Tag Archives: Afghanistan

Masters of narrative journalism share their insights

Image (1) B_Kirtz.jpg for post 10773By Bill Kirtz

“Revel in hardship,” NPR’s Beirut-based correspondent Kelly McEvers told last weekend’s annual narrative journalism conference at Boston University. “Don’t despair if you have a scarcity of resources.”

Sneaking into danger zones where sources were too terrified to speak, the award-winning reporter has spent the past two years covering the Arab Spring uprisings, producing vivid stories with ambient sound, protective descriptions and a remote network of dissidents.

International photographer Alan Chin echoed her comments. He’s an editor at Newsmotion.org, a Kickstarter-funded collation of amateur and professional voices and video that focuses on undercovered human-rights stories. As traditional journalism faces financial crises, “we have to take chances…. We can’t just sit around” complaining about our problems, Chin said. “We have to absolutely be willing to fail.”

Newsmotion founder Julian Rubinstein, a prize-winning magazine and book author, hopes the site offers insight that deadline-driven traditional outlets often neglect.

And narrative journalism’s goal is insight, using fiction’s tools to create compelling scenes — with one huge distinction. Every detail must be as accurate and well documented as in the best investigative reporting. Mitch Zuckoff and Dick Lehr answer the perennial “How did the author know this?” question with 30 to 40 pages of endnotes verifying every detail.

The two, who won several reporting prizes at the Boston Globe and who now teach at Boston University with conference organizer and narrative journalism exemplar Mark Kramer, stressed that point with examples from their latest books.

For Zuckoff, the challenge is to tell an important story in the “richest possible way” — not “lecturing to people,” but drawing them into a complex history. In “Frozen in Time,” he weaves a World War II search-and-survival story into recent attempts to locate a long-missing rescue plane.

Lehr followed the traditional reporter’s dogged tactic of never abandoning the fight to get documents about mobster James “Whitey” Bulger. After years of trying, he found a “treasure trove” of prison files to use in his co-authored “Black Mass,” which chronicles the FBI’s corrupt ties to the fugitive killer.

Narrative journalism doesn’t take years’-long immersion in a story, noted Amy Ellis Nutt. Although she won a Pulitzer Prize ago for a 20-page Newark (N.J.) Star-Ledger feature series, she said she’s now a big fan of “miniatures.”

Why? “We don’t live life in long narrative span, [so] short is natural,” she said. “You [can] just jump in the middle.”

To make her point, Nutt cited Ernest Hemingway’s ability to tell a dramatic tale in six words: “For Sale. Baby Shoes. Never Worn.” One of her recent narratives, which starts by saying it was “too cold even for the seagulls,” delivers precise description in relatively few words.

Neil Shea, a BU lecturer and award-winning war reporter, has also turned to short-form narrative. He said that conventional coverage of such familiar topics as Afghanistan can become “background noise” for news consumers. So he’s doing regular 300- to 1,100-word vignettes of colorful dialogue and scenes without overwhelming readers with context.

Shea was one of several speakers who underscored the need to prune excess material ruthlessly.

“We have to be merciless self-editors,” he said. When considering using the first person, he said, ask yourself, “Do I really need to be in this story?”

Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Rosalind Bentley advises cutting anything, no matter how compelling, if it doesn’t support the story’s main thesis. She pored through the 500-page trial transcript after the poet Natasha Trethewey’s stepfather killed her mother to winnow out just this detail: “She died on the pavement.”

Any quote she uses “has to sparkle like the Hope diamond.” If it doesn’t, she’ll paraphrase.

“You can’t just wing it and start writing,” she said. “All your choices have to be deliberate.” So she wields multi-colored highlighters over pages of scrawled notes to boil down the essence of a story in one sentence, and then just one word.

In her definitive profile of Trethewey, the word was “self-definition.”

Why do narrative journalists keep plugging along in an age of economic uncertainty and audience fragmentation?

Author, magazine founder and University of California Berkeley journalism professor Adam Hochschild put it this way: “When you tell a story, it takes on a life of its own and sometimes it affects people.”

He said “Bury the Chains,” his 2005 account of how a few men started a movement to free the slaves in the British Empire, got good reviews, many awards and decent initial sales — then languished on remainder shelves for years.

But recently, Hochschild started getting speaking invitations from global-warming groups, who saw his 18th-century abolitionists as a model of how a few people could change how the world thinks about an issue.

His point: “A story can come bouncing back to you.”

Bill Kirtz is an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University in Boston.

How should journalists handle graphic citizen media?

