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Monthly Archives: March 2013

Writing in cliches is an easy pitfall for journalists to fall into, particularly for journalism students still learning their craft. But The Poynter Institute’s website currently features an example of one journalist sharing nuanced views of an issue that has often been over-simplified.

AP West Africa bureau chief Rukmini Callimachi won an ASNE award earlier this month for her series on hunger. She focused on how famine contributes to stunting in children. Each article featured a unique approach. Examples include one following a Tuareg nomad who sold his camel to buy food and one telling the story of a girl learning at a level far below expected ability for her age. Another examines an increase in child marriages that results from famine. “The larger question is what does (famine) do to a community these days,” Callimachi said. “People don’t die from starvation the way they used to.”

Writing about the effects that famine takes on its victims over time makes the issue new, relevant and intriguing. Most people know that hunger plagues so much of Africa; reading another article reiterating that fact contributes nothing to the conversation. Callimachi said that researching stunting and what it does to the brain gave her insights into why the continent remains riddled with problems. “An entire generation won’t be able to reach its potential.”

Journalists may write in cliches when they are under-informed about a foreign issue. Cliches can also result from laziness and lack of originality. To write something worth reading, we have to recognize that every story that can be told, has been told. Our job as journalists is to find nuance in a story and breathe new life into a subject that has warranted repeated coverage. Pursuing different angles and approaches to a much-covered topic is the key to producing quality journalism that equips the public with useful information.

 

The MU School of Journalism drills several overarching themes into its students’ heads. One of those themes is taught a core tenant of practicing quality journalism: DON’T INSERT YOURSELF INTO THE STORY. Journalism is not about the journalist: it’s about the story, the people, places and things the journalist covers. Nobody cares what you (the journalist) think or feel. Focus on your subject and keep yourself out of it as much as possible. Get out of the way so the story can shine through.

In so many instances, I agree with this principle. I think a lot of journalists (particularly, radio-TV journalists) are becoming pundits and personalities more than professional storytellers. By sharing more of their opinion than the story their opinion is based on, consumers don’t learn. In these instances, journalism does not educate the public. These “journalists” do not arm people with accurate and comprehensive knowledge, which is their job.

But there are also examples of professional storytelling that include the storyteller’s perspective. MediaStorm produces “cinematic narratives that speak to the heart of the human condition”. One particularly effective documentary-style piece is “The Sandwich Generation” by Julie Winokur and Ed Kashi. The filmmaker-photographer couple took in Winokur’s 83-year-old father, Herbie, when he could no longer care for himself. They documented their personal experience joining “some twenty million other Americans who make up the sandwich generation, those who find themselves responsible for the care of both their children and their aging parents.” 

Watching these journalists live their subjects (which is how Kashi describes the experience in his epilogue about “The Sandwich Generation”) captivated me. The documentary-style of storytelling was engaging, consuming, all-encompassing and illuminating. I got a great glimpse into what it’s like to care for an elderly relative, and hearing from the storytellers themselves enriched the experience, adding a layer of impact and honesty.

Is one way right, the other wrong? No. I think context can determine the tone and format for storytelling. Different styles of journalism work better in different platforms. I find myself more drawn towards long-form, documentary style journalism, but I also love traditional journalism that puts all the focus on the subject.

As a student at the MU School of Journalism, I hope to learn every storytelling style. When I graduate, I’ll be equipped to adapt to different situations, and learn to produce journalism in whatever way is most appropriate and best to capture the story at hand.

As a multimedia journalism student, I’m working with new forms of media every week. This week, we’re learning NPR-style audio storytelling, and editing with Audacity. According to their website, Audacity is a “free, open source, cross-platform software for recording and editing sounds.”

For the first half of the semester, we’re focusing on one subject using still photos, audio, audio slideshows, short video and a news-style package. I’m covering The Bridge, a local music venue that’s part music school, part rock club and bar. With the social atmosphere and diverse acts The Bridge attracts, I knew my audio story would stand out.

Then Snowmagedon happened. A slew of snow storms pounding the midwest stopped Columbia, Missouri in its tracks. This forced me to record my audio Wednesday night, the night before the story was due. I assumed getting back from the concert at 11pm would give me plenty of time to edit before 7:30am. With experience editing video and audio through Final Cut Pro, I thought Audacity would be comprable and easy to manipulate.

I was horribly mistaken.

I have yet to determine what I did to prevent Audacity for editing. Every button I pressed, every person I asked, and every tutorial I consulted failed to help me use Audacity. I could upload audio into the program, but when I tried to clip it, I either couldn’t press the cut tools or my cuts wouldn’t save. I began my editing attempts at 11pm and worked until 5:15am. Work before class started at 6am, so I sent an email to my instructor explaining why my assignment would be late and begging for his help after class. I left for work exhausted, defeated and frustrated with myself for not being able to figure out this simple bit of technology.

My TA was able to show me what to do, and I’m slowly discovering for myself how to use Audacity. My late first submission was rough, but I’m working from the critique of that work to improve my second version.

I learned two important lessons from my atrocious Audacity experience. One: never put something off until the last minute. Give yourself 24 hours to edit whenever possible. Two: warn your “boss”, or TA when you might cut it close with the deadline. If you keep your “boss” updated on the status of your work, they’ll know what’s going on and understand if things don’t work out. Keeping them informed on your timeline and progress can save you in the end.

So this week will mark my second attempt at Audacity. Giving myself more time, and engaging in experiential learning, will hopefully lead this audacity dummie to audio editing expertise.