than 2,000 times through the NYT Facebook page.

Her decision to leave the office clearly paid off.

Kevin Jacobsen also left the office. He volunteered to cover the homecoming of the 114th Transportation Company from a nine-month deployment in Afghanistan. Jacobsen, an anchor and multimedia journalist for KBJR 6 and Range 11 in Duluth, MN, was working on three hours sleep (he had anchored the 10 p.m. newscast) when he made the three-hour drive to the reunion of a Twin Ports family just outside the Twin Cities.

“I arrived knowing who I would be focusing on,” Jacobsen wrote to me. “I also knew the framework: Morning can often come too soon, but it was clear, for these families, that being reunited with their loved ones couldn’t come soon enough.

“What would eventually happen though, no one could have planned for.”

And he wouldn’t have seen it if he’d reported the story on the phone.

“I mic’ed the mom of the returning soldier and asked her a couple of quick questions. I shot some b-roll while waiting for the arrival. I also made sure to roll on the mom to get little bits of (natural sound) as the anticipation grew.

“Once the troops arrived and were relieved of their duties, my story became even more clear. The mom had seen her daughter walk in, but lined up on the opposite side of the room. Once the troops scattered, the mom lost sight of her daughter.

“I managed to quickly catch up with the mom and follow her as she frantically searched for her soldier. Those last few seconds before the two were reunited seemed like hours. You could feel the anxiousness. My goal for the story was to try and let that ‘search’ video breathe.”

Here is Jacobsen’s story.

If Jacobsen’s goal was to make me feel the anticipation of the soldier’s mom, he succeeded. His video and audio captured moments we’ve all experienced—when the wait, even if it’s only a few minutes, can seem so much longer. We saw the mother wandering through the crowd and the jerk of her head toward a possible sighting. We heard her squeals when the soldiers arrived, her clipped, breathless voice during the search, her muffled gasps of joy when she pushed her face into her daughter’s arms.

And because Jacobsen helped me experience the wait — a wait he didn’t expect when he was planning his story — I found myself sharing the mother’s joy when the moment of reunion finally arrived.

Jacobsen said his story was “well received.” I guess that means I wasn’t the only viewer who got a bit emotional.

Here’s one last daily story that benefitted from leaving the office.

AJ Dome works for KVOE Radio in Emporia, KS. His news department consists of AJ and his news director. Dome decided this “fun” story — a journey with a local businessman across the Flint Hills in an electric golf cart — would brighten up the station’s newscast.

Here’s his story.

As I listened to Dome’s story, I imagined finding a story like this in a newspaper or on the evening news: a business or lifestyle feature about electric carts and the people who use them — away from the golf course. What I don’t know is how many reporters would take the time for a 35-mile ride in an electric golf cart over rough terrain to get that story.

Dome explained why he did it.

“I was taught by my high school newspaper teacher,” Dome wrote to me, “to appreciate getting out of your comfort zone, to actually go places and see things. It’s so easy to make phone calls or do a Google search, but much more meaningful if you set foot somewhere, and ask a person a question face-to-face. “

I told Dome I appreciated that he included details in the piece that helped me feel like I was on the ride with him — the unexpected road closings, the stares of passing motorists. I told him I could have used a few more details about what he saw and heard as they drove; and a mention of whether they successfully approached (as the story suggested they might) some unsuspecting wildlife.

But most of all, I told him I appreciated that he got in the cart and took the ride. He said he heard from a good number of listeners who appreciated his effort, too.

“When I talk with other young reporters,” he said, “I encourage them to get comfortable shoes, and wear them out by going where the story is.”

Great advice, Dome — who, by the way, is just 22 years old.

Here’s to you, and to a long career spent outside the office. Read more

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Thursday, Oct. 09, 2014

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Fear not the long sentence

A year ago I wrote an essay for the New York Times titled “The Short Sentence as Gospel Truth.” It argued that authors express their most important ideas or dramatic moments in the shortest sentences. This turned out to be a popular piece, the most emailed of the day. Teachers and editors anointed the short sentence as the solution to many writing problems.

trainFrom my shot comes a rebound:  “If the short sentence is the gospel truth, then what is the long sentence?”  My best answer is metaphorical:  “It’s a journey on a westbound train.”

