washington post

3 GREAT STORIES: Starring seafarers, Greenland, & Super Mario

Every week, I shine the spotlight on some of the best storytelling in the business and offer my comments. “3 Great Stories of the Week” will post every Monday at 8 AM.

Seattle mission serves foreign ship crews who cannot come ashore (12/28/16, KING-TV): As we turn the calendar to 2017, here is a touching, deceptively straightforward piece worth watching from 2016.

Ted Land with Seattle’s KING-TV is an especially talented solo video journalist, as well as a one-time podcast guest of mine and one of the interview subjects of my new how-to book for MMJs, The Solo Video Journalist. He is also a former National Edward R. Murrow winner for writing, and in this story he displays why.

Land tackles a seemingly simple subject — a Christian group that puts together care packages for foreign seafarers who dock in Seattle — but puts immense care into every word and shot. One needn’t work too hard to spot picturesque shots along the Pacific Ocean, but Land goes further and finds some of the most beautifully framed clips of video I’ve seen all year (2016, not this year).

That work ethic shows up throughout the piece, and it culminates in a winner of a story from a tremendous storyteller.

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3 GREAT STORIES: Starring Bill Kennedy, ethics, & hip-hop

Every week, I shine the spotlight on some of the best storytelling in the business and offer my comments. “3 Great Stories of the Week” will post every Monday at 8 AM.

The official coming-out party (10/12/16, ESPN): Rarely have I seen a story whose tone is set immediately by its opening photo.

But upon clicking on the above link, you will be confronted with not words but a full-screen snapshot of a recent Pride Parade — with one figure on a float towering above the crowd, in both height and happiness.

He is Bill Kennedy, an NBA referee who came out last winter after a player described him with a homophobic slur.

As you scroll down, you will find 7,000+ words from versatile ESPN scribe Kevin Arnovitz, who provides some of the site’s best analysis and, in this case, a compelling portrait. He fills his profile of Kennedy with revealing anecdotes and morsels. He describes Kennedy’s complicated existence as a gay man in a high-profile job, constantly monitoring who among his colleagues and connections knew of his sexual orientation.

Arnovitz deserves credit for a masterful story. But it starts with that first photo, taken by David Dow, which displays Kennedy’s newfound comfort and happiness better than any word.

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3 GREAT STORIES: Starring drugmakers, safe spaces, & Morse code

Every week, I shine the spotlight on some of the best storytelling in the business and offer my comments. “3 Great Stories of the Week” will post every Monday at 8 AM.

Politics of pain: drugmakers fought state opioid limits amid crisis (9/18/16, Center for Public Integrity): The authors of this story refuse to bury the lead.

In a thorough and brutal report on various states’ efforts surrounding the current opioid crisis, reporters Liz Essley Whyte, Matthew Perrone, Geoff Mulvihill, and Ben Wieder lay it all out in the first paragraph:

“The makers of prescription painkillers have adopted a 50-state strategy that includes hundreds of lobbyists and millions in campaign contributions to help kill or weaken measures aimed at stemming the tide of prescription opioids, the drugs at the heart of a crisis that has cost 165,000 Americans their lives and pushed countless more to crippling addiction.”

They spend the rest of the article backing up that powerful premise.

Like any great investigative piece, the reporters here present both their methods and findings with enormous detail. They represent a collaboration between the Center for Public Integrity and the Associated Press, and they make a powerful storytelling team.

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3 GREAT STORIES: Best of 2015, written edition

Every week, I will shine the spotlight on some of the best storytelling in the business and offer my comments. “3 Great Stories of the Week” will post every Monday at 8 AM.

This is one of my favorite moments of the year.

Every December, I look back at my “3 Great Stories” posts from the past year and decide on which stories, I feel, rose above the rest.

It always reminds me of how much magnificent work gets done every year.

