Taking on video: #loweclass changes form of storytelling but maintains same conviction
There are some things that you can read or hear every day of your life and still need to read or hear again tomorrow. Everyone has a story is one of those things. It may be the most popular credo among journalists, so much so that it’s bordering on cliché, but that does not make it any less true. People have latched onto this idea in recent years in exciting ways with easily accessible new forms of storytelling in digital journalism. The stories of “normal,” everyday people are being told, shared and enjoyed at an exponentially growing pace. Accounts like the vastly successful Humans of New York pop up all the time. What’s charming about this trending technique is its impact while maintaining brevity and simplicity, usually using only photos and maybe audio with short captions to communicate.
Milwaukee is also embracing the concept of giving voice to ordinary individuals with extraordinary stories through outlets like the On the Block section of the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service and Milwaukee Stories.
Such platforms can provide a more nuanced backstory to someone who may appear a familiar character in city life, or they can introduce the audience to something completely new to them. The New York Times produced their own impeccable version of this type of project in 2009. “One in 8 Million” uses strong black and white photography slideshows complemented by audio interviews to illustrate a variety of 54 different New Yorkers.
As #loweclass begins to embark on the journey that is learning how to produce video content, we went back to the basics to remind ourselves of our fundamental purpose as journalists. That is, doing our best to help others understand the significance of the idea that everyone has a story. We used Al Tompkin’s 10 Commandments of Video as a frame for looking at and learning from the effective storytelling in “One in 8 Million.”
One of Tompkin’s commandments is “Thou shalt focus their story into three words.” The featured stories in “One in 8 Million” effectively embody this through their titles. The flattering and intriguing title each person is given like “The Teenage Mother,” “The Tolerance Teacher” and “The Uncertain Gang Member” sums up each story.
The photography in this project accomplishes much of what video does. It follows Tompkin’s commandment, “Keep thy shot steady,” by capturing glances into the subjects’ lives that the audience can soak in. For example, the featured image at the top of this page creatively illustrates the new way that the subject sees herself now that she has a child.
Other images in various vignettes live out Tompkin’s commandment that recommends using cutaways and sequences by focusing a portion of the photos on things other than just the subject. That same example, “The Teenage Mother,” uses some images of just the baby and other powerful cutaway shots like one of the mother holding her daughter’s hand. It utilizes sequence with several shots of mom and daughter walking outside with the stroller. “The Tolerance Teacher” uses cutaways to show other people that the subject interacts with and influences and the environment that he works in. “The Uncertain Gang Member” makes good use of sequence by demonstrating the flow of the subject’s school day and of cutaways with shots of just the subject’s tattoos.
Some of the most compelling shots in these pieces are so powerful because they follow Tompkin’s commandment, “Though shalt put the camera on the shadow side of the subject.” The photographers use light and shadow to their advantage, and it is especially stark because of the black and white. One of my favorite examples of this was also in the “The Uncertain Gang Member.” The way the subject was juxtaposed between lightness and darkness with a haunting shadow cast over his face enhanced the story in an important and creative way.
What stuck out to me most in all of the “One in 8 Million” pieces was how thorough the reporting was, which followed another of Tompkin’s commandments of “choosing a background that enhances the interview.” Each of the vignettes captured the subjects in different settings that make up their environment, giving the audience a more holistic, dimensional interaction with the subjects’ stories.
Reviewing the “One in 8 Million” package was a way for me to immerse myself in good storytelling, a practice I am making habitual. Pausing to be more conscious of what amazing people might be surrounding me reminds me that journalism can and does happen anywhere and everywhere. Maybe it’s not a bad thing to have the mantra of, “Everyone has a story,” branded in my mind. Without it, I never would have had the courage or conviction to approach a motorcyclist on a street corner as I waited on my bike for the light to change, I never would have learned such wisdom from my friend and I never would have known about one of my eccentric neighbors I run past.
James Foley's parents visit their son's alma mater to speak as both advocates and mourners
The students of #loweclass weren’t too sure how to react when we found out that Diane and John Foley, James Foley’s parents, would be visiting our class in 10 minutes. We hadn’t prepared anything, but the name James Foley stirred up something in each of us. We all knew his name and something of his story. He was the Marquette alumni journalist who was captured and killed by ISIS while working to tell the stories of the conflict-stricken in the Middle East. To many on our campus and around the world, he is a hero. What would his parents be like?