Editors advise, “When it comes to the long sentence, children, be afraid, be very afraid.”  In the common view, the long sentence too often spins off the tracks, a wreck on the road to comprehensibility. It is not an irrational fear. In almost every story I have written comes a moment when I must take that overly ambitious sentence and cut it in two.

When I fight this anxiety, when I advise writers to “Fear not the long sentence,” my encouragement inspires looks of alarm from teachers as if I were advocating taking all the garter snakes out of high school terrariums and replacing them with anacondas.

Care must be taken with the long sentence of course, the care of craft, because mastery of the long sentence is an arrow in the quiver of almost every writer I admire. As always, the exercise of craft begins not with technique but a sense of mission and purpose. By my count, there are three main reasons to cast a long sentence:

  • To take a journey through a physical or emotional landscape.
  • To create a catalogue or inventory.
  • To build a mosaic of logic or evidence.

Let’s test an example of each, beginning with this excerpt from one of my favorite novels, Herzog by Saul Bellow:

The wheels of the cars stormed underneath. Woods and pastures ran up and receded, the rails of sidings sheathed in rust, the dipping racing wires, and on the right the blue of the Sound, deeper, stronger than before. Then the enameled shells of the commuters’ cars, and the heaped bodies of junk cars, the shapes of old New England mills with narrow, austere windows;  villages, convents; tugboats moving in the swelling fabric-like water; and then plantations of pine, the needles on the ground of a life-giving russet color.

Think of yourself as riding northeast on a train through Connecticut, as is the protagonist in Bellow’s novel. You chug along slowly (with a seven word sentence); then accelerate (with 31 words); by the time you reach your highest speed  (50 words), you are rattling between the landscape and the seascape with the detritus of civilization flying by you. With that longest sentence, the author takes us on a journey. We see what he wants us to see in the order he wants us to see it.

There is a bit of an inventory in Bellow’s sentence, a list of things that fly by you on a moving train. That effect is magnified in this controversial sentence that begins David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel The Pale King:

Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-​brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the a.m. heat: shattercane, lamb’s‑quarter, cutgrass, sawbrier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, muscadine, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butter-​print, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother’s soft hand on your cheek.

I describe this 88-word sentence as controversial because I have found it listed among the best and worst sentences ever written, and it does convey a look-at-me quality that some critics find self-indulgent. But make believe, for a second, that you love it. Take a ride across a symbolic American landscape, populated by (count them) 19 species of weed and wild plant – each with a wonderful name – all headed for the verb “invaginate,” DFW’s pregnant synonym for “enclose.”

Take a journey, review an inventory, or, if you prefer, follow the path of an argument. Consider this example from Robert Caro’s biography of LBJ describing a plan of action immediately after the Kennedy assassination:

No single gesture would do more to demonstrate continuity and stability – to show that the government of the United States would continue to function without interruption despite the assassination of the man who sat at its head – and to legitimize the transition:  to prove that the transfer of power had been orderly, proper, in accordance with the Constitution; to move, in the eyes of the world, any taint of usurpation;  to dampen, so far as possible, suspicion of complicity by him in the deed; to show that the family of the man he was succeeding bore him no ill will and supported him, than the attendance at this swearing-in ceremony of the late President’s widow.

Caro has proven countless times that he understands the power of a short sentence. His description of the second that changed LBJ’s life forever – and America’s — during the motorcade through Dallas is told in a single sentence, serving as a paragraph, just six words long:  “There was a sharp, cracking sound.”

Contrast that to the 115 words in the example above. Notice that it contains the two qualities we have already described as characteristic of long sentences. It takes us on a journey of sorts, not across a landscape now, but across a plan of action. And it contains an inventory, not of physical objects but of a set of purposes. It adds a final element though, and that is a body of evidence. The case is framed early and late in the sentence: that the best way to show the peaceful transfer of power in America was by the presence of Jacqueline Kennedy at LBJ’s swearing-in ceremony. Every word between those frames is designed to persuade.