I will post my three favorite audio/video stories of the year next week. This week, without further ado, I present my three favorite written pieces of 2015 — and an honorable mention — along with what I wrote about them back then, with minor edits for clarity:

HM) Ferguson: the other young black lives laid to rest in Michael Brown’s cemetery (8/7/15, BBC): What an inventive, informative way to commemorate the one-year mark of the killing of Michael Brown.

Jessica Lussenhop, senior writer for BBC News Magazine, visits St. Peter’s Cemetery in north St. Louis County, where “there is still no headstone in the place where 18-year-old Michael Brown Jr is buried”. But, Lussenhop discovers, the cemetery is home to many with similar stories:

If one walks in any direction away from grave number four, there are many more pictures of black men and women who died in their teens or early 20s. Some are grinning in school portraits, or giving the camera their most serious expression. Some stones include a baby picture, or a composite photo of the deceased with their children. One marker is etched with a photo of the young man’s beloved truck.

Within a roughly 30-metre radius of Michael’s grave there are at least 15 homicide victims. The youngest was a 15-year-old. Most of them were shot. There are also deaths by suicide, cancer, car accidents, but for those under the age of 30, the predominant cause of death is homicide.

The difficulty of telling a story like Michael Brown’s comes from the temptation to immediately intertwine the individual incident with the massive context and history surrounding it. Lussenhop succeeds by seeking out the numerous incidents that provide such context; she turns in a appropriately rich story as a result.

#3) These are the families left to reclaim Garissa’s dead (4/9/15, Buzzfeed): Tucked away behind lists about animals and ‘NSYNC, Buzzfeed dedicates resources to a team that regularly produces long-form gems.

Here, global news correspondent Jina Moore presents one of the most heart-rending stories I have read in a long time.

A week earlier, gunmen stormed the campus of Garissa University in Kenya and killed 144 people, mostly students, in ways both horrifying and humiliating. Moore steps in the following week by describing, not the attack, but the search by parents to claim their dead children.

This is a devastating read, and Moore writes with such descriptive power that each sentence feels like a stomach punch. She puts a captivating spotlight on the aftermath of this incidence of international terrorism.

#2) The new science of sentencing (8/4/15, The Marshall Project): One of the most fascinating subjects I have covered recently is criminal justice reform.

It seems to be one of the few issues both political parties can support: finding ways to shrink the jail population and reduce recidivism once ex-offenders return to society.

This story — a dual effort from The Marshall Project and FiveThirtyEight — does a dazzling job of spotlighting one of the issue’s more advanced and controversial innovations. As written by Anna Maria Barry-Jester, Ben Casselman, and Dana Goldstein, “Pennsylvania is on the verge of becoming one of the first states in the country to base criminal sentences not only on what crimes people have been convicted of, but also on whether they are deemed likely to commit additional crimes.”

So many ethical questions come into play in this story, and its writers spell each one out with depth and nuance. This is a long read but an informative, excellent read.

#1) A father’s initiative (5/16/15, Washington Post): I can tell when I have read a truly powerful story because of my physical response when it ends.

I get so absorbed in the world of the story that I must actually take a few seconds afterwards to re-acclimate to mine.

I had that reaction after completing “A father’s initiative”, Eli Saslow’s wrenching feature about a single dad taking President Obama’s 16-class fatherhood course. In many ways, this article is a Rorschach test for how one views poverty, race, and other matters. Mostly, though, it is a poignant tale of human struggle — and whether or not that struggle can be soothed through bureaucratic means. Each paragraph ripples with conflicting emotions, such as this one early in the piece:

Now it was his 15th class, nearing the end, and despite the hopeful language in a course guide — “End the cycle of intergenerational poverty!” “Help turn your child turn into a success story in 16 lessons.” — so much about his life remained unstable. He had moved nine times in seven months. He had been offered two jobs but failed the drug tests. It had been several days since he had seen the baby’s mother, a former longtime girlfriend who was no longer living with them. “Sapphire misses you. Are you coming over to see her??” he had texted once, and the silence that followed made him think Sapphire might become another black child whose long odds depended on a single parent, and that parent was him.