Syrian protesters in front of the Syrian embassy in Cairo.

Bob Garfield of NPR’s “On the Media” has a fascinating conversation this week with NPR’s Andy Carvin and Sky News’ Neal Mann about whether they felt comfortable tweeting a horrifically graphic video of a Syrian boy whose lower face was blown off in the city of Homs, which is under attack by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

Mann’s answer: No. Carvin’s: Yes, with appropriate warnings.

I want to play the segment for my Reinventing the News students tomorrow. I thought it was a great example of the dilemmas faced by professional journalists whose duties now include curating citizen media. And I considered whether to show them the video. It’s not hard to find, though I won’t link to it. I’ve bookmarked it, and I’ll think about it a bit more. But right now I can’t imagine subjecting a captive audience of 15 students to such a disturbing video.

Frankly, even though Carvin says he gave his Twitter followers plenty of warning, I think I’m with Mann. Because what, really, is the larger meaning of the video? Carvin tells Garfield:

I shared the video because I actually thought it would snap people out of their complacency, because we’ve seen so many videos of people protesting, so many videos of people just laying there in hospitals. But there was something about this image, about being able to look this boy in the eye and see the numbness; his soul was already beginning to disappear at that point. It seemed to me emblematic of what was happening in Homs, and I wanted to give people that opportunity to watch it, if they chose.

Yet, driving home this evening, I heard a report about an investigation into the deaths of eight children killed in Afghanistan by a NATO air strike gone awry. Carvin wants us to know about the brutality of the Syrian government. Well, OK, but what about ours? Might a citizen journalist in Kapisa province have shot footage of a boy fatally injured by American-backed forces just as horrific as the one Carvin tweeted?

Not to stack the deck. I have enormous respect for Carvin, and his action definitely accomplished some good. As he tells it, because of his tweet, an emergency medical team mobilized in Lebanon, ready to help the injured boy. Unfortunately, he died before he could be spirited out of the country.

What the Assad regime is doing in Syria is absolutely savage. But the video doesn’t tell us much more than the universal reality that war is hell.

Photo (cc) by Maggie Osama and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

WikiLeaks’ uneasy alliance with the traditional media

Why did WikiLeaks work with traditional news organizations rather than go it alone in releasing the Afghanistan war logs?

In my latest for the Guardian, I argue that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange learned from the way he handled the Apache helicopter video earlier this year that sometimes it’s better to be Daniel Ellsberg than Ben Bradlee. And that Stephen Colbert was right.

Making sense of the WikiLeaks documents

Like just about everyone else in the media world, I’m trying to make sense today of the WikiLeaks documents, the Pentagon Papers of our time.

The documents — reported by the New York Times, the Guardian and Der Spiegel — show that the war in Afghanistan has been undermined by untrustworthy “friends” in the Pakistani intelligence service, chaos and duplicity in Afghanistan, and mistakes by American and allied forces leading to civilian casualties.

In a sense, it’s nothing we didn’t know, and the White House argues that the situation has been improving since President Obama charted his own course. (The most recent documents in the cache are from December 2009.) Still, like the Pentagon Papers, the documents offer official confirmation that things are (or at least were) as bad as we feared, if not worse.

I think WikiLeaks’ strategy of giving the three Western news organizations a month to go over the documents before making them public was brilliant. Earlier this year, WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange, got a lot of attention over a video it had obtained of an American helicopter firing on civilians in Iraq, including two Reuters freelancers. Ultimately, though, it proved to be the wrong kind of attention — the heavy-handed editing made it appear more like an anti-American propaganda film than documentary evidence. (WikiLeaks also released a longer, unedited version.)

By contrast, in providing the latest documents to news organizations, Assange was able to get out of the way and let credible journalists tell the story. Jay Rosen, in a characteristically thoughtful post about WikiLeaks (“the world’s first stateless news organization”), thinks Assange did it because he knew the story wouldn’t get the attention it deserved unless the traditional media could break it.

I don’t disagree, but I think a more important reason is that the public will take it more seriously.

Also: At the Nation, Greg Mitchell has been rounding up links about the WikiLeaks story here and here.

Liberals and Afghanistan

Not quite sure what to make of this. But at our extremely liberal suburban Unitarian Universalist church this morning, I heard more support (albeit reluctant) for President Obama’s build-up in Afghanistan than I hear from congressional Democrats. Or, for that matter, from the four Democrats running for Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat.