From my study of the long sentence, I have concluded that:

  • It helps if subject and verb of main clause come early.
  • Use the long sentence to describe something long.
  • It helps if the long sentence is written in chronological order.
  • Use the long sentence in variation with sentences of short and medium length.
  • Use the long sentence as a list or catalog of products, names, images – saving the most important for the end.
  • Long sentences need more editing than short ones.

By contrast to some famous sentences written in the 17th century – “sentences that resemble processions or a funeral cortege in their sheer ceremonial lavishness” as novelist W.G. Sebald described them — contemporary long sentences seem modest in their ambitions: to take the reader on a little journey of discovery amidst an endless sequence of 140-character bits of language. Read more

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Wednesday, Oct. 08, 2014

Read what happens when a bunch of over 30s find out how Millennials handle their money   Quartz

Storytelling experiment: Quartz publishes internal conversation

Your newsroom surely has been through the drill: an editor reaches out to some folks with an idea for a story. The cc line grows and grows as “stakeholders” chime in. By the end of the thread (or the day), you have a treatise on proposed subject.

But no story.

I thought of all those unpublished pearls today as we ran this story yesterday and promptly saw it soar to the top of our “most popular” list. As the ideas editor at Quartz, the 2-year-old global economy site of the Atlantic Media Co., it didn’t surprise me that we were pulling back the curtain and letting readers into our process and thinking. But as a reader (age 38, if you must know), the message of the transcript — that millennials are very public about their spending habits — did surprise and inform.

Screengrab of article from Quartz' site.

Screengrab of article from Quartz’ site.

I wondered what would happen to a chat like ours in a legacy newsroom. Would it have been given to a personal finance reporter as an assignment about “kids these days?” Would it have yielded a feature on the service Venmo? Or would it have — as so many of those great ideas that get ruminated and marinated over email or chat — stayed in our inboxes to die?

You might say that your newsroom doesn’t have the ability or desire to offer such transparency into the sausage-making of ideas. That the white space on your printed page only has room for 700 linear words.

The popularity of this post begs a reconsideration of that thinking. What we offered here was insight and authenticity, a “trend” story that doesn’t talk up or down to readers, but lets them truly feel a part of the conversation. Read more

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Sunday, Oct. 05, 2014

Ebola

Media coverage of Ebola requires a delicate balance

The task of covering Ebola is a tricky one for the media.

Too much coverage, and we look like we’re being exploitative with scare tactics. Too little coverage, and we get blamed for not enlightening our audience of its scope.

An unidentified may wears a mask as he walks back from taking out garbage across the street from an apartment complex where Thomas Eric Duncan, the Ebola patient who traveled from Liberia to Dallas, stayed last week. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

An unidentified may wears a mask as he walks back from taking out garbage across the street from an apartment complex where Thomas Eric Duncan, the Ebola patient who traveled from Liberia to Dallas, stayed last week. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

A vivid photo this weekend that made its way into a lot of newspapers showed an unnamed man taking his garbage out, across the street from the apartment complex where Ebola victim Thomas Duncan lives. The man wore a mask.

Remember when Magic Johnson was first diagnosed with having HIV? Many of his teammates, opponents and fans were upset when he came out of his self-imposed retirement to play in the All Star game. I was working at WPXI (NBC) in Pittsburgh at the time. The NBC televised game generated a lot of phone calls; many of them asking why we were encouraging Johnson’s decision to play by televising the game. And there were players who didn’t want to be on the same court with him, the same locker room with him and to even shake his hand.

The issue at that time was AIDS, and unknown concerns about the disease. Some of the viewer/callers thought they could contract the disease by watching that All Star telecast. Today we can laugh, or at least smirk, at those reactions. Because we understand a lot more about HIV, Aids, and treatment. But the media did not let up then.

We are blessed in the United States with outstanding medical care. Charlotte resident Nancy Writebol came back from a missionary trip with the Ebola virus. The networks showed the many precautions taken for her flight and subsequent arrival back in the U.S. With a couple of weeks of treatment in Atlanta, she was strong enough to walk out of the hospital and return home.