Power vs. respect: the Missouri video and modern-day media

I want to be proud of my profession.

I work extremely hard five days a week (sometimes more), nine hours a day (often more) as a television news reporter. I aim to inform viewers of the goings-on of their world, educate about complex issues, and uplift through stories that connect people.

I believe in the power of journalism, and I believe in the power of journalists.

So what am I to make of this?

The link shows the 2015 results of an annual Gallup survey measuring trust in the media. The conclusion? It sits in the headline:

“Americans’ Trust in Media Remains at Historical Low”

A mere 40% of Americans, per the poll, say they trust the media “a great deal” or “a fair amount”. Among adults under 50, that number drops to 36%. And of course, the differences skew politically, with Republicans and Independents trusting the press far less than Democrats.

But what stood out to me, more than the numbers, was a potential reason for them, provided by the article’s author:

Americans’ trust level in the media has drifted downward over the past decade. The same forces behind the drop in trust in government more generally, as well confidence in many U.S. institutions, may also be at work with the media.

I found that quite perceptive. Within the industry, we like to think of ourselves of voices for the voiceless; I work at a station whose tagline is “Holding the Powerful Accountable”, and we aim every day to live up to that mission.

But for many outside the industry, “the media” is as much an institution as government. Journalists have a great deal of control.

We are the powerful.

I was reminded of that as I watched the video of University of Missouri students — and several faculty members — trying to stop a student photographer from covering their #ConcernedStudent1950 protest. In a legal sense, the photographer was entirely correct; he had as much a right as the protesters to stand on that ground. Many of the tactics used by the protesters — claiming a violation of personal space while simultaneously violating the photographer’s; yelling at and pushing him while decrying his supposed lack of respect — were wrong and downright hypocritical. Even now, days later, when I watch that video, I abhor what I see.

I have heard many journalists make those absolutely valid points.

But I have heard far fewer in my field turn the focus inward.

That video highlights an issue just as critical as the rights of journalists: a widespread contempt of those journalists’ jobs.

“I’m documenting history!” shouts the photographer. The protesters don’t care, and what’s more, they say, plenty have already done that. Individuals can take photos and spread them to their own social networks; they are not particularly wowed by that ability in reporters.

“You are an unethical reporter!” yells one protester, who — despite the students’ and faculty members’ earlier attempts to encourage media coverage — possesses no faith in that media to tell their story correctly.

Then comes the point no one makes on camera, but that others have made since: Where was all this attention before the university’s football team got involved? A few dozen athletes captured the national focus where a far greater number of passionate students could not. How does that reflect on the media’s true interest in finding and telling stories that matter?

I want to again make clear I am not criticizing the student photographers in that video. If anything, I admire them for knowing their rights, standing their ground against a steady stream of bullying, and wanting indeed to document history.

But the video also slams home the point that, for so many, the media is the voice of power — and a voice that cannot be trusted.

(And this is by no means isolated. Look at the way in which Republican presidential candidates blistered the media — and to much applause — during a recent debate. Media mistrust is not necessarily a partisan view.)

In the Washington Post, Terrell Jermaine Starr makes incisive points about how journalists should respond after seeing the Missouri video. Among them:

Further, as reporters, we have to drop our sense of entitlement and understand that not everyone wants to be subjects of our journalism. Our press passes don’t give us the license to bully ourselves into any and all spaces where our presence is not appreciated. It’s one thing to demand access to public lands; it’s another to demand access to people’s grieving.

While Starr speaks specifically about why the black community in general may feel mistrustful of reporters, he writes with an underlying point that should be a central tenet of our field:

If journalism is about reaching an audience, journalists should constantly examine how we interact with that audience — and whether we build or damage our credibility in the process.

I know I am guilty of that entitlement. I assume I will receive a warm welcome at an event, and many times I don’t. I assume people will support my intent to convey their stories to a larger audience, and many times they don’t. I assume people will immediately acquiesce when faced with my legal justification for doing my job, and many times they don’t.

