How to tell a dangerous story

Here’s another guest post from our friend and fellow missions journalist, Heather Pubols. You can learn more about Heather’s work at: www.lemotif.org

“I know how you can tell this story,” I said to a colleague with a smile. “Someone did something that made a positive change among some group of people in some country, and it’s so amazing everyone needs to know about it!”

We were talking about how to tell stories from “sensitive” or high-risk contexts, and I said this jokingly as we considered what could and could not be said in stories. We had a good laugh and proceeded to find a solution.

While I said this in jest, this is a basic formula for telling impact stories. Of course, usually when applied, it includes real information—not just “something” or “someone.” Yet, what do you do if putting these key details into your story threatens the project you want to write about or risks the lives of your subjects? Should these stories be left untold?

In 2015 the refugee crisis in Europe exploded. I was living in Germany and began research for potential articles that would link the work of several organizations to that topic.  I learned about a man working for one of these organizations who came to Europe as a refugee more than a decade before the crisis. Fearing for his life, he fled from his home country in West Asia and entered Europe illegally.

His story echoed current refugees’ experiences. On top of that, his refugee journey included a significant encounter with one of these organizations. It changed the direction of his life and engaged him in work that connected him with current refugees. It was a perfect story!  However, even though now he was a legal German resident, the kind of work he did carried risk. We could say he was in Germany, but his identity and country of origin needed to be concealed.

So what could we do to tell this story and mitigate the risk? Was it even possible? YES! I use a principle I call framing to work through sensitivities like this.  Here’s how it works: Start with what you can’t say or show and then keep zooming in or out until you find an acceptable frame to tell and show the story.

With personal names, start with using a part of a personal name, like a first name rather than their full name.  If that’s not enough to maintain security, zoom out a little more and try a pseudonym from their ethnic community or home region.  If that’s not enough, zoom out again and try a more generic name as a pseudonym. With places, if a country can’t be mentioned, zoom out to a geographic region. If that’s not enough, zoom out to the continent.

This is probably farther than you’ll need to zoom out.

With photographs, follow a similar process. When photographing a person, start with making sure their face and any identifying markers (like tattoos or noticeable scars) are not revealed. Often photos from behind, above or closeups of hands work well. If that still presents a problem, then talk with the subject about showing them from a distance. Neutral clothing also helps. Another method is to use photographs of a representative person (be sure to include a note indicating this).

For visuals of the landscape, it’s important to ensure that no landmarks which identify the place you are trying to keep concealed are in view. Sometimes showing images from neighboring countries or from other places which have a similar look can offer a visual feel for the location you can’t show. Finally, photos of illustrative objects that don’t give away key details can provide visual elements that can add to your story without causing problems.

In videos, you may consider using actors. In audio formats, if you can’t use a person’s voice, a voice actor may be sufficient. Or, think about telling the story through a narrator. Again, always indicate if the voice you use isn’t the real person in the story.

Back to our European refugee profile story. By applying the principle of framing we found an acceptable way to give important storytelling details that enhance the narrative without compromising security. Read the story here.

A few stories still may be too risky to tell. However, using framing, I think you’ll find there are many more stories that can be told than not.

Posted in Culture, Ethics, sensitivity, Story | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

2019: Year of the Shed

I’m building a backyard shed this year. Several months ago, I would have told you I’m building a backyard shed this weekend. We needed more storage space and this seemed like a good idea at the time. That was before I learned that I’m actually building a small house … something a reasonably intelligent person doesn’t attempt without knowing what he’s in for.

Today, this is no longer a weekend project. It’s a quest.

Wikipedia amplifies this thought: “The object of a quest requires great exertion on the part of the hero, who must overcome many obstacles, typically including much travel to Home Depot.”

OK, I added those last three words. But ShedQuest 2019™ otherwise fits the bill. Great exertion? To dig foundation postholes, I rented a power auger. This is basically a giant corkscrew with a lawn mower engine on top, designed to separate the user’s shoulder from his torso. After starting one posthole, I realized if I tried to go any deeper I would be spending the summer in a body cast. This machine is meant to be used by burly men who operate jackhammers … not by 55-year-old writers. Six weeks later, I can almost lift my arms above my head again.

