Life’s A Gas

To be honest, I didn’t expect much from the readings that we were assigned to examine. I mean, the natural gas boom in Texas? Why do I care? It certainly didn’t sound as an interesting subject. Then it turned out that these were arguably two most amazing pieces of journalism that I’ve read at least in the last week. So much for low expectations.

We were asked to analyze how the stories are framed — and compare those framings. For I don’t want my post to be as long as any of these stories, I decided to split my observations in several parts and analyze each component of a story separately. And here we go.

The headline of the CPI's story, which already provides some framing for it
The headline of the CPI’s story, which already provides some framing for it

1. Approach

The most vivid example of the difference between these two pieces is probably their headlines. They are also good illustrations of points of view that were chosen by reporters.

The title of Bryan Mealer’s story — “Y’all Smell That? That’s The Smell of Money” — is not just a quote, it is a quote from a journalist himself (in particular from the presentation he made at school in his youth when his family was prospering from the Texas oil boom). And to some extent that headline conveys the spirit of the story, which is told deliberately from a personal point of view. Mealer, who was born and raised in Texas and had a firsthand experience of a similar economic burst in the region in his childhood, turns reporting on the natural gas boom into his own adventure. The whole story is literally framed by Mealer’s reflections of his own experiences and aspirations — and he explicitly states that we look at what’s happening in Texas through his eyes by using a lot of I’s, me’s and relating to his own past and present.

The title of the CPI’s story — “Big Oil. Bad Air” — also perfectly sets the frame for it. “Bad” is a strong word, and even from the headline we can see that these guys are going to look into environmental downside of the gas boom. I guess, one could call this headline even judgemental. “Bid Oil. Bad Air” is a piece of an old-school (I mean it in a good way) investigative journalism which purpose is to make power accountable. The journalists try to present the facts using lots of data and evidence. Basically, they say: this is the truth that someone’s is trying to cover up — and our job is to reveal it with our reporting.

2. Writing

The best way to compare the writing style of two pieces is just to juxtapose some words that are used by reporters.

Mealer’s story: Bonanza. Glorious reinvention. Revelation. Festooned. Faster than the hand of God. Heck (as an exclamation that indicates author’s excitement).

CPI’s story: Bacchanal. Pungent odors. Littered. Hell-bent rush. Leave to fend for themselves. Prepared statement (by a corporation whose representatives declined to be interviewed by journalists).

I think, these words speak for themselves. You can rightly guess about the attitude that reporters have towards their subject just by looking at them.

It is also worth noting, however, that, as different as these pieces are, they bear a strong resemblance in terms of structure. Both Mealer and the authors of the CPI’s piece certainly know one of the most important rules of reporting: always present both sides of the story, always have a second opinion. And they do present a second side — but only towards the end of a story, when a reader (presumably) already has an opinion on what it’s about. The downsides of the gas boom aren’t mentioned in Mealer’s story until its 21st page (out of 24). Ordinary people who actually benefited from it appear only in the last scene of the CPI’s story.

3. Visuals

Here, I think, an illustration works best, too.

comp

On the left: one of the photographs used by the Texas Monthly. Again, even without reading a story one could probably deduce something from it: it’s a guy who achieved something and he’s proud of his success. What’s even more important, probably, is that he hasn’t achieved too much and isn’t too proud; there’re no pictures of the corporate CEOs who enjoy a luxurious lifestyle thanks to the gas boom in the story. Most of the portraits presented in Mealer’s story convey such a feeling: here’s some ordinary people who are blessed by this economic miracle. And even landscapes are epic, colourful and monumental: this is an area the gas boom has sparked a new life in.

On the right: a photograph used in the CPI’s story. These people are obviously portrayed as victims. They are unhappy, and there’s someone to blame for their unhappiness. Moreover, the story persists in showing pictures of a woman with her inhaler, as if it wants us to feel her pain. Same could be said about other pictures in this story: beautiful fields and forests and ranches that are defaced by burning flares and gas wells.

4. Extras

The CPI’s story is also interestingly framed in terms of design (which is really good, by the way, especially for an investigative piece like this). For example, these big in-your-face pull quotes that sometimes appear next to the story definitely contribute to its overall tone. The way the quote from a State Rep. Harvey Hildebran — “I believe if you’re anti-oil and gas, you’re anti-Texas” — is presented makes it even more presumptuous. And devilish animated flames from the flares don’t help you to fall in love with the gas boom.

As for the Texas Monthly piece, here we can see a really compromising use of advertising. Somewhere halfway through the story you’re starting to notice ads that try to sell you basically the same picture of growth, wealth and success that a reporter describes — and it certainly doesn’t make his words more credible.

An example of how ads are used in the Texas Monthly story
An example of how ads are used in the Texas Monthly story

5. Conclusion

I read the CPI’s piece first, and I was definitely prejudiced toward Mealer’s story. And my bias was growing bigger as I moved through the report with all its depictions of the gas boom’s “bonanza” and attempts to present South Texas as the land of opportunities.