I assume the people I interview will believe in my profession as much as I do.

More often than not, they don’t.

But I still do.

Journalists absolutely possess plenty of power in the present day, from mass media companies to independent bloggers to college photographers. We should continue to cover the stories that matter, even if our collective presence is not always appreciated.

But we must also regularly discuss where the line falls between journalistic duty and humanistic decency. I side with the photographers here, but I have also witnessed numerous instances where media members invade people’s space and privacy for stories with far less gravity. We must approach our jobs with sensitivity to how we are perceived, and we cannot wait to have these conversations until one of us “becomes the story”.

The best storytellers, today and down the road, will be the ones who understand their viewers and readers — and make the extra effort to earn their audience’s respect.

Matt Pearl is the author of the Telling the Story blog and podcast. Feel free to comment below or e-mail Matt at matt@tellingthestoryblog.com. You can also follow Matt on Facebook and Twitter.

3 GREAT STORIES: Best of 2015 (so far), written edition

Every week, I will shine the spotlight on some of the best storytelling in the business and offer my comments. “3 Great Stories of the Week” will post every Monday at 8 AM.

We have reached the halfway point of 2015, which has brought about some strong journalism about riveting topics. With that in mind, the time is right for some “Best Of” editions of my 3 Great Stories segment.

I will post my three favorite audio/video stories of the year so far next week. This week, my three favorite written pieces from January through June, along with what I wrote about them back then, with minor edits for clarity:

These are the families left to reclaim Garissa’s dead (4/9/15, Buzzfeed): Tucked away behind lists about animals and ‘NSYNC, Buzzfeed dedicates resources to a team that regularly produces long-form gems.

Here, global news correspondent Jina Moore presents one of the most heart-rending stories I have read in a long time.

A week earlier, gunmen stormed the campus of Garissa University in Kenya and killed 144 people, mostly students, in ways both horrifying and humiliating. Moore steps in the following week by describing, not the attack, but the search by parents to claim their dead children.

This is a devastating read, and Moore writes with such descriptive power that each sentence feels like a stomach punch. She puts a captivating spotlight on the aftermath of this incidence of international terrorism. (more…)

3 GREAT STORIES: Starring hearing, fatherhood, & photography

Every week, I shine the spotlight on some of the best storytelling in the business and offer my comments. “3 Great Stories of the Week” will post every Monday at 8 AM.

Veteran gets overdue hearing aids after VA delay (5/18/15, KARE-TV): Like any great investigative piece, this epic from KARE-TV’s A.J. Lagoe and Gary Knox details the process of research, phone calls, and interviews that ultimately lead to results.

But unlike many investigative pieces, this one shines brightest from its human center.

Reporter Lagoe and photographer Knox tell the story of Denny Madson, who has been waiting more than a year for VA-approved hearing aids. Madson wants the devices for one overarching reason: so he can hear his wife, Darlene, who is suffering in the hospital and can barely speak above a whisper.

Lagoe’s script and Knox’s camerawork set up some touching moments between the couple, including the happy ending. This is a textbook example of how to personalize an otherwise visually challenging story.

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3 GREAT STORIES: Starring Kendrick Lamar, Jeff Bezos, & the subway

Every week, I shine the spotlight on some of the best storytelling in the business and offer my comments. “3 Great Stories of the Week” will post every Monday at 8 AM.

Kendrick Lamar, Hip-Hop’s Newest Old-School Star (6/25/14, New York Times): In terms of traditional print journalism, few outlets are doing it as well right now as the New York Times.

This is not meant as a backhanded compliment, or an indication that somehow the capital-T Times is not advancing with the lowercase-T times.

But when media critics ponder how storytelling can survive in such a frenetic landscape, they should point to articles like this, where Times writer Lizzy Goodman uses her backstage access to rapper Kendrick Lamar to pen a multi-dimensional, poignant, and powerful portrait.