Many obstacles? How about a 3-foot wide tree stump that required the use of several saws, an ax and a medieval battle implement called a pick mattock? How about rain or the threat of rain every day for two months? How about a general lack of carpentry knowledge, supplemented by a steady diet of YouTube videos?

As days turned to weeks, I worried that the shed would become a distraction from work. As I think through tonight’s task of shingling the roof, it’s the writing and editing that have become the distraction.

For a short season, that’s not all bad.

When most of my work involves sitting in front of a screen and operating software, operating power saws and swinging a hammer feel pretty good. Building a functional (I hope) shed from thousands of pounds of 2x4s and plywood requires forethought, the right tools, occasional help and, above all, patience. The process goes: foundation, floor, walls, rafters, roof, siding … oh, and a door, which I forgot about when first building the walls. Each step takes time. Ultimately, everything fits together, but it doesn’t happen quickly or easily.

Our culture is in short supply of patience. Author and teacher Jonathan Rogers writes: “I don’t have to satisfy every curiosity that flits across my mind just because I happen to have a supercomputer in my pocket.” (I’ll admit to uttering: “Alexa, who played Mrs. Howell on Gilligan’s Island?”) When boredom equates to not having checked our phones for 10 minutes, ShedQuest 2019™ has been a welcome change of pace and focus.

What does all of this have to do with reporting better stories? First: Working creatively (even if imperfectly) with our hands makes our brains work better. It’s actually more intellectually engaging than desk work. A short season as a part-time shed builder feels incredibly refreshing and ultimately makes me a better and more energetic writer and reporter.

Second and more deeply: When we take a break from the routine … when we choose uncertainty over predictability … when we take on a task bigger than we’re qualified for … we live a better story. We live the kind of story we look for in others. And then we recognize those stories more quickly and tell them better, because they’re already kind of familiar.

That’s way more than I bargained for from a pile of boards and nails.

Alexa, what do I do for a sore back?

Posted in Creativity, Story | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Simplicity gone astray

Help a Norwegian today.

Today we welcome this guest post by our friend, Heather Pubols. Heather has traveled the world getting stories for mission organizations. You can learn more about her work at: www.lemotif.org

In 2012 I took a media team to a country in central Africa to get stories about Bible translation projects in the country. We stayed in a guesthouse at an educational institution, and nearby was a school for the students’ children.

“Put away your cameras!” a man shouted to one of the photographers traveling with me. “We don’t want you showing our children as poor and hungry on the internet.”

We had obtained advanced permission to photograph on the campus, but we took this parent’s concerns seriously. The cameras went away, and the matter was discussed with the parent and the educational institution president. We came to a mutual understanding of our purpose and received permission once more to take photos.

This parent expressed a widely held view in many parts of Africa: Western nonprofit organizations want to show people across Africa in the worst light in order to raise money. People feel exploited.

What we saw was a reaction to what Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “The Danger of a Single Story.” In her 2009 TED Talk, she said single stories develop when we “show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.”

She traced Africa’s single story back to the writings of Western explorers in the 16th century who referred to black African people as “beasts.” In modern media, the single story persists. The continent is often portrayed as a place of violence, war, poverty and famine.

Well-intentioned nonprofits have participated. In the mid-1980s I remember seeing starving, fly-covered Ethiopian children in famine-relief television advertisements. In my household, the messages from those ads informed my brother’s teasing: “You’re so skinny, you look like an Ethiopian!” The single story had left its mark, even serving as a source for new childish insults. While the desired goal of the advertising was noble, it was overshadowed by the simplistic, negative stereotypes it reinforced.

Stereotypes about a region of the world can represent a portion of reality, but they do not comprise the entire narrative of every country or every person from that region.

Beathe Ogard, president of the Norwegian Students’ and Academics International Assistance Fund, launched an initiative to called “Radi-Aide” with the goal “to change the way fundraising campaigns communicate and to break down dominating stereotypes.” Her team created several satirical videos to flip these stereotypes on their heads by displacing their context. Watch one.

Beathe says that the most effective communication from non-profit organizations shows context and portrays individuals with agency, dignity and respect. It inspires and doesn’t provoke guilt.

As I led media teams to global locations to gather stories for nonprofits, I would tell people to think about the following:

  • Put yourself in the shoes of your subject. How would you want to be portrayed?
  • This is the internet age, so assume your work will be seen by your subjects. How would your subjects feel if they saw how you represented them in your photo, story, video, etc?
  • What stereotype can you challenge through what you produce?
  • How can you show a more complex and nuanced narrative?

