Archive for December, 2007|Monthly archive page

Show must go on :)

I just wanted to say I’m going to keep this blog and update it in the future. But like my personal blog, I won’t update it very regularly. So I would appreciate if you subscribe to the blog’s feed if you are interested in my writings.

Gotta get some rest now! Happy end of semester 🙂

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Journalists’ Toolkit Class: My Assessment

Journalists’ Toolkit I class offered a variety of well-designed exercises through which I gradually built my ability to tell stories using multimedia platforms. The best thing about the class was this gradual move from completely controlled and scripted exercises to the real world experience of producing a multimedia package about an issue.

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Journalists’ Toolkit Class: My Feelings

I love reporting. I love story telling. I love telling stories of real and everyday experiences of people. I love to go to a strange place, spend some time there, interact with its people, and come to new understandings about that place and its people, and share those understandings with others. That’s why I always wanted to be a journalist since my childhood and that’s why I chose to study journalism at the University of Florida.

But my dreams seemed not coming true, after I took a reporting class at UF and found out about my shortcomings in writing in English. Being an Iranian who has been in the US for less than four years, I realized that I can never master English language the way I know my own native Persian. Comparing my news stories written in English and Persian, I realized that the soul my work has in Persian is missing in my English stories. My English writings do not have the same creativity my Persian writings do, because I lack the knowledge of words with which I can play with, to create an amusing and influential story.

But after a semester in a class about online journalism, I discovered that there exist tools other than words that can help me tell my stories. Photos, audio, Soundslides, and video are all platforms through which I can tell my stories, without feeling mute.

The skills I learned in Journalists’ Toolkit class gave me a new voice that I can raise to follow my dream of being a story teller. And I strongly believe that many times multimidia platforms help you tell an even more powerful story than a print story. After all, a picture tells a thousand words. Pictures accompanied with effective audio narrations can even tell more…

Final Story Package: Homelessness in Gainesville

Here’s my final story package for Journalists’ Toolkit class, which includes a Soundslides and a map:

Screenshot of Homelessness in Gainesville Package

We had to Make a soundslides about an issue, and put some sort of data, either a Google Map, or a statistical chart made by Fusion Charts, to give some extra information about the subject.

At first I thought I can’t make this package and will lose all my credibility, because the people I initially talked to to help me get in touch with homeless people later didn’t return my calls or emails. I was missing the deadline, while we had about three weeks to work on this story. I started googling keywords related to homelessness and Gainesville, and I found out that there is a clinic in a church called Helping Hands Clinic that offers services to the homeless every Monday at 5pm.

I had 15 minutes to get there. So I drove like crazy to the place. I talked to the people working there and they agreed to let me interview them.

As I moved around the clinic, I started chatting with homeless people there. They were curious why I’m taking photos from the building. I asked them what they think about the clinic. As we were talking, I gradually changed the subject to what they thought about the condition of homeless people in Gainesville, if they have any complaints, and if they have any suggestions on how people like me can help.

People became more interested and talked more. Then I asked some of them if they are willing to help me to make the story. One man, Rick, gave me some good suggestions, but he refused to be interviewed. He said he’s tired of being interviewed by so many papers and students! I said I respect his decision, but gave him my number in case he changed his mind, or he was willing to help me.

I went to downtown plaza after the clinic, where many homeless people spend the night. One woman I met at the clinic said she will be waiting for me to be interviewed in the plaza, and surprisingly she was there. Other homeless people would stop by as I was talking to her, and I chatted with them as well, asked their opinions, and asked them how people like me can help them.

The day after that I went to downtown plaza again, where the Home Van, a mobile service that distributes free food and cloths for the homeless around the town was supposed to be. Surprisingly, I saw Rick there and he said I came to help you, because it’s not safe here and you need someone to show you around.

He later helped me go to the woods and talk to more people. I made friends with some more homeless people. We sat together and ate. I invited Rick for coffee. He knows photography and even gave me some suggestion on setting the ISO of my camera for taking photos at night. He asked me to take my photo at the clinic, and a homeless woman came and sat next to me to be in the photo.

helping hands

I interviewed 12 homeless people and two volunteers working at Helping Hands Clinic, and was left with 3 hours of interview that had to be cut short to two minutes! Well, I spent a lot of time editing the audio, and slept only few hours for three nights to finally come to the present version of the audio.

I wasn’t happy with the lighting of some of the photos, because they were taken at night. As I was reviewing Kobre’s photojournalism book’s chapter on issue stories, I noticed that the majority of photos on that chapter are black and white. I used Real Grain plugin in photoshop (download free trail here) to test how photos turn out in black and white. I realized the photos are much more powerful in black and white.

I am satisfied with the outcome. I think the time I spent was worth it. I owe most of my success to spending time to get to know the homeless people, make friends with them, and LISTEN to them.

So far I have recieved a lot of nice feedback from people who has seen the soundlsides. Now I can’t wait to take my laptop to downtown plaza and show the soundslides to my homeless friends and see what they think about it.

