Update: A defense for long-form, pt. 2

Words, once they are printed, have a life of their own. – Carol Burnett

And my rant goes on.

I want to write about this before I forget about it: my friend today made a very interesting point about journalists/journalism students learning multimedia for the “future of journalism.” He made the point to say that, yes, there is a future for multimedia in journalism but the sad thing is that the jobs where these skills may put us a head above others are dwindling at best. Learning multimedia is good for us, but the jobs we’re looking to court with these advanced new skills may not even be there by the time we get to the job pool. That’s a sad thought…but it’s true.

I think the argument that “Journalism is dying” is fatalistic and kind of annoying, but I can’t deny that it’s true. Yes, the newspapers are struggling. And multimedia will help them stay ahead of the curve. But, as my friend said, this new technology doesn’t necessarily mean new jobs. I think that young journalists like myself need to find a way to

Another issue with the future of journalism is the journalism-as-a-business model. Tell any journalist (or budding journalist) that journalism’s a business and expect a gasp in response. Newspapers have been grappling with profit and how to get it and still run good copy really since newspapers started making money. Now it’s become even more of an issue as profit seems to go by the wayside as “citizen journalists,” bloggers and the Huffington Post have dutifully declared themselves as the “future of journalism”, effectively sending harrumphing journalists into despair and good writing into the black hole of  forgotten crafts like quilting.

But I don’t think that this change in perspective about what journalism is in the new age means that all journalism has to change. We don’t have to be little sheep following the SEO and aggregation shepherds of the internet.

But this also doesn’t mean that we should be stubborn about ourselves, either. I think that we can be extreme about our approach to our role as journalists — we either go all out or none. Maintain print or go strictly online. But this approach is very short-sighted. I think that there are ways to not only embrace both the print and the online structures, but also enhance the role of the reader and the opinion of the reader.

Like I said before, I think that readers today are really underestimated. It’s wrong to assume that they prefer a short tidbit of information over an in-depth long-form piece of journalism. It’s also wrong to use readers as pawns in the constant tug-of-war between newspapers and their advertisers. Now, I think short, scanner style stories are really important for helping readers wade through the unimaginable amount of information there is to process every given day.

But as we become bogged down with so much content (and advertisement), I feel as if citizens have become confused about the real meaning of journalism. Is its goal to pump out as much content as it can, with a lack of regard for what’s really important? Is the finish line more important than the actual race?

I think there’s a lot of potential for journalism online that can help us get back on track. Matter is one of the best ideas today. Basically, it’s this project that a great group of journalists have come up with that really is encouraging long-form, well researched, heavily investigated journalism. It’s not about one topic, and will only release one long piece of journalism a week for .99c per article, iTunes-style.

This leads to another issue: finance. We don’t want to have subscription-only sites, yet we don’t want to give out free content. So how about 10 free articles per month? 5? Take away the print edition entirely?

Barraged with ads and clogged with news stories from every section in a labyrinthine setup, news websites are constantly trying to figure out what people want to see online and why people so quick to criticize.

I think there’s a lot more to consider when it comes to finance of journalism, like this Reuters piece describes.

Matter’s Kickstarter video

1. I like the idea of the iTunes-style model. I really do truly believe that people would buy a piece of journalism for $1 (I mean…it is only one dollar). We buy books that are popular, we buy albums, we buy clothes. All online. If this Matter site proves itself as much as it’s saying, there’s no reason why the bandwagon effect wouldn’t translate to long-form journalism.

2. The ambition of one story a week is perfect. It’s not too much content to handle, and it embraces the idea of anticipation. It works. (Or it should…I guess we’ll see.)

3. Embracing the online and the print, focusing on statistics and the readers. What if news organizations DID give free content online, but also kept their print edition for a subscription fee or a per-purchase fee? This print edition could even be made reader-specific by looking at the stats of what people read, what type of people read what, where they’re from, etc. This technology is possible and is used in newsrooms…so why not apply it to the product itself and to the way the news source makes money?

Say your steady readers who keep coming back really like to read about the Arab Spring. So, in your print edition, include stories about these revolutions. You’re catering to your steady devotees, but you’re also gaining profit while maintaining interest. And you also include other things that you think are important. We shouldn’t undermine our own role in the newsmaking process.

4. Paying past the first page. There’s also another way to make money that’s described in the aforementioned article. What if we re-configure how readers read the inverted pyramid style and translate to profit? Most of the information could be on the first page of an article, and subsequent information on further pages could cost 5, 10c at some point.

5. Suggested cost. Or, you could do it Radiohead style and ask readers to donate money for longer-form stories at the last page (or the first, whichever, who knows?). People bought Radiohead’s “In Rainbows” online when the band website let them enter however much they wanted to pay. (I do know people who paid little to nothing…but the important thing to think about is the people who DID pay.)

This is where the rest of journalism can play in — the bulky middle that is between 10 and 20 inches and isn’t quite long-form, isn’t quite scanner-style. It’s as if we feel guilty about making people read our stories. It’s a strange reverse psychology. We lament in how we’re unappreciated, but we can’t stick up for ourselves when the big-bad Internet reprimands us for writing too much.