It is good practice to ask people from the area where you are going or who are very familiar with the local context to talk with you about guidelines, permissions and expectations. And, don’t expect to do it perfectly. Being willing to listen to concerns, learn and change your plans accordingly also goes a long way.

To learn more, explore the Radi-Aide website.

 

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Prayer in its proper place

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Brevity on the Battlefield

Last summer I spent a day on the battlefields at Gettysburg, Pa. From July 1-3, 1863, almost 50,000 men died here. The relatively short battle turned the Civil War; Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army would never again invade the North.

Walking along the Union battery line at Cemetery Ridge, I thought about why Gettysburg happened. It’s an echo of the gospel: Great sacrifice is required to right a great wrong.

I walked a few hundred yards north from Cemetery Ridge. On Nov. 19, 4 ½ months after the battle, President Abraham Lincoln came here to dedicate Soldiers’ National Cemetery. The event’s main speaker was U.S. Sen. Edward Everett, who blathered two hours and 13,607 words in a speech no one ever quotes.

Then the president stepped forward. He began: “Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

Over the next two minutes, and in just 272 words, Lincoln delivered “the most eloquent articulation of the democratic vision ever written.” Great sacrifice was required to right a great wrong and restore a great vision.

Everett wrote to Lincoln the next day: “I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

Historians have called the Gettysburg Address “deliberately biblical.”

Interesting.

Jesus told some of the most memorable stories in the history of humanity in fewer words than Lincoln would use for the Gettysburg Address. For consistency, I’ll use NIV for these examples.

  • The parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-35) takes just 163 words.
  • The lost sheep (Luke 15:4-7): 100 words
  • The lost coin (Luke 15:8-10): 74 words
  • The Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32): a whopping 508 words. That’s verbose by comparison, but at 11-point Times New Roman, it still fits nicely on one page.
  • The Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13): 57 words!

Luke might have been the best journalist among the biblical writers. He not only quoted Jesus, he also followed his example. The story of Mary and Martha and their contrasting responses to Jesus visiting Martha’s home (Luke 10:38-42) took 121 words. The story of the Transfiguration – the moment when Jesus’ true glory is revealed at last (Luke 9:28-36): 212 words.

If there’s a secret to brevity, revered newspaper writing coach Donald Murray nailed it: Selection, not compression. Read Luke’s gospel and note the details he didn’t include. We have no idea what Mary or Martha looked like, what Martha’s house looked like or what they were having for dinner. We don’t even get the name of their “certain village.” All irrelevant. Instead, Luke selects the detail that Mary sat at Jesus’ feet while Martha prepared the dinner. He quotes Martha directly: “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

Anyone who’s ever hosted a party can relate. And then Luke gives us Jesus’ response: “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Luke chose the precise details that best delivered the story’s meaning. The rest, interesting as they might have been, didn’t make the final cut. That’s a profound lesson in good writing.

Contrary to popular myth, Lincoln didn’t write the Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope during the train ride to Pennsylvania. He worked two weeks on it, with the final version written on two pages: a piece of White House stationary and a plain blue sheet.

Lincoln knew his Bible. It’s not hard to imagine him drawing on the gospel stories’ brevity as examples. He also knew his audience: 15,000 people who had been standing for hours in the November cold. Presidential or not, a short speech would be better.

Writing short is harder than writing long. Every word, every comma and especially every period matters. Of Lincoln’s address, the Springfield (Mass.) Republican newspaper wrote: “His little speech is a perfect gem; deep in feeling, complete in thought and expression, and tasteful and elegant in every word and comma.”

Today’s writers tend to think we have to invent a new art of writing ridiculously short, for a newly distracted audience. Hardly. The art has been there all along, just waiting to be rediscovered.

Deliberately biblical, you might say.

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Journalists, interviews and the crying game

When someone cries in front of you, how do you feel?

What if you’re the one who made them cry?

Watch this video and note how it makes you feel.

A prevailing opinion among TV news crews and others who interview people for video stories is that tears are absolute gold. They rivet the audience’s attention — the video analytics go through the roof. For nonprofits, they evoke an emotional response that might even spur people to, oh, I don’t know, give money.