Pure structured information has no soul!

I love when I read a story in a newspaper about health insurance issue in Florida, and see a chart next to it that lets me find out in a glance how big the percentage of uninsured people is. I like to see a local map and see where Gainesville’s sex offenders live, and see a chart next to it that shows some data about the rate and types of sex crimes and the demographics of the victims and the offenders. I like to find out when and where the funeral of a person I knew is and get to know more about the dates of important events of her life, when I read her obituary. All the mentioned information can be considered structured information as Adrian Holovaty puts it:

So much of what local journalists collect day-to-day is structured information: the type of information that can be sliced-and-diced, in an automated fashion, by computers. Yet the information gets distilled into a big blob of text — a newspaper story — that has no chance of being repurposed.

As much as I appreciate “sliced-and-diced” structured information/data in the form of maps, charts, and graphs that can be constantly updated through a database, I mostly consider them as accessories to the main story. We need facts for sure. In a world where the Internet is growing beyond imagination and millions of people can easily and promptly use the Web to get information, newspapers should be really good at providing important facts people are interested in, to be able to compete and survive in the field. But I just can’t accept that “So much of what local journalists collect day-to-day is structured information: the type of information that can be sliced-and-diced, in an automated fashion, by computers.”

We should not forget why we need information, why people read newspapers, and even why journalism exists. The whole news business is about life, meaning, and feelings. We need the information about sex offenders to protect ourselves, yet we need to know more than statistics. We should know what happens that a person becomes a sex offender, how does a victim survive, how should you react when an issue as devastating as sexual assault happens to you or a family member. We need news stories because they affect the way we experience life.

So, I become a little weary when it comes to over-celebrating the new tools that can offer us structured information using databases and computer programs, and when we say that there is some form of information (specifically I’m talking about the information that is related to an “issue” story), that can’t be put in the form of a story (online or on paper). I’m afraid this approach to journalism will reduce everything to numbers, percentages, and figures.

For example, Adrian Holovaty says:

  • An obituary is about a person, involves dates and funeral homes.
  • A wedding announcement is about a couple, with a wedding date, engagement date, bride hometown, groom hometown and various other happy, flowery pieces of information.

And he goes on with some simillar examples and then concludes that:

See the theme here? A lot of the information that newspaper organizations collect is relentlessly structured. It just takes somebody to realize the structure (the easy part), and it just takes somebody to start storing it in a structured format (the hard part).

But I don’t agree with Holovaty on this part. I either don’t see the structured information in the news of a person’s death for example, or I wish not to see it put in a structured format. The structured data do not share with me the experiences, feelings, revelations, or extraordinary moments of a person’s life, while a well-written obituary makes me feel something about the deceased.

When we interview people, gather audio, or shoot video, we try to capture something interesting about life. A set of pure facts will not give us that experience, and it will also be boring! I’m not dismissing the importance of structured information, but I think the main job of a journalist is to tell an interesting story. Structured information can complement the interesting story to make an even better story, a more informative one.

Maps that can help tell more accurate stories

At the time of California fires this October, I read in the news somewhere that an area in San Marcos (a small town near San Diego) is one of the places that is burning. One of my childhood friends whom we hadn’t talked for a while lives on that area. I tried to reach her but her cell phone was strangely busy (It was strange because cell phones have call waiting and should not be busy.) So I got really worried. I saw in Mindy’s blog that LA Times has set up a Google Map application which shows the exact location of the fires along with some details. The map even had an option where you could get directions to or from the location of each fire. So, I put my friend’s address there and found out that they are four miles aways from the fire. That was really calming. Then I put the address of all my friends’ houses who live in the burning areas and found out that they are all safe, without the need to call like crazy everyone I know in California.

An article in NY Times in July 2007 talks about all the amazing new things you can do with Google Map and other online map applications that are now available, thanks to the competetion among search engines and some corporations to attract more users. These new services help us to have “a much richer description of the earth” as John V. Hanke, director of Google Maps and Google Earth, says in the mentioned article, since each user can now “geotag” various locations on the maps, by adding details and photos of each place, a sort of Wikipedia of places on earth.

But Google Maps and services simillar to it are not just useful for creating personalized geotags. These new services provide a great opportunity for journalists to offer vital information and details about a place that is covered in a news story. In the case of California fires, nothing could help me and so many other concerned people more than a map that exactly and accurately tells you where the fires are and how far they are from the location of your loved ones. Before seeing the LA Times map, I searched any news website and county websites I could find, to see if I can find out whether my friend’s house is under fire or not, but I couldn’t. A news story about the fires couldn’t help me and many other people at that time either, no matter how powerful those stories would be.

So, considering all the amazing things you can do with online maps, (such as this map that tells you about the places, times, and details of arsons in Chicago), many stories can offer much more additional – yet detailed and important – information. These maps can’t act as a replacement for news stories, but they would be great complements to put the news into a different perspective, most probably a more in-depth one. And of course, they are great tools to let you know if your loved ones are safe at the time of emergency.