However, at the end of the day, I enjoyed Mealer’s piece more. As strange as it is, it even seemed more objective to me — when Mealer finally starts to talk about the downsides of the boom, it gives the story a kind of sore feeling that stays there until the end. At first “Y’all Smell That?” seems an unchallenged ode to the gas boom, but than — well, I wouldn’t say that the story turns upside down, but it certainly becomes much more ambiguous, deep and meaningful.

As for the CPI’s story, it is more definitive and inconclusive at the same time . On one hand, reporters explicitly put the blame on corporations and government institutions, claim that they’re responsible for environmental implications of the boom and support their claim with both data and stories from witnesses. On the other, sometimes this support is too vague (for example, they rely on the opinions of unnamed “scientists” and “experts”, which is, I believe, something that a reporter should never do), and the story overall seems to be too finger-pointing — at times it resembles more an attorney’s speech than a news story.

That said, both of the stories are great, and even though Mealer’s piece appeals more to me in terms of writing style and structure, the CPI’s piece is no less — probably more — impressive and important, because it really helps to make power accountable and start a debate on the matter that can affect the lives on many people.

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As Death Comes Along (Again)

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That’s my third story for the Missourian, and it’s a kind of obituary — again.

This time, however, it was much more complicated and tragic.

Something about 8 am, our ACE noticed a police report that said that there had been a death investigation at a certain address which turned out to be an address of Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity house. I made some calls, but neither police spokesperson nor medical examiner’s office couldn’t say much beyond the fact that there had been a death at this frat house, and that a victim was a 19-year old male.

At the same time, one of other students on GA shift (I’m not sure it would be appropriate to disclose her name here) knew some people at Alpha Gamma Rho. She was obviously worried, and she called them — more as a friend than as a journalist. From what they told her it appeared that the death of this student was caused by a medical condition he had for a long time. Of course, they didn’t say it on the record and they didn’t have any proof of that.

So we had an issue. We had a news item that was definitely newsworthy, but we could run only with a fact that a student died at a frat house. And that fact could potentially be a huge source of speculation — everybody knows that frat houses have a certain reputation. And these speculations, from what we knew, would be completely untrue. But at that point we didn’t have any evidence to disprove them.

Liz Brixey, our GA shift editor, initially went with the latter. And I agreed with her at that point. It seemed obvious that we shouldn’t create a source of speculation if we knew that it wasn’t the case for it. And we simply didn’t have enough information for a proper story.

But several minutes later the editor-in-chief of the Missourian Tom Warhover came in — and overruled the decision. We put up a special announcement that informed our readers that a student had been found dead at a frat house, and that we would update the story as soon as we got new information.

To be honest, I’m still not sure who was right in this situation. In a sense, everybody — and no one: there were too many implications that surrounded both of decisions. Anyway, it was a good lesson — at least it gave me a lot to think about.

Fortunately, we were soon able to get some quotes from the police and the medical examiner’s offices that confirmed that Cale Boedeker most likely died because of a medical condition he had (he had diabetes). And I’m really grateful to Seth Klamann, who, honestly speaking, did most of the work. But at least I was able to get some information from the police and to reach out to some of Cale’s friends — who I couldn’t thank enough for talking to a reporter in such grave circumstances.

Well, what’s left to say here. Let’s hope that on my next GA shift I won’t be dealing with death again.

Homework Assignment: Analyzing Three Leads

1.  Renewed Fighting Around Donetsk Airport Tests Ukraine Cease-Fire

DONETSK, Ukraine — Deadly fighting has broken out again between the government and rebels around the strategically important airport outside Donetsk, a continuing source of friction that is testing the resilience of a recent cease-fire agreement. (New York Times)

At first glance, that lead seems good. It tells you the news — briefly and straight to the point. It has some context — not too much, but enough to explain why this story is important (the airport being “strategically important” and “a continuing source of friction”; the fighting being important because of a cease-fire agreement). It is correct, accurate and objective — it states the fact and doesn’t take sides. Basically, there’s just the right amount of information here to make you want to know more.

However, closer to the end of the story it turns out that it’s NOT only about the fighting around Donetsk airport. At some point it suddenly starts telling us about what happened in Kharkiv where a statue of Lenin was toppled yesterday. So, basically, the story is not about one particular episode in the Ukrainian conflict, but about everything that happened in Ukraine during the last 24 years. Well, you couldn’t expect that from the headline or the lead.

That said, maybe that’s the problem with the story itself, not with the lead.

2. Schoolgirl jihadis: the female Islamists leaving home to join Isis fighters

Hundreds of girls and women are going missing in the west, reappearing in Iraq and Syria to bear children for the caliphate

Hundreds of young women and girls are leaving their homes in western countries to join Islamic fighters in the Middle East, causing increasing concern among counter-terrorism investigators.

Girls as young as 14 or 15 are travelling mainly to Syria to marry jihadis, bear their children and join communities of fighters, with a small number taking up arms. Many are recruited via social media. (The Guardian)

I think this is good. Well, the story itself is breath-taking enough to catch your eye and to get you to read the whole thing. Still, this lead really helps to make it happen.