In some circles, the ability to draw tears out of an interview subject is a sign of how good the interviewer is. On his ESPN interview show, Roy Firestone used to routinely make pro athletes cry — to a point where it became a running joke.

As a Christian and a journalist, I’ve wrestled with this tension. I hate the idea that making my subject cry is a goal. Of course subjects cry sometimes. I do videos for our local rescue mission, interviewing people in recovery from addiction and trauma. When a person gets to a particularly emotional story and needs a minute to compose themselves, I’ll usually pause the camera until they feel good about continuing. But their emotion is certainly part of their story.

I suppose the reason behind someone’s tears is the key ethical question. Are they telling me a story they’re comfortable telling — one so close to their heart that it causes them to tear up? Have they willingly stepped to the equivalent of a podium because they feel compelled to say something?

Certainly the most memorable part of former president George W. Bush’s eulogy for his father was when he broke down crying at the end. I cried with him. No, I would not have stopped the camera.

The only time I’ve ever broken down publicly was when I gave a speech to a college journalism convention the week after five students were murdered on our campus. The speech was carried on Chicago radio and I was OK with that. Everyone in the room was feeling similar emotions and it helped me to express those to a friendly audience.

In other instances, though, the person has been traumatized and media actions feel intrusive and unwanted. I knew one of the student editors at another campus where a mass shooting happened. During the early aftermath, with network TV cameras everywhere on campus, she was overcome with emotion. As she knelt to weep, she heard someone say, “She’s crying! Let’s get this!” Suddenly a camera was 12 inches from her face.

Am I catching someone at one of the worst moments of their life? Do my questions and the presence of my camera make the story better, or worse for them? Do they tell the story fairly and respect the person’s dignity? And what is my responsibility to my employer and to my audience? Can those coexist?

Another friend, reporting for a major newspaper after the 1995 terrorist bombing in Oklahoma City, found himself in a gymnasium where distraught family members waited for news. Rather than simply approach people coldly, he walked silently around the gym with his reporter notebook clearly in view. People stared daggers. Some cursed him. Others made gentler eye contact, and he used that cue to decide whom to approach respectfully and humbly. He delivered a powerful story.

Recently, the Washington Post spoke with NPR’s Terry Gross, one of the best interviewers of our time. The reporter asked Gross how she deals with the possibility of exploiting someone in a bad moment. Gross responded:

“It’s different when you’re talking with politicians because there’s a level of accountability we should demand. But private people don’t owe us anything. So I always tell my guests, “If I ask you anything too personal, let me know, and I’ll move on to something else.” This week, one of my guests just broke up in tears. I just said, “Do you need a moment? Do you want to stop?” And that’s what we did. I don’t like to exploit people’s emotions. Like: Oh, yeah, tears! That’s going to be great radio. Let’s keep it going. Because we all have our public self and our family self, and our truly personal self that is off-limits to everybody. I’m hoping for the best candid version of the public self. Not to trick you, or outsmart you, or show you up.”

The best candid version of the public self. I like that approach. It honors the person I’m interviewing, and I think it honors God.

 

Posted in Ethics, Reporting, sensitivity, Videography | Tagged , , ,

Dec. 24, 1968: The day everything changed

NASA

 

This Christmas Eve marks the 50th anniversary of not only one of the greatest achievements in human history, but also one of our most transcendent moments. Here’s an article I wrote a few years ago about Apollo 8.

—-

On Dec.  21, 1968, 40 minutes after leaving Earth’s orbit, Apollo 8 astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders fell silent. Looking back at just-separated third stage of their Saturn V rocket, they’d caught sight of something else.

Earth.

They had just become the first humans to view their entire planet in one glance. Even today, only 24 people in the entire history of humanity have witnessed that. All saw it between December 1968 and December 1972, the last Apollo mission.

Popular history has relegated Apollo 8’s mission as a footnote, a dress rehearsal for the Big One. Seven months later, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would walk on the moon, fulfilling President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 pledge to accomplish the goal by the end of the decade. But Apollo 8 blazed the trail, proving dramatically and for the first time that humans not only could leave Earth’s orbit, they could fly to the moon, orbit 10 times and make it back home safely.

Even Armstrong would write 30 years later in National Geographic: “Apollo 8 was the spirit of Apollo – leaving the shackles of Earth and being able to return.”