Simply, we can’t treat our readers like they’re uncompromising royalty exulted by the journalism who can reach them the fastest or keeps them on the page the longest. We also can’t underestimate them and their genuine interest in reading. There’s been a growing gap between journalism and the readers, even though we’ve, at face value, created more connections like guest bloggers and sister citizen-run sites. We should think about what we’re really doing, though.

The internet has shackled journalists and readers up in chains as it dominates how people use it. We’ve become reactive to the internet instead of proactive, and with some re-assessment, I think that role can change. But for now, until we figure out how to maintain journalism’s integrity online and serve our readers to the greatest extent, we’ll join the perpetrators in the active (and often unintentional) crippling of the craft of newsmaking in the new era of journalism

Long-form is a way to connect people. Everyone loves a good story. If only we found a way to bring back that mentality, we’d be able to improve our legitimacy as journalists and the trust and interest of those we write for.

A defense for long-form, pt. 1

First of all, there’s one point I’ve come to about the lambasting of long-form in modern journalism:

There is a time and place for everything. 

And as you can probably tell, I’m a big fan of long-form journalism. Look at any of my past posts.

Well, I’m actually a fan of long-form anything: books, seven-page magazine pieces, essays, long-winded sentences, analyses…etc. It’s actually so much an interest that it’s permeated through my own work (to the dismay of my editor…) and my speech. Being concise has become my battle du jour as I, on a daily basis, fight with unnecessary jargon and too many commas and lengthy prepositional phrases. It’s something that I think is pretty characteristic of me, but often plagues my reporting.

But, it has gotten better. And yes, I’ve considered before, why am I not doing magazine?  

I answer myself with the assuaging response of the fact that I like to be challenged. I’m doing reporting because I feel like you can get a solid set of skills that you may not in magazine. (That’s not to say you don’t gain skills in magazine. Sometimes I think I’m crazy for not letting my creative juices flow just a teensy bit more across the way at Vox.) I’m very creative-minded, and I think magazine is good for people like that. But I personally need to hamper down on the wandering ways of my mind and get (relatively) hard-lined mindset of news reporting. Getting the most important information and being concise continues to be my weakness and my goal, simultaneously, and as I actively am aware of myself as a reporter, I think I can continue to develop.

But that’s not what I really want to talk about in this post. I mean, in all honesty, who wants to read about me and my personal afflictions with my unruly creative expression? No one.

As I learn to balance creativity with being succinct, I want to stress that I’m not simply trying to suppress my creativity. I’m simply learning how to manage it. But I think there’s something to say for how the changing nature of journalism has essentially begun to ruthlessly suppress journalists’ creativity.

We talk about the future of journalism — using SEO lingo, scanner-style stories, making stories as short as possible — and in this talk, I think we’ve become the victims of self-flagellation because we think that people simply aren’t going to read long articles or click on “page 2” to continue reading. I’m not saying that I don’t agree with transforming how journalism is presented. I think there’s a lot of potential for using bullets and Twitter and news aggregation. But I think that the cost of entirely gutting the structure of journalism is very detrimental to both the journalists and the readers.

Does this sentence look more appealing now?

  • How about now?
  • Or even this? More emphasis? Am I really excited about this sentence? Do you care?

I think these new styles are successful in drawing in a reader’s attention. That’s pretty much understood. But what does it really mean? It may work short-term, but what about long-term? Where will these new ideas be in five years? Is it too hopeless-romantic of me to think that a really good long piece will leave more of a lasting impact than an online-oriented piece?

And there is a difference between the two. Long-form is supposed to make an impact. Breaking news, short scanner-style — they’re not. They’re simply there for the info. Which is fine…but I think this mentality may become dangerous as it begins to pervade through all of journalism. We shouldn’t be ashamed of writing lengthy pieces, and we also shouldn’t think that people will automatically say “No.”

A lot of the people pushing for journalism “reform” (is that too stuffy of a term?) say that it’s beneficial for future generations. They’ll say that as attention spans shorten and the internet becomes more user-specific, generations to come will see long-form and (hopefully consequently) well-researched stories as cumbersome and unappealing. Thus, in comes the argument for a new perspective on journalism, for new formats that essentially devalue the power of a long article or, at least, an article that takes longer to put together. I’m not saying that these new formats like scanner or even citizen journalism are bad. My opinion is that there’s simply a time and place for everything. But when we start to re-define ALL journalism — including the longer forms and less “I-want-to-read-it-right-now” pieces — we become irrevocable victims of influence.

(This is a scanner-style story.)

I think it’s naive and way too judgmental to say that my generation doesn’t have the capability to maintain the attention necessary for long-form. Yes, the internet has changed us. Yes, technology has drastically shortened our attention spans. Yes, we prefer to get quick news from Yahoo! rather than from a feature in the Times (sadly). But I don’t think our entire mentality has changed.