One possible meaning: Mainstream liberals are not as reflexively antiwar as the interest groups that lobby Democrats on our supposed behalf think we are. Indeed, according to a CNN poll taken after Obama’s speech last week, the build-up of troops is supported by a margin of 62 percent to 36 percent.

Even George Will is appalled by Cheney

Thought you might enjoy George Will’s response on “This Week” when George Stephanopoulos asked him about Dick Cheney’s accusation that President Obama, by taking his time before deciding on a strategy in Afghanistan, is “dithering while America’s armed forces are in danger.” Here’s how Will began:

A bit of dithering might have been in order before we went into Iraq in pursuit of nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. For a representative of the Bush administration to accuse someone of taking too much time is missing the point. We have much more to fear in this town from hasty than from slow government action.

Good stuff, although a few caveats are in order. First, though Will is a conservative, he’s not a neoconservative, and he’s been notably less enthusiastic about foreign adverturism over the years than his neobrethren. Second, he came out against the war in Afghanistan weeks ago. Third, Will has never been much taken with the Bush clan or its minions.

But still. With the war-mongering Laura Ingraham fulminating on the same set today (and when is she going to enlist?), it was heartening to hear a sane conservative call out Cheney’s posturing for what it is.

Lost Will on Afghanistan

Columnist George Will today calls for the near-total withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, writing:

[F]orces should be substantially reduced to serve a comprehensively revised policy: America should do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, airstrikes and small, potent Special Forces units, concentrating on the porous 1,500-mile border with Pakistan, a nation that actually matters.

Will’s column is not a huge surprise — he’s been offering previews on ABC’s “This Week.” His assessment matters because of his status as a conservative icon, although, as a traditional conservative rather than a neocon, he was never as gung-ho about war in the Middle East as, say, William Kristol.

Giving Will’s views even more resonance is an especially bleak assessment by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the American commander in Afghanistan, who is calling for a far greater commitment of U.S. forces.

President Obama faces an incredibly difficult dilemma. He campaigned on a platform of shifting resources from Iraq to the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan, arguing that the move was necessary to deny Al Qaeda a refuge. Yet that’s a dubious proposition, given that Al Qaeda could move anywhere. Indeed, the only reason it’s in Afghanistan is because it was chased out of Sudan.

But before you say we should let Afghanistan go, remember that Pakistan is unstable and armed with nuclear weapons.

Is Will right? I don’t know. I do know that if Obama can meet American security needs without putting American troops in harm’s way, then he should do so as quickly as possible.

The stories behind the Taliban story

With the election in Afghanistan just days away, GlobalPost, the Boston-based international news service, has weighed in with a first-rate multimedia presentation on the Taliban.

Reported by executive editor Charles Sennott and photographed mainly by Seamus Murphy, the package includes text, videos, a slideshow, a historical timeline, a Google map, and podcasts posted to the public radio program “The World.”

For Sennott, a former reporter for the Boston Globe, the project is something of a reprise. In 2006, Sennott was one of the principal journalists who helped put together a package on the war against terrorism, published on the fifth anniversary of 9/11. His “Reporter’s Notebook” of multimedia dispatches from Afghanistan and Pakistan was something of a pioneering effort.

In the GlobalPost series, Sennott draws on his long experience in the region, interviewing sources he first met years ago. And he offers some nuance that leaves you feeling uneasy.

Take, for instance, Sally and Don Goodrich, a Vermont couple whose son, Peter, was killed in one of the planes that flew into the World Trade Center. The Goodriches rebuilt their lives by founding a girls school in Afghanistan, in an area that has since been overrun by the Taliban. Not long ago they were presented evidence by U.S. military officials showing that some of their closest Afghan friends were Taliban collaborators. Sennott writes:

Sally described the scene that day, saying, “I am getting up from the table, leaning forward and I said, ‘These men gave me back my life.’ And [Army Brigadier General Michael] Ryan leaned toward me and he said, ‘And they are taking the lives of my men.’”

Powerful stuff.

“Life, Death and the Taliban” is grounded in the news but not dependent on it. As a result, it’s a resource that is likely to be as valuable three or six months from now as it is today. More than anything, it explains the human dimension behind an incredibly complex story.

Fighting at the end of the world

You must read C.J. Chivers and Tyler Hicks’ account in the New York Times of U.S. soldiers defending a remote, dangerous outpost in Afghanistan. It is horrifying and heartbreaking, and you can’t help but be filled with admiration for the soldiers’ courage.

According to the Times, more soldiers will soon be arriving — a trend that may accelerate given President-elect Obama’s goal of shifting resources from Iraq to Afghanistan.