Apollo 8 also meant something bigger. From lunar orbit on Dec. 24, the astronauts encountered a surprise that would change the way humanity looked at itself and its Maker.

That morning, the Apollo 8 Command Module was entering its fourth orbit of the moon. As Flight Commander Borman executed a routine roll, Anders looked out his window and uttered an instinctual response.

“Oh, my God.”

Hanging in the blackness of space, like a bright blue ball, was Earth, rising in the sky above the lunar landscape.

Anders’ entire statement at that moment was one to which any vacationer can relate:

“Oh, my God, look at that picture over there! There’s the Earth comin’ up. Wow, is that pretty!”

“Hey, don’t take that. It’s not scheduled,” Borman joked. In all of the preparations for carefully studying and photographing the moon, no one had thought about turning the camera back toward home, 240,000 miles away.

When the Earthrise came into view, the crew’s Hasselblad 500 EL camera was fitted with a Zeiss Sonnar 250mm telephoto lens and loaded with a Kodak 70mm black-and-white film magazine. As Anders – or was it Borman? – shot the first couple of frames, Lovell rummaged through a storage locker to find a color film magazine. The spacecraft continued rolling, and Earth disappeared from the astronauts’ view.

“Well, I think we missed it,” Anders said.

Then it reappeared in the window. With color film now loaded, Anders lined up the shot.

Recognizing the enormity of the moment, Lovell excitedly played back-seat photographer.

“You got it?”

“Yep,” Andrews said.

“Take several. Take several of ’em. Here, give it to me.”

“Wait a minute. Just let me get the right setting here now. Just calm down. Calm down, Lovell.”

“Well, I got it right – aw, that’s a beautiful shot. Two fifty at f/11.”

“Now vary – vary the exposure a little bit.”

“I did. I took two of ’em here.”

“You sure you got it now?”

Oh, did he have it. Once the film was safely back home and developed, the world realized that Anders’ Earthrise shot might be the most stunning photograph ever taken. He’d already shot images of the whole planet during those early moments away from Earth’s orbit. And an unmanned probe in lunar orbit had photographed the whole planet in low-resolution black-and-white in 1966. But this one was full color, shot by a human from the vantage point of another world.

Lovell later would describe the site of fragile Earth as “a grand oasis in the vastness of space.” In a New York Times front-page essay, the poet Archibald MacLeish wrote: “To see the earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold — brothers who know now they are truly brothers.”

Anders’ iconic shot would inspire the first Earth Day in 1970, and decades later would be listed first in Life magazine’s “100 Photographs that Changed the World.”

—-

That evening, Christmas Eve 1968, NASA planed a live television broadcast. Borman, Lovell and Anders would deliver a greeting from lunar orbit. They’d been instructed by NASA only to “say something appropriate.”

All three had wrestled with what that should be. They wanted something with spiritual meaning, but nothing they came up with seemed to fit the moment. Two weeks before the mission, Borman called on a friend, Simon Bourgin at the U.S. Information Agency, for help. Bourgin was stymied, too, so he called freelance writer Joe Laitin.

Paging through a Gideon Bible for inspiration, Laitin worked late into the night, typing and then crumpling hundreds sheets of paper. Finally his wife, Christine, suggested he “begin at the beginning.” Laitin turned to the creation story in Genesis 1 and knew he had it.

He sent a memo to Bourgin, suggesting Genesis 1:1-10 and adding a brief closing line. Bourgin typed the text into a letter to Borman. The astronauts loved the idea. Borman photocopied the letter and added it to the flight plan.

Now, with millions watching from all over Earth, they were on. After short descriptions of what they’d done that day in lunar orbit – incredible enough – they turned to Bourgin’s letter.

Anders went first:

“We are now approaching lunar sunrise, and for all the people back on Earth the crew of Apollo 8 has a message that we would like to send to you.”

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.
And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.

Lovell read next:

And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.
And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.
And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.

Borman finished:

And God said, Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.
And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good.

“And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.”

—-

Ironically, the space program’s most spiritually powerful image was not of where we went, but where we came from. Coming from the only three humans who, to that point, had ever seen a God’s-eye view of the entire Earth, the creation story was never more powerful. Human endeavor intersected with the vastness and beauty of creation, and the only appropriate response was to look not at ourselves, but Godward.

—-

Watch NASA’s recreation of the Apollo 8 Earthrise moment.

 

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