Avoiding stenography

“You don’t write the truth. You write what people say!” 

— “Absence of Malice” (1981)

Techniques of contextualizing deconstructed elements of stories have the great advantage of avoiding stenographic journalism like that criticized in veteran editor Kurt Luedtke’s script for the 1981 film “Absence of Malice,” which definitely should be on the watch list for anyone interested in journalism.

Instead of relying on what people say about things, we can use real-world examples of the impact on actual, everyday people by humanizing stories and by adding storytelling rather than decorative visuals. Even more important, perhaps, we can get past political spin and make facts that otherwise would seem to bounce off our consciousness like meaningless details relevant and informative via charted data.

Both techniques allow us to avoid being merely an echo chamber for opinions and to create something other than commoditized content. In the age of myriad news and social media sites that play and replay the same old stuff, this is a way for us to stand out as an originator of valuable content not available anywhere else. That, in essence, is the ballgame in terms of success or failure as a news medium.

Most of our reporting courses do a fine job of introducing students to the need for finding human faces in textual or video stories. We probably need to do a bit more work about determining how to inject such storytelling into still visuals. However, the biggest gap in most young journalists’ education is in aggressively seeking to find stories via numbers, as David McCandless demonstrates in his TED talk above.

Yes, it’s true there are many in the world who regard truth as a malleable concept and who deride factual presentations as “lies, damned lies and statistics.” But part of the reason for this is that journalists, never known for their numeric literacy, do such a poor job communicating numbers, often falling victim to unscrupulous numbers spinners, that it’s difficult to trust what’s reported. The global news agency Reuters decries this in one of its reporting guides, which begins with the equation: “Numbers plus reporter equals error.”

We cannot, however, simply avoid the challenge by sticking with simplistic numbers out of context then decorating them up with various artistic techniques. We need to challenge ourselves to dig deeper and find ways to tell stories and to visually present those stories. The evidence about the power of visual storytelling is simply too great.

Take, for example, the 2007 Poynter Eye Track studies, which compared the effectiveness of three versions of the same newspaper page:

The page at left contained a linear narrative story with a not particularly storytelling photo — just something that showed what a passage within the story looked like. The middle one deconstructed the story more nonlinearly, adding more entry points of a factual nature. The right one eliminated linear narrative story text entirely, replacing it with largely statistically based factoids and data visualizations. Even though the visualizations weren’t especially good, the results were clear. After different readers were exposed to different versions of the page, a test of how much information they retained was administered. In aggregate, comprehension and recall increased dramatically the more the story employed techniques other than linear narrative.

This is the power of deconstruction, and one of the best ways to wield it is with contextualization in the form of visual representation of data.

Some stories are almost impossible to tell adequately without such techniques. The current pandemic is perhaps one of the best examples. This clearly is a numbers story with human faces, yet far too often we report numbers without clear context, without appropriate visualization and without adding human faces. We’re content to be mere stenographers of public pronouncements, and if that is all we do, nothing sets us apart from myriad other sources of information conveying exactly the same material.

So how do you accomplish more than this with a group of student journalists who, if they liked numbers more, would by north of Gregory or south of Green rather than hanging out in the innumerate middle of our campus?

The same way you get to Carnegie Hall as a musician — practice.

Take, for example, this rather simple set of data drawn from the university’s Campus Profile, a website every DI staffer ought to be fully familiar with:

Use the download link or click the table to download the data in Excel. Play around with the data, as we did in class Sept. 25. Within it are hints leading to stories — and some leading to dead ends. As data detectives, your job is to learn how to separate the potential wheat from the potential chaff. We played with these numbers a bit Sept. 25 and showed you how to start being a data detective with them. Your assignment for Oct. 2 will be to find some other story, and clear evidence for it, from elsewhere within the Campus Profile, and post a note with evidence of your findings to the Data category.

We also talked a bit Sept. 25 about how to present such data when they are found. Here’s the Powerpoint presentation discussed:

Begin thinking about not only what data to find but also about how it potentially might be presented and include a brief summary of that in the item you post for Oct. 2.

Finally, in a second assignment for Oct. 2, please separately post a thorough critique of the Sept. 28 print issue of the Daily Illini. Post it in the Critique category of this site. You’ll have to change from “Data” to “Critique” in the “Categories” menu at right during posting. We’ll review those critiques in class Oct. 2.