We read books. Take The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Harry Potter or most recently, The Hunger Games. We even read ghastly simple books like Twilight. But the level of intellect needed to read these books isn’t my point. My point is that we still read. We’ll go out and buy a book and read all 500 or so pages. Perhaps this is due to social pressure, and maybe the quality of these books aren’t great. But reading is still present in our society, and in these moments of literary fervor I can see that my generation still can really, truly enjoy long-form. And when journalists begin to debase this simple observation, I think the future for the craft of journalism is doomed. We can’t assume things when we write stories — that’s heresy. So why should we assume that long-form is dead? Because, honestly, it’s not.

I shamefully admit that I did, at one dark point in my life, read all 544 pages of this book.

(There’s also another issue with format that I’ve been debating. That’s the more creative style story. These stories break the boundaries of how an article should be written, how a lede is put together, how grafs are juxtaposed, how much you can break away from the inverted pyramid style. We talked about this in class the other day. We talked about a quite creatively reported story about a toilet bowl flushing contest and another about an errant, crazed rooster that attacked a child.

But I had a problem with these stories. You know, I talk about how I support creativity, and now you see me being hesitant about taking “creative liberties” with stories. I only hesitate during these examples because I think simply that these stories are unsuccessful for two reasons: 1, they seem to patronize the subject matter and 2, their creativity just seems out of place. They just didn’t seem newsworthy to me.

I understand the bizarre nature of events like toilet flushing contests and an AWOL rooster. But I think that when a reporter created the proverbial mountain of a molehill, I think that the journalism simply fails. Yes, it’s a good story. It’s funny, and people like it. But is it worth it?)

Roosters are kind of funny.

Again, I think there’s a time and place for everything. And I think reporters often have trouble figuring out not only what is worth covering and what isn’t, but also how creative we’re allowed to be.

I think that self-censoring of creativity is terrible, but sometimes it’s necessary. Journalists are subject to criticism, so we take it into our own hands to figure out what the people want and how we should give it to them. But in being so focused on the consumer, I think we can stray from what the point of journalism really is: to make news. Yes, citizens are important, and they should play a role in

But do we really want to have society dictate our every movement? Should we really have to change our profession just to ride through the current storm of cultural and technological upheaval and change? We shouldn’t underestimate ourselves, and we shouldn’t underestimate our readers. We are professionals, even though it’s hard to prove, without a license or framed diploma. But just because we essentially are caterers to the people and reliant on the people they want to know about, doesn’t mean we can’t have control over our own content.

Doctors are cool, but do they know the proper use of a comma? How to write an awesome lede?

SEO is important. So is bold lettering and scanner style journalism. But sometimes I think we’re getting away from the actual reporting, the actual writing. How can we remain a profession if we’re constantly willing to compromise ourselves for the next big thing? Aggregation won’t save journalism. Good reporters will.

I’m also not saying that every news article should become a 70-inch novella. I think, again, that there’s a time and place for everything. We need breaking news. We also need features. We need magazines and newspapers that people will buy and genuinely enjoy. But we don’t need to completely re-define the profession. We amend the constitution, we don’t rewrite it. We need the same perspective in journalism. But catering to the whims of culture instead of to the actual needs and potential of the people, we run the risk of de-legitimizing not only the profession and citizens, but ourselves as well.

NOTE: The photos I used are not mine.

Break time in D.C.: two-state or too late? (and more)

I’ve had a really nice few days. I came back home to D.C. for my spring break — a plan that is much different from one before that involved me coming back to Columbia early — and after deciding to stay here the whole week, I really think it’s been a great time. I’m definitely in break mode. I mean, I’m channeling my inner gluttony, sloth and indulgence simultaneously. (I know this sounds bad. But you cannot blame me…everyone loves a good week where every day contains seven meals, shamefully long naps and overt —but discounted — spending.)

I only kid. I’ve actually been very, very busy the past few days. I’m not one to brag, but hey…living in D.C. is awesome. And I’ve really got my parents to thank for that. I do honestly miss Orlando sometimes. But D.C. makes up for it tenfold — except for my friends I regretfully have left behind!

It’s always nice to be in a city where it’s not surprising to read about a conference that’s happening right on the weekend you find out about it. That’s exactly what happened to me this weekend. J Street, a progressive-minded pro-Israel lobby in D.C., was hosting its annual Making History conference at the D.C. convention center, and I was beyond excited when I read about it online. (Ask my mom. I yelped when I saw it was this weekend.) I knew I had to go. It was focusing on the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (as well as other things like the influence of the Arab Spring and the issue of Iran’s nuclear ambitions) and after learning recently about the conflict and due to my incessant obsession with the region, I practically grabbed my bag and ran to the convention center. It was also nice to see that the student price was super cheap.

(Note: I’m an American who was raised Christian. I’ve just been interested in the conflict and the Middle East region for a while, and as my learning grows, I’ve come to learn more about the complexities and the intertwining of the conflicts within the region. This conference provided a great opportunity for me to get short-term but very intensive and well-worthy knowledge that has helped me sift through the steep intricacies of the region.)

