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Communications in Slow-Moving Crises (MIT Communications Forum)

11/18/2010 5:00 PM 4"231
Abrahm Lustgarten, Reporter, ProPublica; Andrea Pitzer, Editor, Nieman Storyboard; Rosalind H. Williams, HM, Bern Dibner Professor of the History of Science and Technology; Thomas Levenson, Head of Writing and Humanistic Studies

Description: What's a journalist to do when a major story must be coaxed reluctantly into public view, or emerges on what seems like a geological time scale? These panelists discuss how to approach slowly evolving but urgent stories at a time when news coverage has shifted inexorably from print and its variable deadlines to the constant, repetitive churn of cable news and instant internet information. In setting up the discussion, Thomas Levenson discusses the concept of "slow"moving crises" and changes in the practice of journalism.

Rosalind Williams situates the challenge facing journalism within the context of much greater historical change. She first finds a telling contradiction in the phrase "slow"moving crisis," since the concept of crisis involves a "decisive stagewhere change for better or worse happens." For Williams, the lack of adequate terminology suggests that "something is happening in the world that hasn't happened before..."

Classical historians regarded history as taking place "on a very stable stage of the world." In the 19th century, that world began to speed up, and historians began to grapple with human actions and deeds that accelerated change in the world from centuries to decades. Yet, says Williams, "history appears to be slowing down, getting like molasses," as events erupt, apparently conclude, then continue indefinitely. She cites the oil spill and the financial crisis as example of such "aftermaths."

Paradoxically, "things are happening much faster and much slower," she continues, because the "density of human presence on the planet speeds up environmental change and slows down political change," creating a "viscosity" that makes history "work differently." Journalists must take account of this transformation, and remember that "what is making things different is human dominance as never before."

At the investigative journalism website ProPublica, Abrahm Lustgarten and his colleagues enjoy the unusual luxury of creative, long"term reporting projects. Their freedom to spend literally years working a topic can lead to identifying a crisis before anyone else -- such as the dangers of drilling for natural gas -- and often involves looking behind the headlines of a major story to uncover all"important context.

Lustgarten describes ProPublica's take on the Gulf oil spill, which "worked around the perimeter of what was happening," focusing on BP's drilling record, and inadequate government regulation. Since their story "was somewhat less sexy," they offered "narrative focus and depth to engage readers." ProPublica made its story urgent through a "drumbeat of communicationa steady stream of provocative and revealing stories," and a longer"form investigative piece. Lustgarten sees the story now "probably at its most critical stage, months after the spill," with mainstream "coverage at a virtual standstill."

Andrea Pitzer believes in the power of narrative to help people understand public crises and public policy issues, but worries that "using storytelling in long"term crisis coverage" carries some risks. Journalists who target "established authorities" with stories may be viewed as "trying to sell something." She advocates "tilting more heavily toward stories with teeth for an audience that already understands the basic problem."

Pitzer embraces diverse media approaches to boost "game"changing narratives." Visuals such as the photos from Abu Ghraib can have an instant impact on public opinion. She describes innovative websites such as TBD, which uses the Storify social media tool to aggregate perspectives on an event, "creating a moment by moment breakdown." Statistics come alive and marry to stories with new forms of data visualization. Pitzer encourages reaching out to ordinary people and giving them a stake in their own narratives, demonstrating "where they fit into the larger arc." Says Pitzer, "If we're better at storytelling and giving them hooks we'll be presenting information so people really understand their choices."

About the Speaker(s): Thomas Levenson recently published Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World's Greatest Scientist. He is also author of Einstein in Berlin; Measure for Measure: A Musical History of Science; and Ice Time: Climate, Science, and Life on Earth.

His television documentaries include Origins: Back to the Beginning (NOVA); Building Big: Domes (PBS); and Einstein Revealed (NOVA). He has earned the Peabody Award (shared), New York Chapter Emmy, and the AAAS/Westinghouse award. His articles and reviews have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The Boston Globe, and Discover, among others.

Host(s): School of Humanities, Arts & Social Sciences, Communications Forum

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