Diversity in the Digital Age: Complicated Issues, Sophisticated Storytelling

As we produce more and more of our journalism online and on other platforms, how will our pursuit of diversity change?
By "diversity," I mean the journalistic value of representing in our news coverage a wide variety of people -- faces, voices and perspectives.

Maybe you, dear reader, can help me expand upon the ideas I share here.  Maybe you can also send me examples of multimedia journalism that you think does a good job of reflecting diverse communities and cultures.

I've drawn these ideas from a conversation I had recently with Keith Woods, dean of the faculty at The Poynter Institute.

The digital world can help the reader deepen his understanding of his own community -- and build connections within that community. We need to take advantage of that.

At random, I did a Google search on "Vietnamese in Dallas" and "Ethiopians in Dallas." I found Web sites for a Vietnamese Professionals Society, a Mutual Assistance Association for Ethiopians and several ethnic churches and student associations in both communities.

These are immediate examples of grassroots groups using the Web to help their communities. I suspect there will also be an explosion of local ethnic media Web sites. There's already a powerful Web site produced by New America Media, a collaboration of ethnic news organizations, founded by the nonprofit Pacific News Service.

NAM's Web site presents ethnic stories, blogs and multimedia reports from across the country. On the day I visited, the Web site published an essay by author Andrew Lam on hybrid identities in California, news stories on the American Muslim civil rights movement and the Jena, La., protests, and a report on an Iranian sex-video scandal. (I knew I'd get your attention with that last one.)

How can the so-called mainstream media get in on some of that action (and I'm not referring to the Iranian sex video)? Is it within our journalistic mission to do so?

For those who question the Web's reach within ethnic communities, consider this: The Jena protests were spurred largely by commentary and discussion in the African-American blogosphere. One of the bloggers was Dallas resident Shawn Williams, who spread the word through his Dallas South Blog, as reported in The Dallas Morning News.

The digital world can help the reader gain an understanding of people in other communities. It can help communities build bridges with one another. Again, we in the traditional media need to take advantage of that.

When I think of the people I celebrate "happy hour" with on most Fridays, I realize they are a diverse group with different racial backgrounds and different occupations. I enjoy tapping into their perspectives without feeling we have to stake out different positions.

Cable TV and talk radio thrive on conflict and polarization, cultivating a debate between people on the extremes. Online journalism can venture there, as well. But it also has the potential to set up something that's more like a happy hour, if you will, or a dinner party.

I've always admired "This I Believe," which can be heard on National Public Radio. The program allows people from diverse backgrounds to write and talk about the core values that guide their lives. It turns out the program has a Web site, allowing the visitor to read and listen to the essays.

The program is based on a 1950s radio program hosted by Edward R. Murrow. "As in the 1950s, this is a time when belief is dividing the nation and the world," Jay Allison, the series host, writes on the Web site.  "We are not listening well, not understanding each other -- we are simply disagreeing, or worse. Working in broadcast communication, there's a responsibility to change that, to cross borders, to encourage some empathy. That possibility is what inspires me about this series."

The Web site is a finalist for the 2007 Online Journalism Awards, as is another Web site I admire, washingtonpost.com's "onBeing" project.

The "onBeing" project presents short videos on a diversity of people, letting you have a glimpse into their lives. A nun talks about God's calling. A transgendered person reveals the moment he decided to become a woman. A music director compares a musical piece to a life. A mentor and mentee joke with each other, describing how they've become family. These people are happy, sad, quirky, funny, and what they have to say is often profound.

The digital world gives journalists the tools to tell narrative stories in multi-layered ways, with the richness of words, photography, audio, video and interactive graphics.

As I've said before in this column, diversity reporting and narrative writing make good partners. They require the same attention to detail, curiosity about culture, insight into character and nuanced storytelling.

At the same time, narrative stories often benefit from accompanying multimedia packages. While nothing can replace the linear act of reading a story, the reader can get additional information on the subject by diving into documentary-style videos and shorter video interviews, interactive timelines and quizzes, photo slideshows and online documents.

Here are some outstanding projects that combined narrative stories with strong multimedia:

  • The Washington Post explored "Being a Black Man" with a videotaped panel discussion, a large collection of video interviews, reader comments, and an interactive Q&A session with black women.
  • The Star Tribune in Minneapolis explored the lives of Liberians who fled civil war in their homeland and were allowed to live temporarily in the United States. Now many of them must return.

That's enough for now. I will continue this discussion in a future column.

  • Tom Huang

    Tom Huang is Sunday & Enterprise Editor at The Dallas Morning News and Adjunct Faculty member of The Poynter Institute, where he oversees the school’s writing program.


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