I learned many things at this convention, and I’m surprised at the number of events I was able to go to. I got a wonderful vignette into a Jewish perspective (albeit the progressive one) about the progress (or lack thereof) of the issue between the Israelis and Palestinians. It was two days of intense discussions and panels and films that brought together diplomats, experts, professors, progressive Jews, conservative Jews (although pretty few and far between), non-Jews and a surprising and exciting number of young people like me to talk about an issue that’s become the front and center issue yet has remained shadowed by taboo and conflict. I’d like to consider myself an outsider to the general debate, and that’s something I wanted to change. I spoke to some Jewish men who traveled all the way from Rochester, N.Y. about being a non-Jew and trying to figure out the whole issue and trying to understand it. I was blown away the whole weekend by the friendliness that I was greeted with by everyone. Now, I’m not saying I was expecting judgment or rudeness, but it was nice to see that people understood that I was still learning a lot and was developing my own perspectives.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has many facets. That’s clear. There’s land for peace. The settlements. Diaspora. Refugees. Security. The IDF. Relations with the U.S. Relations with the Arab countries. Oil. Water. Jerusalem. Temple of the Mount. Mutual recognition. A two-state solution (or…a one-state solution?). HAMAS. The Gaza strip. Lebanon (and Hezbollah).  Egypt. Syria. Jordan. Iran. Nuclear power. Extremism. Violence. 1949. Gilad Shalit (and captives in general, on both sides). 1967. 1973. Oslo. Judaism. Islam. The PA. The PLO. 2006. 2008. Really, every year. Every day.

That’s just a basic few. There are many, many other issues and things that connect. (But that would go into a marathon-length post that I’m not even sure I could write because I don’t know enough.) It’s a terribly tangled web.

I can’t personally even begin to delve into it, because it’s so complex. I’m not going to take a side, because there are too many complexities, and I think I have a duty as a journalist not to. But I do think, as a member of humanity, and from what I’ve taken from this weekend, we need to open up talks between the two parties. But that’s so hard to do. How do you get two people to talk to each other who hate each other; who know what they’re going to say and what they’re going to disagree with; who have an indescribably long and complex history; who both, essentially, want the same thing? Can two people co-exist when neither will ever be completely happy? There’s a lot of stubbornness that’s pervading the air of the talks. There’s a lot of emotion, a lot of betrayal, loss, tension, hatred. A lot of this has come from families, from the media, from the culture of the volatile and heated region of Palestine.

So bringing these parties together is one of the most imminent issues that our world culture is still facing, half a century later and many, many centuries in coming. It’s been a conflict that’s been around since as long as we have and will continue to plague the region’s culture, society and politics (and abroad in all three categories as well) until we figure out a way to address this complex issue. And I’m definitely in no position to begin to start. But it’s those first steps that are important. I think those steps are possible, but they need to be taken on both sides.

Leaders at the event said they believe it’s possible to make progress. I think it’s possible as well. I just think that it’ll take a lot of strain and pain to get there. (But let’s not forget I’ve still got a lot to learn. Therefore I fear treading on any dangerous territory until I can rightfully claim a stake or at least form something with the likeness of an opinion.)

In a film I saw at the event, one Palestinian Christian girl described the situation in East Jerusalem after she returned from a camp aimed at helping Palestinian and Israeli girls talk over their difference in an American setting — which was the focus of the film. She described how constant bombings kept her on edge, as she bravely bought coffee from a Cafe Hillel through the tumult. Palestinians are killed. Israelis are killed. It’s a constant cycle of violence and unfairness, seen through this girl’s eyes — and many others — that seem to make no sense at times. It’s gotten out of control and the citizens of the region themselves often question what’s really going on.

Can there be a road map for peace when the roads themselves are the casualties of the conflict—from congested traffic to dirt v. paved? Or when the roads themselves may not be there the next day?

“The bomb isn’t gonna choose you if you’re Israeli or Palestinian,” the girl said. “It’s just gonna explode.”

———

I am going to stop myself before I tread down a long path into a long-winded rabbit hole about the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Phew. What I do know is that I learned a lot these past few days. And it just felt right. I found myself being drawn into each panel and feeling each guest speaker’s passion about the conflict.

And aside from this (and this should NOT be the last thing I mention, because it’s really what I’ve been thinking about the most over the trip), I’ve landed a great opportunity for a summer internship. For some reason I don’t want to talk a lot about it. But I don’t want to underestimate myself, because I know I’ve worked hard for it. I have trouble being open with applauding myself, because it’s something I don’t like to see much in others. And that’s something I have to work on.

But I see people around me that work very, very hard and subsequently go very far. I know my colleagues will be successful. And this is something to reflect on. It’s very humbling. And moreover, it pushes me to work hard too. Being around motivation really helps me push myself. We push each other. And I can see the results. It’s really exciting, for all of us.