Much to our relief, they showed qualities that we were all familiar with, those of caring parents who both admire and worry about their kid. “It sounds like a movie but it’s not,” John Foley said when describing his son’s life as a war correspondent. He seemed proud but also frightened just by talking about it. The closest thing that I could think of was reading Lynsey Addario’s memoir "It's What I Do" that seemed more like a page-turning thriller than a realistic account of someone’s life. Addario is a conflict photographer and detailed her experiences on the job, including being kidnapped and the struggles of having a family while doing that kind of work.
“We so need passionate young journalists in conflict zones, but it’s so dangerous,” Diane Foley said with a hint of worry in her voice. She explained the importance of safety precautions and risk assessment in journalism, especially among freelancers who don’t have a news organization looking out for them. Both her and her husband have become staunch advocates for preventative safety measures for journalists. They spoke on this throughout their most recent visit to Marquette, commemorating their son's birthday a year after his death.
“It’s a very tricky business,” John Foley said, warning the room of aspiring journalists in front of him. It was clear to us that their strong conviction on the matter was coming from a very personal space. They want future journalists to be safer than their son was. They don’t want other parents to have to feel how they do. They even encouraged us to pursue investigative journalism and stay stateside rather than ever working abroad.
Our interaction with the Foleys was something incredibly human. We were able to experience and appreciate their perspective, one that we could relate to more than we anticipated before class started. They weren’t anything strange, foreign or distant because of what they had gone through. They thought, felt and said things that I could hear my own parents saying. Their praise of Jim and admonition about safety all seemed to come from a place of deep love.
That is one of my favorite parts of journalism, getting an inside look at amazing peoples’ experiences and then realizing that we’re just normal people having a conversation. It’s a reminder that everyone we have everyday conversations with has an amazing story to share too. The Foleys seemed to agree.
“Jim always said that everyone has a story that needs to be told,” John Foley said, shifting the direction of the conversation and ending our time on a more hopeful note. It was almost as if they were reminding us that despite their grief and caution for journalists going forward, they are ultimately supportive of all their son stood for. They believe in what he was doing when he was captured. They know that stories are important.
O'Brien Fellow showcases research that will make you second guess that next cup of coffee
All eyes in the stately third floor room of Sensenbrenner Hall were on Raquel Rutledge and her flouncy berry red dress as she presented her piece "Gasping for Action" as part of the 2015 O'Brien Fellowship Conference.
Sarah Hauer, an undergraduate intern in the Diederich College of Communication, introduced Rutledge. She described the Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporter from the Journal Sentinel as “tenacious.”
Among her favorite lessons she learned from Rutledge, Hauer laughed and said, “She taught us that gummy worms can be performance enhancing drugs for journalists.”
Rutledge showed her multifaceted personality when she began her slideshow and switched from bubbly to fierce as she spoke on her approach to investigative journalism.
“There are far too few of us asking these kinds of questions,” Rutledge said as she discussed her investigation.
She discovered that diacetyl, a dangerous chemical known to cause lung cancer, is a byproduct of coffee roasting. Reports have shown its presence in the microwave popcorn and flavoring industry but never before in the average production of coffee. Most roasters she talked to had never heard of it.
“I talked to a zillion people,” Rutledge said of her research. Results proved her persistence worth it. She tested the air quality of Just Coffee Cooperative in Madison, Wisconsin and found unsafe levels of diacetyl.
“People are recognizing, yes it’s in this business and yes it’s a threat,” she said.
Engaged attendees may have left with a slightly more bitter taste in their mouth after learning about the undesired consequences of their complimentary cup of coffee, but also with a renewed belief in public service journalism.
Miranda Spivack encourages students to demand accountability and freedom of information
Miranda Spivack’s recent visit to #loweclass was a refreshing reminder of the significance of “unrewarding, labor intensive stories” in a fast-paced, click-motivated evolving world of journalism. The self-titled “government accountability reporting” specialist and former editor of The Washington Post received a 2015 O’Brien Fellowship.