But she was flown to the U.S. from Africa especially for the health care. Was she exploited by the coverage? Did the video of all the safety measures taken by the caretakers scare viewers, readers? Probably But Ms. Writebol is able to be healthy again. The people in Africa are not so fortunate. The lack of hygiene, clean water and access to facilities that know how handle the virus makes contracting the Ebola virus a veritable death sentence there.

But the contagious nature of the disease, as we now know it, has been clearly outlined by network correspondents. It does not appear to be the pandemic virus many fear.

Critics of coverage, on both the national level and local level could cite a range of opinions — over the top, just right or underwhelming.

The Charlotte Business Journal’s “Business Pulse” asked this for their weekend readers: “How much do you expect Ebola to spread in the United States?” Their unscientific poll’s first 2500 respondent’s answers:

  • 55% Problem — but we’ll avoid an epidemic.
  • 26% Mostly under control, don’t expect many more cases.
  • 14% Expect a widespread and deadly outbreak around the country.
  • 5% Under control and don’t expect any more cases in the United States.

The amount of time and energy we spend covering Ebola should be evaluation by the audience’s judgement of how the disease will impact their ‘local world.” And luckily for an overwhelming number in the United States, there is not a threat. But, that doesn’t end our responsibility to inform and stay abreast of the issue. No matter what our audience might believe. We can’t let up. No matter what the critics might say.

And hopefully, in a short period of time, we’ll understand the implications much more and can look at a disease we can control both at home and at the root of the issue, in the Ebola-stricken areas of Africa.

The author of this article, Ken White, is a broadcasting consultant/talent coach Read more

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Friday, Oct. 03, 2014

What topics do reporters need to get smarter about in 2015?

The Poynter Institute will be conducting free workshops to quickly get reporters up to speed on important issues in 2015 and we are asking our readers for workshop suggestions.

To help reporters get smart fast on key topics in the news, The Poynter Institute conducted workshops this year on subjects like the Affordable Care Act and the Common Core State Standards for education. The Robert R. McCormick Foundation funds these workshops, called McCormick Specialized Reporting Institutes. We will be crowdsourcing what topics will warrant these workshops in 2015.

We’re asking you to help pick next year’s training topics. What subjects do you predict will be in the news next year that reporters would benefit from learning more about? Poynter will carry out three of these news-driven workshops next year, and McCormick and Poynter will select three other organizations to carry out three additional workshops. One will be on the Iowa caucuses.

Tweet your suggestions (hashtag #news15) or fill out a brief survey. Tell us one or two topics important enough to your audience that a reporter should go to a two-day workshop to learn more, then return to the newsroom to report and write.

In November, we’ll accept applications from training groups interested in conducting the workshops. In January, we’ll announce the workshop schedule and describe how to apply. Read more

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Thursday, Oct. 02, 2014

Listening

Be a Better Listener in 3 Minutes

I work with managers and non-managers alike who want to become better at listening. I’ve read books on it, written columns, and teach sessions on the essentials of the skill.

And then I met journalist E. S. Isaac of India and got a better education on what it means to truly listen.

During a dinner conversation before a week-long leadership seminar at Poynter, Isaac shared his insights. He grew up in rural Chhattisgarh, in Central India. His parents were illiterate. But his father, Benbarisi Isaac, was his best teacher.

I found what E. S. Isaac said — and how he said it — to be so meaningful that I asked his permission to record and share his thoughts.

I think this will be the best three minutes you spend today.

Who is this wise man?

Isaac oversees Doordarshan Television’s international channel DDIndia.  He manages the sports programming on DDSports, reaching 143 countries across the world.

From left to right, Father, Neha, Isaac (back), Mother, Nikhil, Rekha (front) Outside village home

From left to right, Benbasi Isaac (father), Aaditi Isaac(daughter), E. S. Isaac (back), Susena Kumari (mother), Rekha Sinha (wife), Aalok Isaac( son, in front).
I am standing behind my daughter,E S Isaac.
The photograph was taken on 28th April 1994 by Chanchal Isaac outside their village home

He was one of 15 international journalists selected for The Media Project’s Coaching and Leadership Fellowship initiative. The class met at Poynter the week of September 21.

I served as their leadership guide for the week. But when I got to the session on communication skills, you can bet that I delegated to Isaac.  And I listened. Read more

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