Flashbang journalism: Mike Daisey and the NPR retraction

After listening to the “Retraction” piece on This American Life (it’s episode 460, I believe), I was absolutely blown away. I was first blown away, firstly, because I had originally heard the piece on the radio and was blown away by that. Double blow-away. Too much to handle.

But this episode is significant because it’s not a new story; it’s a bare-boned breakdown of one of the worst faux-pas’ in journalism: fabrication. If you don’t know, there was a story that ran back in January on This American Life based on Chinese factories that manufacture Apple products (cue the reactive groan and nasty gut feeling within every person who owns one of those products with the bitten-apple logo that signifies everything capitalism and consumer) that became the show’s most downloaded episode ever. It’s a very moving piece, and very dramatic. And that’s very indicative of This American Life, the story-telling style of journalism. But what was so significant about this newest episode was the fact that it revealed something glaring about that original story on Apple factories: that is was, for all intents and purposes, a lie.

Now, a lot of what Mike Daisey (the guy whose theatrical show was excerpted as fact on the January episode) told Ira in that first episode about the Apple factories has been proven to be true and has occurred. Yet, what was most important wasn’t the “greater picture” that Daisey was trying to paint through his act tainted with elaborate statements and stretched observations, but that he deliberately lied in his portrayal of his observations of the factories in China to Glass during the segment in January.

Now, Daisey’s free to do whatever he wants on the stage. I understand. The standards that journalism holds itself to don’t necessarily apply in theatre. It’s art. I get it. But when this art begins to intertwine with journalism as it did on This American Life, that’s when problems begin to arise. Daisey created some minor (and major) lies in his story, and he deliberately said that these things were fact when he spoke to Ira — even during the fact-checking stage.

When you listen to the piece, you can hear the sadness in Ira’s voice as well as the (perhaps exaggerated) regret in Daisey’s. It’s very moving.

“I simultaneously feel terrible for you and I also feel lied to,” Glass says at one point.

Later, Daisey gets as close to an apology as ever.

“I really regret putting this show on This American Life,” he said. “And it was wrong for me to misrepresent to you and to Brian that it could be on the show.”

There are many things that I thought about after listening to the hour-long piece. (And if you’re wondering, it really is worth listening to the entire hour. It’s goes by in what feels like 5 minutes.) Here’s a (relatively) digest-able version.

1. What role does truth play in storytelling? Can journalism be prose without stretching the truth? How does it go about doing that? Where do you draw the line?

As written in a reactive piece in the New York Times, “Daisey admits in the monologues that he once fabricated a story because it connected with the audience. After telling this lie over and over it became so integrated into the architecture of his piece that it became impossible to remove or perhaps to distinguish what really happened.”

2. Is it worth it, as Mike Daisey says, to create a story like this that may have truthful inaccuracies and discrepancies when it reveal a greater issue that might be true in another situation or factory or place?

3. It’s interesting that a very narrative story is needed to attract attention — would a more news-oriented structure made it less appealing?

4. Would Daisey changing the title of his piece from “real” to “fiction” to dilute the impact, and therefore the response, of audience members? What does this mean about our reactive culture in the U.S.? Is shock therapy really the only way to get us to act?

5. How much fault should be put onto Ira and This American Life for not pursuing the translator/more fact-checking/being more skeptical? How powerful, really, is the overarching blindness that comes from people being drawn into a really good story?

Moreover, there is multi-faceted fault when thinking about this awkward situation.

1. Mike Daisey. That’s obvious.

2. This American Life. There could have been better fact-checking. But Glass acknowledges this, and really does feel betrayed by Daisey. It’s just a shame that it all had to come out during post-publication sleuthing.

3. Apple. Razor-thin profit margins and negotiation benefit of Apple as a client, flexibility of the Chinese manufacturing system — they’ve created an unhealthy environment for workers, consumers and the supply-demand system as a whole. Everything is made in China, so next-door communication between factories (like bolt-makers) is easier than dealing with manufacturing in U.S. and other far-away countries.

So, Ira concludes, “Should I feel bad about this?”

“Our system in the U.S. used to hae bad working conditions, but we passed laws to improve conditions and introduce protections for workers so these conditions wouldn’t ever hit our workers here ever again. But what has happened is we’ve simply exported — like we have with the products — this pressure to compromise working conditions for economic success via encouraging high quotas and cutting profit margins in foreign countries. And as we continue our demand-supply system, this process of getting the most product for the smallest input will continue,” Times reporter Charles Duhigg describes in “Act Three” of the new “Retraction” segment.

“Do you feel comfortable knowing that iPhones and iPads could be manufactured in less harsh conditions but that these harsh conditions exist because of an economy that you are supporting with those dollars?” he continued. “You are actually one of the reasons why it exists. If you made different choices, if you demanded different conditions if you demanded that other people enjoy the same work protections that you yourself enjoy, then those conditions would be different overseas.”

This is pretty sobering. Yeah, not a great thing to think about.