“I don’t think people know what to be enraged about anymore,” Spivack said with a sense of urgency, describing the consequences of a lack of accountability reporting and more limited access to public information.
She assured us with hand gestures as vibrant as the colors in her scarf that pursuing government information at a state and local level may not be glorious work, but that doesn't make it less important. Spivack cited local and community news as the place “where peoples’ lives are most affected.”
“Every year, states are exempting more information from disclosure,” she said.
This lack of transparency is a problem based on principle according to Spivack, but it is also relevant to the everyday person when it comes into play around a hot button issue. Cue her project for the O’Brien Fellowship.
Spivack is looking at the accessibility of police information in different states, specifically video footage from body cameras. She said police conduct affects “everybody in every community.”
Body cameras have weaved their way into national conversation and police forces all over the country (like Milwaukee's) following a slew of high profile incidents where contested police conduct led to riots. Spivack’s research and reporting takes on the next natural conversation: how will these cameras affect the way the law is enforced?
“Should the footage be public?” she asked.
Spivack’s visit got me fired up about journalists’ essential role in ensuring the functioning of our democracy by protecting peoples’ access to information. She also showed me the power that journalists can have in shifting conversations. Spivack is taking an issue that is on everyone’s mind and is not just talking about it but bringing new information to the table that will inspire change as the country will see fit.
That’s pretty cool. You can consider me convinced, the time consuming, behind-the-scenes storytelling is important.
Edward Snowden's introduction to the Twittersphere proved a perfect introduction to Storify for our class. It taught us how to take a story that's developing online, specifically through social media, and assemble it in a meaningful way so others can easily follow along. Through the process of learning how to use Storify, I was able to synthesize a story that is all over the Internet into something you can simply scroll through to learn what's going on with one of the world's most famous fugitives. If you are confused about what Snowden is making international headlines for this time, or even if you're not, I suggest you check outmy first ever attempt at using Storify! I'm excited to explore the potential of this platform more in the future!
First attempt at live-tweeting poses challenges but engages me in cool community conversations
My mom always told me that you can't be in two places at once. Obviously, she has never live-tweeted an event. This week marks my first attempt at live-tweeting. Being present both in person and on social media really felt like trying to be in two places at once. Though more difficult than expected, it was nice to call home and say, "Hey Mom! I did it!"
As part of the Milwaukee Film Festival, "Romeo is Bleeding" showed at the Oriental Theatre. A question and answer session with the filmmakers and a panel discussion about youth activism followed the screening. I attended with some of the high school student activists I work with at Urban Underground and set out to capture as much of the event as possible via Twitter. To my relief, I was not the only one excited about the film or engaged in the conversation around it on social media. It was awesome to see photos of the line wrapped around the theater on Twitter.
My goal was to communicate essentially what was said and the vibe of the space so people could feel involved without being there. The hope was that those reading my correspondence would want to learn more about the film and see it for themselves as well as follow up with the featured community organizations doing great work in Milwaukee.
Honestly, I’m not sure if I met my goal as well as I would have liked, but I did learn a lot in the process. It was quite the challenge to stay up to speed when different people were speaking and to pick and choose which were the most important points to tweet on the spot. It was hard to know when would be a good time to stop typing in order to take a photo to add visual appeal to the content I was generating. Live tweeting proved to be a hectic experience that I am looking forward to improving on with more practice.
Thankfully, others on social media filled in the gaps of what I missed that day. Scrolling through the relevant hashtags on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook provided a more complete narrative than I was able to communicate on my own.
Compiling a Storify of the day was an opportunity to put these pieces together in a way that better told the story. The ability to easily combine different types of media from different sources into one piece is what made Storify a fun and effective means of sharing context, the experience itself and peoples’ reactions to it. The youth who inspired the film and those who spoke on the panel that day amazed me with their passion, creative expression and dedication to improving their communities. Hopefully the Storify makes the reader feel that same energy.
I am a senior studying journalism and international affairs at Marquette University. I am a Milwaukee-dweller and a storyteller passionate about exploring the intersection between community-building and communication. I'd love for you to learn alongside me!