This column was originally published as an issue of Nieman Storyboard’s weekly newsletter. You can read back issues of the newsletter and subscribe here.
We read most stories from a distance — whether that distance is geographic or emotional. They are about things happening elsewhere, to someone else. They may be compelling, but no matter how good they are, they can’t reach us beyond a certain level. The best breaking news and beat journalists try to tell stories that are built on information that is relevant to our needs and choices. The best investigative journalists try to point out the injustices that violate our societal agreements, and that could someday visit us if they aren’t corrected. And the best narrative journalists try to bring readers/listeners/viewers into other worlds for a walk-in-their-shoes (or on bare feet) vicarious experience that helps us understand and feel the reality of those worlds.
But no experience is ours until it is. And when you are in the middle of a news story, you read the coverage differently. I expect that’s how people in Nashville, Tennessee, felt if they were able to follow coverage of the heartbreaking tornadoes there last week. I know from a brilliant young reporter friend that that’s how people in China feel when they read news about China in the Western press. And because I live in Seattle, it is how I am reading news of coronavirus as it unfolds around me.
Much of it awes me for its speed, clarity and credibility. I’ve winced at a few headlines. “China tried a lockdown; should Seattle?” in the Seattle Times a couple of days ago. I considered it a rare over-the-top moment in their otherwise exhaustive, direct and calm coverage. The deck head pretty much said ‘no,’ but we have to remember that people often never get past the headline. And from KUOW, the NPR member station based at the University of Washington, this was a similar departure from essential coverage and smart conversations: “Is it safe to visit Grandma?“
But on the whole, the work of the local press is stellar, and giving the nationals strong raw material to build on. And if you ever shrug at the need for a vital local news operation — one that lives in your community and is as committed to it as you are — because you can get what you need from network TV or NPR at the top-of-the-hour or even the wondrous New York Times, just track back to the origins of those reports. I did, and loved, my share of what we call parachute reporting. But I know I could never presume the kind of knowledge that came from living inside a story — not just watching it from the outside.
One of our goals at Storyboard is to identify, study and celebrate work from across a spectrum of delivery formats and staff sizes. The focus remains solidly on the work of story — what many call “narrative,” but not exclusive to that. I think of it more as journalism, in whatever form, that goes beyond the vital sharing of informational news but takes a few steps into a shared experience.
Any news event opens the door to that. The bigger the news, the wider the doorway.
Coronavirus is as big as it gets. That’s not meant to be hyperbolic. But even horrific news — like the Nashville tornado or even something like war — tends to be isolated in its reach. Not so, it seems, with these mysterious stalkers moving among us. China, Iran, the U.S., Italy. We find ourselves in the oft-talked-about but rarely realized same boat. That’s not just about the potential for illness, but about the economy, how we’re being served — or not — by our public institutions, civil and lifestyle disruption, and even about who gets to own the truth of this story.
A beloved former editor of mine used to refer to this as a “window of opportunity.” “Pay attention to when it opens,” she would say. “Then jump through it with everything you’ve got.”
I see those opportunities being seized in ways that are responsible, courageous (remember, the reporters out there are taking risks to bring you the news) and creative. We have a behind-the-scenes look at two special but far different pieces coming soon. (I hope next week, but journalists standing in the middle of this are more than a bit busy with other priorities.) We will be on the lookout, of course, for more, with an eye to how they fit into Storyboard’s special mission, and what we all can learn from the best work being done out there on our behalf. Consider yourself deputized to help us identify that work.
We’re also looking for coverage from the past that can inform the work we do now and into the future. Much of the world shared a shaky boat during the world wars; what can we learn from that coverage? More directly, what was the standout journalism being done during the devastating Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918?
Yesterday I sent a note to a close friend who lived as a closeted, and then out, gay man through the 1980s, when HIV-AIDS was the headlined health scourge. I told him I was hearing echoes of that time and this in terms of the mystery, growing panic, confusion over how to react. He pushed back, fast and hard:
AIDS felt so different because we were still so marginalized and it was treated as a scourge for sinfulness. It was our fault and justification if we caught it….God’s righteousness. And most people felt totally safe because it was only us who were exposed.
And there was no sense of governmental or policy level urgency since it was only us. No mass panic.
Anger and self righteousness in most of the population. And, since we were just beginning to come into some sense of pride, so much self-doubt and shame.
And, at the beginning, no media coverage….especially any that treated us like human beings rather than freaks.
Doesn’t compare for me.
He was right to claim his insider experience, and to remind me that, as a journalist who stepped onto the edges of that experience, I could glimpse, but not know, its center. It was a reminder that we need to stay humble, work hard, knock on all the doors to a story, and try to find the voices that are living at the center of a story. And then to go back, again and again — often for years or centuries — to re-report the truth of an “event” and see the stories that weren’t evident in the moment.