Alas, another not-quite-positive thing to think about is what I really took out of this! What is that? Something that I have decided to call “flashbang journalism.” I don’t know why I chose “flashbang.” It just came to my head, because, like a flashbang, stories like this seek to draw the immediate attention of whoever the target is. It’s like we need shock therapy to make 5,000 — and even more to make 50,000 — people take action, or at least “like” a YouTube video. Through elaborate prose and enticing details, Daisey drew everyone in — Glass, the listeners, his audiences. It’s a shame that it had to be so blatantly inaccurate. It’s also a shame that Daisey didn’t ever say, “I’m sorry.” He fessed up, but really stuck to his story. I have been seeing this trend pop up as of late, particularly most recently with the Kony 2012 campaign. The Kony campaign introduced this 30-minute video that dramatized (or didn’t dramatize, I’m in no position to categorize) the atrocities committed by the African Lord’s Resistance Army’s brutal leader Joseph Kony. The Kony campaign has attracted controversy about its paintbrush coverage over a very complex issue. The truth of the reality behind the Kony issue was criticized by many as being put on the back burner.

Has truth been compromised for a good story?

What I thought was most interesting from this series of responses to Mike Daisey’s portrayal of his story to NPR is the fact that such a dramatized story drew the attention of so many listeners. Why did his story create such a huge response? Why did the Times’ series about Apple factories not get as much exposure? Do we need to dramatize human rights issues — and important issues in general — to get a big response from U.S. citizens? Our country is a very reactive country. But this could become a flaw if we continue to only react to bright descriptions and heightened inflections. We’ve begun to digress from truth and focus more on the sentence structure. Structure is important, this is definite. I’m a very long-winded (obviously), literary person. I’m not sure what it means that a theatre-oriented story garnered more responses than a lengthy series on the same issue (it’s probably because of our short attention span online and love for a good story, but that’s a whole other 10-mile-long blog post). But I think we need to sometimes focus less on how our pen moves across the page and more on what we’re actually writing.

David Carr also wrote a very insightful response to the debacle, where he also mentioned the reoccurrence of the dramatization of reporting of human rights (or not-so-reporting).

The fantastic four (…I’m so creative)

Alright, so here are four movies that were my personal favorites (or the ones I at least thought most about) at True/False, other than 1/2 Revolution, which I wrote about before. That’s not to say that the other ones I saw weren’t good or didn’t raise great questions, but these are the ones that genuinely engrossed me. I was talking to my friend about how we test documentaries/films and how good they are — when I can stop thinking about the time (it’s not as annoying as it seems, sometimes I just plan out how many minutes are left in a movie, subconsciously) and go completely tunnel-vision into the film, that’s when I know it’s good. These films really did that for me, and all for different reasons. These are not in any particular order.

1. Canícula

Canícula is a fantastic little film by Mexican director Jose Alvarez about the remote Totonac village of Zapotal, Santa Cruz. The film’s aims are subtle, but what I got from it was that it was this celebration of a very small micro-civilization that embraces nature and the world around itself through its strange “flying” tradition, pottery-making, social events and simple moments like bathing in a river. This film catches these tiny little moments — a woman lying momentarily on a cold rock as creek water trickles down over her hair, boys learning how to do a traditional dance for their first “flight,” an awkward first dance, a swaying branch, a pail being dipped into a well — that unify into a beautiful piece that really defies any definition. I’m not exactly sure what Alvarez was trying to say with the piece, but what hit me was the fact that such a small village could have such a remarkable self-sufficiency that might, in turn, affect villages, cities and countries abroad. It’s hard to describe. But maybe a voyeuristic look into a village like this might help viewers like me re-assess how we lead our lives in our own civilization. It’s one of my favorite films of the fest, and definitely worth the watch if you can get your hands on it.

“The Totona preserve their past, which is their dignity as well as ours.”

2. The Island President

Now, before I saw this film, I knew absolutely nothing about the Maldives except for the fact that they were a collection of Islands in the Indian Ocean. Mohamed Nasheed was the president of the Maldives, an island nation that has been precariously hovering over the brink of destruction from climate change. As tides rise and natural disasters impair the economic and social progress of this tiny nation, Nasheed sought to approach international powers about the issue with climate change. By proposing an amendment involving the PPM of carbon emissions at discussions at the Copenhagen Climate Summit in 2009, Nasheed steered towards the perfect storm of political contention. I’m not gonna give away what happens, but this documentary’s use of verite and historical clips create a new take on the traditional documentary. Not to mention, the camera used (I believe he said he used the Canon 5D) captured the phenomenal beauty of these islands.

It’s very sad, to see these islands being essentially decimated, day by day, by natural forces caused at least in part by human impact on the environment. There’s a lot of debate about climate change, but when you have such decisive effects of erosion and unexpected weather and moreover, an affected populace, there’s really no reason why you should deny our negative impact on the environment. I’m not going to rant, but I think this documentary, like 1/2 Revolution, is good at shedding a very direct, honest light on an issue without politicizing it. It’s the true story of a man (and a country) who is fighting to keep his country literally afloat. The combination of the tragedy of the situation in the Maldives and Nasheed’s determination really work well to compliment a documentary that reveals the reality of the nature of climate change. You don’t need political commentary or editing to see what’s happening in this area — and most likely in many other areas as well.