Improving communications within the team

– When we’re in our weekly staff meetings, having every desk editor whether it be from features to photos, have an idea of what content we’re putting in the paper the following week so that Cassidy and crew can begin layout.
– Emphasizing the importance of collaborating with writers and editors with photographers, which I can help facilitate.
– I can definitely do better at communicating my expectations better in terms of learning not to give up on a story or subject because of one roadblock, and to keep pushing more.

Communication Strategies

I think our class discussion last week made me realize communication within a single section is good, but communication throughout the entire paper is essential. I, personally, don’t do that enough.

First, I think I need to have better communication with visuals prior to the day of production. Most sports photos right now are file photos because there hasn’t been any event or practice we were allowed at since March. So, I need to work on coming up with graphic ideas for stories to enhance the stories and my section of the paper. This could mean asking Cassidy to sit down with me and my assistants when we’re planning out content so she could help us brainstorm. She could definitely notice when a story could use a graphic better than I can.

I also think I could talk more with the editors from other sections like Ethan from news or Liza from features. I think the three of us could do a better job of helping each other out with story ideas or even overlapping stories. Sports stories sometimes can be classified as news or features so working together could help us produce better content. I also think having some writers overlap sections would be useful especially with news because they are short on writers. Hopefully, that changes with the freshmen coming in.

Communicating more with copy is also something I can improve on. Not everyone understands sports language to the extent I do or my assistants do so sometimes words or phrases get misunderstood and changed. I think if I just sat down with copy and went over some of the misunderstandings with them or asked them if they didn’t understand anything we could solve those issues very quickly.

When sports are resumed and photographers are allowed at events, I want to have more communication with them. When I’m thinking of a story idea, I have specific photos I have in mind or things I want to be visually portrayed. Conveying those ideas to them before they go and shoot an event would help convey the story’s message better.

News Section Communication

As it stands, I think the majority of our news department’s communication works pretty well. The prime example of this being story ideas. Stemming from our discussion last week in class about this, I thought I might expand on the benefits.

  • Story Ideas
    • Our department relies a lot on the reporters for content. It gives them freedom in a way that I didn’t expect when I first joined. As we discussed last week, many newsrooms have a problem where story ideas are generated at the top and then sift down, but for us, there is a healthy mix of bubbling up and assigned stories.
      • All reporters must generate three story ideas each week. These then get reviewed by the heads of the news department. This helps generate a lot of ideas and the leaders get to assign the good ones

That being said, there are some issues in certain areas.

  • Technology
    • I like Slack, the service we use to communicate, but it has its issues. Sometimes I won’t receive notifications unless I am specifically @’d or I receive a dm even though I have my notifications turned on. This results in missing updates and possible breaking news
    • To fix this, I think specific text group chats might work better for important things like breaking news, giving updates or other non-immediate issues can be addressed over slack
  • Follow-up
    • A standard should be set that editors and assistant editors should check in with their reporters daily for story updates. It helps keep the reporters on track, while also keeping both parties engaged in their work process.
  • Photos
    • Improve the connection between news and photo departments. Make it easier for reporters to discuss with photographers what they want shown for the article
    • Perhaps make teams with certain photographers being paired with certain reporters. Closer relationships lead to more cohesive teams and better coordinated work in my experience
  • More time to debrief
    • In weekly meetings, I think giving reporters time to discuss what they did the previous week would be just as beneficial as what they plan on doing. Learning from mistakes can be helped this way, as well as helping new reporters learn tips for their own work

Improving communication within the team

While I think that our team communicates well as people, after our discussion in class last week, I definitely think we can learn to communicate better in our positions as editors. Some of the ways that I can do that as ME for Visuals are:

  • Working closely with Ethan and Sam (or anyone on the team with experience in analyzing statistics) to create the most effective infographics. Infographics and data visualization have never really been my strong suit, so perhaps I can learn a thing or two from them. From a reader’s perspective, I know that good infographics are an important piece of a story, and if it’s the only thing people see, I want them to be good.
  • Connect with different sections. Sit down in meetings with news, sports, features, opinions, and buzz to discuss their visions and how my team and I can help bring it to life.
    • Maybe I could host “office hours” of sorts where people can come to me with questions or ideas. That way I can make note of them and discuss them with my design and photo teams.
  • Be more conscious and involved with the photography. Give more direction on what I would like to see for upcoming stories. I already talk to Ryan Ash, our photo editor quite a bit, so this should be an easy fix.
  • Share story ideas when they come to mind. I feel like as a designer, I sometimes don’t think I have much to contribute when it comes to actually creating the stories. After our discussions in this class, I definitely feel like I have some ideas to share with some of my fellow editors.