Similar artist profiles often read like press releases; you can smell the transaction of access for favorable coverage. Not here. Goodman parallels Lamar’s no-frills music with his similar approach behind the scenes, and she documents numerous revealing moments — such as when, while on tour with Kanye West, the two hip-hop stars only meet once, and it seems like a far bigger deal for their entourages and videographers than for the artists themselves. (more…)

3 GREAT STORIES: Starring perspective on serious matters

It is often said that, in the modern media world, perspective and complexity are difficult to find.

Perhaps more accurately, those qualities fail to catch on as much as simplicity and virality.

But certain stories lend themselves to a little perspective — particularly those that become universal enough to require more than a standard news cycle.

Here are three great stories from last week, on some topics that are anything but:

Bomani Jones’ brilliant take on Donald Sterling (4/29/14, Dan LeBatard Radio Show): How interesting this must be for Bomani Jones.

The sports columnist wrote an eloquent, thorough story back in 2006 about the racism of Clippers owner Donald Sterling. The article received little attention.

Now, by simply letting fly with improvised but heartfelt comments on a radio program, Jones’ thoughts on Sterling have indeed reached the masses.

The Sterling issue is at once remarkably simple yet deceptively complex, and in this 12-minute interview on the Dan LeBatard Show, Jones explains the complexity behind the simplicity, describing why he is not impressed with the far-too-late movement to remove Sterling from the NBA.

And last week, when the initial shock of the Sterling tapes began to fade as a news story — but the urgency and controversy required more coverage — perspectives like Jones’ began to rule the day, making for a much deeper discussion. (more…)

3 GREAT STORIES: Starring MLK, the March, and dreams

Every week, I shine the spotlight on some of the best storytelling in the business and offer my comments. “3 Great Stories of the Week” will post every Monday at 8 AM.

I had a fascinating mini-discussion this week with a storyteller for whom I have great respect.

Like many reporters this week, he put together a piece about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Wednesday was, of course, the 50th anniversary of the speech from the March on Washington. This reporter — no doubt noting the flood of stories that had already been and would be done — tried something different. He hit the streets and got interviews with residents about how King’s speech impacted them, both 50 years ago and today, but he also had them hold a large picture frame. Once back in the newsroom, his editor cropped Dr. King’s speech into the frame so that it looked as if the speech was playing inside of it.

To me, it seemed forced.

When I watched the story, I felt his interviews seemed unnatural on several levels. For one thing, the people he was interviewing seemed awkward trying to speak sincerely while holding a bulky picture frame. Secondly, the video playing in the frame both visually and mentally distracted me from the content of the interviews.

But most importantly, I felt the reporter was using a gimmick on a subject that did not require it. To me, the “I Have a Dream” speech is so powerful on its own — and people’s emotions and reactions so visceral even 50 years later — that it did not require trickery. It required elegance and poignancy, and it required a more subdued approach that allowed the speech to, well, speak for itself.

The beauty of storytelling is, of course, there are no right answers. What works for some may not work for others. I should point out that the reporter who did this story has built an ultra-successful career out of stories that beautifully capture the human spirit, so he is no stranger to understanding what makes for a powerful moment. I, for one, am a huge fan of his work.

In this case, though, we disagree. When I chose my “3 Great Stories” for this week, all directly or indirectly MLK-related, I found they reached me by simply illuminating their subjects’ natural power.

Revisiting Martin Luther King’s 1963 Dream speech (8/28/13, The Big Picture): In doing my own stories recently on the Civil Rights movement, I found the raw materials to be extremely absorbing. From old footage to newspaper headlines to poignant photographs — both iconic and not — I found myself enthralled by the history of everything.

Leave it to the Big Picture blog to capture that history and present it in a glorious display.

Here, the editors post a collection of 20 photos, mainly from the March on Washington but also from the Civil Rights movement in general and a few present-day shots for good measure. Photo galleries like these are Rorshach tests — you interpret them however you choose — but, for me, this particular gallery provides some great introductory context to that time period and the struggles involved.

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