Now, Nasheed has been pressured out of office by military supporters of the previous (and very, very brutal) regime before he took over power. This happened a few weeks ago, and it’s eerie, because this documentary shed so much light on the issues in the Maldives and opened up a little positive light for the island nation’s future, but now that the old regime (or its ideas) may be imminent, a dark cloud may be unfortunately hovering over the climate issue. Hopefully this documentary will reach a wide audience, because its impact could be very, very huge.

3. Gypsy Davy

An early photo of flamenco guitarist David Serva.

An early photo of flamenco guitarist David Serva.

Gypsy Davy was one of the last films that I saw at the fest, and I actually had to leave about 10 minutes early for work before the end, so I unfortunately didn’t get to hear the director speak. This is probably one of my favorites because it was just so good at drawing me in. It’s about the journey of the daughter of celebrated white-boy-turned-flamenco-guitarist David Serva as she seeks to find the method to her father’s (sexual) madness. Through her journey, she finds many half-siblings from unwed affairs and heartbroken former lovers of Serva, and along the way, discovers things about herself and her family that she didn’t know before. It’s an interesting take on a documentary because she doesn’t censor what her opinions are of her father — which are understandably negative, for the most part — and in that sense, it kind of strays from the rule of objectivity that documentaries are often bound to. But as I learned in class the other day, when you’re putting together something of journalistic merit, it’s not the end product that needs to seep with objectivity. It’s the process of objectivity that’s important. And I don’t necessarily think this film had a process of objectivity because essentially, the director was going out to find the realities (and intentionally or unintentionally seek the defamation) of her father, and she admits that the journey was emotional from the get-go.

The introducer before the film said that we might hate or love Rachel Leah Jones, David’s daughter and the filmmaker. But I don’t think this is true. But of course, it’s perhaps that my opinion doesn’t cover every one else. I see how you could dislike her take on creating a film that was emotionally compromised, but I think the emotion was necessary in revealing the true life of a passionate, philandering flamenco guitarist-father. I just thought the pace of the film was fantastic (one criticism, though, would be that it was a little sporadic at times in introducing and talking to the many, many former lovers and children of Serva) and really drew me in. That being said, I didn’t even think to dislike Jones, because I can sympathize with her plight. It’s a very tragic film, but the way in which she approached it was fascinating because it looked at the situation less as an attack on Serva and more of a voyeuristic view into the tumultuous relationship between humans and love. The flamenco scene is very sexual, and the movie was very good at respecting the mysterious, beautiful nature of flamenco music. Perhaps that was not the goal of the film, but it seemed to me that music was a motivating factor in much of the events that Jones discovers through her journey. Music makes people emotional, and so does sex. Serva clearly realized this through his life. You never really know if Serva regrets his never-ending flirtations — you actually never know much about him psychologically, — but in those moments where you see him playing the guitar, you are conflicted by both the beauty of the music and the darkness of the way he leads his life. The music is what he loves, and perhaps that’s why loving a woman beyond the flesh was difficult. You don’t know if he ever loved any woman, but you can definitely see his love for the music. And even if that’s a hard thought, I think that’s something anyone can relate to.

It’s a create commentary on humanity and relationships, and it’s definitely worth the watch. Rachel Leah Jones does a fantastic job.

4. The Impostor

Shot from The Impostor

The Impostor was the film of the fest that really got me thinking more than any other film. But not necessarily about the content of the film. It’s a very ambitious and creative film about a Frenchman, Frédéric Bourdin, who comes to Texas pretending to be the lost son of a grieving family who is eventually realized to be a serial impostor from Europe (sorry for the giveaway, but this is kind of assumed from the beginning). It’s a great story, and it’s very enthralling. I’ve gotta say that I was sucked in from the very beginning, asking questions like, what’s gonna happen to this guy? Who is he? Where will he end up? Who will he strike next? 

But then as I thought about it, I started to think that this documentary was more meta than anything else. I’m not saying that the documentary was necessarily a lie, because I do believe this guy really did do everything the documentary says. But the way the documentary is presented leads me to question the intentions of the filmmaker — not in a bad way — because it’s actually very theatrical. The whole documentary segues between interviews with the family affected (but is it really the family? Probably, but still.) and a reenactment of this crazy concoction of identity theft. It’s very much an “act” rather than a traditional documentary, but that’s not bad. It’s just really interesting. One thing that the filmmaker said after the film was that the most interesting part of what this Frenchman did was be able to convince the family, the customs agents, the FBI and everyone that you think would be able to see through a hooded man with an accent and five o’clock shadow and fall for his routine. And then I was thinking, well, then, why wouldn’t the filmmaker try to do the same thing with his documentary? 

I think the filmmaker’s aim, maybe subconsciously, maybe not, and I may be totally wrong, is to make a comment on the naiveté of documentary-goers. Documentaries are presented as purely fact, but sometimes, they can be anything but that. Just look at the controversy behind the factual validity of documentaries like Fahrenheit 911 or Waiting for Superman. I’m sure this filmmaker isn’t trying to make up a story — it’s definitely true — but I think they way he’s presented it does bring to question what a documentary really is. Can it be an act? How much needs to be true? The audience really fell for this focus on the impostor, which was probably the primary goal. But I do wonder if there was some meta action going on in this filmmaker’s approach. If so, I like that. If not, well, I still think it’s an interesting thought.

Regardless of the intentions behind the film, it’s definitely worth the watch. You’ll be sitting on the edge of your seat.

Marathon 48 hours

So, I was going to originally title this as “Marathon 24 hours,” but alas, it’s turned into 48 hours of insanity. Not bad insanity, but insanity nonetheless. I’ve gotten a lot accomplished, and after getting some much needed sleep last night, I think I’m getting back into the swing of things. I was living in a daze for a while — I’m not sure why — but I think I’m back. Sometimes my mind just has a mind of its own (no pun intended, I just feel vacant of creative vocabulary today). Anyway! I am still planning on reviewing the movies I saw last weekend at True/False. Eh, I’m bad at the whole online time thing — I hope people are still interested! That is, the three people that probably read my blog. Such is life.

I was able to get some great content out this week. And hey, I even had a midterm that I (think I) passed. That was definitely a major stress factor. I mean, seriously, I was on the verge of a meltdown the night before my exam. (And this is why I choose to sleep. Can you imagine me without sleep? I don’t want to think about that.) But, regardless, Allie and I got our bond issue/tax levy pieces out! There’s a great package that was put together to consolidate our reporting and others’ on the school board election issue.

What’s a bond issue, you ask? Do you wonder how the tax levy would affect you? How about a debt service levy? Oh, well, my friend, we can answer all that for you. Just click these following links and be enlightened. If you live in Columbia, this really does pertain to you. Who knew how fun covering tax levies and bond issues could be?

1. Awesome package you should read

2. Bond issue

3. Tax levy

I also had GA this week, and I picked up a great story about a fantastic jazz guitarist who was hosting a musical residence here in Columbia (shout out to Liz for giving this to me for GA). I went to a couple events where this guitarist was the guest and I’ve gotta say, it’s really nice to talk to sources who really treat your interview as a conversation between two people, as opposed to a structured Q&A between robots (not that I don’t like robots…but you understand). I also got a little crime action published before I worked on this profile. It was a very fun GA shift, and my first with Jeanne Abbott, who has replaced Katherine Reed for the rest of the semester! Even though I had to push back my studying to later that night, I wouldn’t have traded Wednesday’s events at all. And if I ace my test, that’ll be the icing on the cake. Aaaand, more links.

1. Jazz guitarist Russell Malone teaches musical lessons to Columbia students, residents

2. Missouri Supreme Court upholds death sentence of Michael Tisius

It  was quite an eventful week, but it’s been a good one. I’ve also been figuring out my schedule for fall semester, and of course, it’s stressing me out. But I think I’ve got my life relatively figured out. And hey, Brussels in the spring? Hmmmmm. Chocolate, journalism and the European Union? I’m down.

Nut grafs

Here are my two best and worst nut grafs that I’ve read recently:

Best: 

In India, the world’s largest democracy, some see system as a handicap

Although the nut graf doesn’t hit quite immediately in this story (which I think is about the corruption of politicians, which is stated a few paragraphs down), I think this story, essentially, serves as a nut graf for a very complex problem. I actually had a tough time figuring out which graf was actually the nut graf. Perhaps that’s a failure of the article, but I think it’s actually a benefit, because I think the reporter was very good at being very concise at addressing a pretty weighty and potentially long-winded issue. The grafs were very easy to read and I got the general sense of what was going on very early on. It wasn’t an intimidating article, yet it still addressed the issue intelligently and in a complex enough manner.

Worst:

Data Hint at Hypothetical Particle, Key to Mass in the Universe

When I first read this article, I was really interested. But that’s really because I know a lot about the Higgs boson, an elusive theory of physics steeped in mystery and intrigue — oh wait, but the average person might not know about the Higgs boson. I only know about it, really, because of a high school friend who was interested in astrophysics, who described it to me. So, I’m reading about how the Higgs boson may be finally discovered, or on its way to being discovered (which is actually a really big deal for the physics community), but then I think about it and I’m like, “Wait, if I were an average reader, why would I care?” I read it because I knew about it and wanted to see the development. The problem with the article is that the nut graf doesn’t hit until about 7 grafs down, which is probably way too far for such a scientific piece. (Don’t get me wrong. I love science journalism, but you’ve gotta throw the gist out to me if you want me to keep reading.) Maybe this is part of a beat or from someone who clearly knows more about the Higgs boson that your average joe, but I don’t think that negates the need for a nut graf. I understand not thinking about this all the time, because I’m guilty of it. But after listening to our nut graf lecture, I think the nut graf still remains an integral part of story.