To be honest, I was expecting a some kind of anecdote when I clicked on the headline — like a story of some woman who joined Isis, but apparently reporters didn’t have enough evidence to picture one. They had some names (they are mentioned in captions that go along with photographs), but not proper stories. And I have to say that the lead does its job even without an anecdote. It tells us what the story is about, it gives some details that are really impressive and catching (for example, these girls’ very young age or the fact that they are recruited via social media.)

3. South Columbia gardens nurture community spirit, connection to nature

Gardening can mean different things to different people.

For Guillermo Hernandez, 14, or “G” as he’s called by other volunteers at Stormy’s Meadow, gardening helps him see how much labor goes into his food. “That’s not something on your shelf that you just pick up randomly,” he said. (The Columbia Missourian)

I’m sorry to say this, but I didn’t like that one too much. I think there are several problems with this lead.

First: the first paragraph (which in this case equals the first sentence). I can see what a reporter meant to do here — basically, to come up with a general statement that then would be illustrated with some examples. However, this statement is just too broad. “Gardening can mean different things to different people” — well, you could say that about anything. “Marriage can mean different things to different people.” “Being stuck in traffic can mean different things to different people”. “Doughnuts can mean different things to different people”. Etc. From a reader’s point of view, this sentence is pretty discouraging, I think; it doesn’t attract you to the story.

Second: I couldn’t understand from the headline and the lead what the story was actually about. Well, it’s about gardening, I got that much. But what gardening? And why is it so important that the story is on the Missourian’s front page? The explanation comes in the fifth paragraph (it’s about community gardening and volunteers who work there and make it an important experience for the citizens), and for this story this is too late. It could be all right, if it was preceded by some catchy anecdote, but it isn’t.

Send In the Clowns

This is amazing: John Oliver’s speech about Miss America pageant that he delivered in his weekly Last Week Tonight show yesterday on HBO.

Apart from being utterly hilarious on their own, these 15 minutes once again challenge our notion of who journalists are — and who we can call a journalist. I mean, would I describe John Oliver with that term before seeing this video? Probably not. Well, that’s maybe partly because I only stumble upon fragments of his show on YouTube once in a while — and, therefore, I definitely have no expertise in defining mr. Oliver’s profession. But somehow I believe Wikipedia (well, English wikipedia at least). And the word “journalist” is mentioned only once in the Wikipedia article about Oliver — turns out he played the character of an “oleaginous journalist” in some at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2001. Oh, the irony.

Otherwise, Wikipedia calls Oliver a comedian, a political satirist and an actor. Which he essentially is — and I think we can still fairly call him a comedian even when he speaks about politicians’ actions, making them look ludicrous and unacceptable at the same time.

With this video, however, it’s different. Yes, there is a bunch of jokes about innate sexism of this kind of pageants and, specifically, Donald Trump. But the most striking part here is the actual reporting work that Oliver and his team did. They decided to check if the information that the contest provided $45 millions of dollars in scholarships to women annually (that information is spread by the Miss America organizers) was true. They managed to prove that it wasn’t by looking into the organization’s tax records. Moreover, they pulled tax forms from almost every state-level Miss America competition in the country and showed that the information about the total amount of scholarships was, to put it mildly, deliberately misleading. Moreover, Oliver acknowledged the fact that even though Miss America pays a lot less money to women than it pretends to, the organization still has the right to say that it is the largest provider of scholarships for women, because it in fact is (other scholarships being even less generous) — and made another, even more important point out of this argument.

Now, considering that we’re in the United States, and not in Russia, I assume that Miss America will have to respond somehow to this investigation. At the very least they wouldn’t be able anymore to assert that they give this immense amount of money in scholarships. At best, Oliver’s speech might spark a discussion about the fact that the biggest provider of scholarships for women in America requires those women to be unmarried and not pregnant to be eligible to a scholarship.

It has been said many times that nowadays everyone can be a reporter. Well, John Oliver is not everyone, of course. But I was still impressed to see such a good journalist work from a comedy show. Applause.

How to Disappear Completely

Here’s another story that illustrates the power — and the mischievousness — of social media. A girl from Netherlands told her friends and her parents that she was going on vacation to South-Eastern Asia. In fact, she never left her house in Amsterdam — and spent several weeks posting fake statuses, check-ins and pictures on her Facebook. She even faked her Skype calls by decorating her room with Asian umbrellas. This was a part of her graduation project aiming to illustrate the double nature of social media.

A picture took and a picture faked: that's how Zilla Van Den Born deceived her parents and friends
A picture took and a picture faked: that’s how Zilla Van Den Born deceived her parents and friends

Well, I wouldn’t call this experiment entirely correct. Basically, it’s not about social media, it’s about trust. When someone close to us tells us that he or she is going to a trip, we’re not likely to assume that he (or she) is lying and this is all a part of some kind of research. Naturally, her parents believed her — why shouldn’t they have? Besides, it would be even easier to do such a trick in a pre-digital era, when you could tell that you’re calling someone from Australia, and they wouldn’t have any means to prove otherwise.

Still, somehow this resonated in my mind with another falsified story I stumbled upon this week. Gawker has it: some guy called Alex Jones (I’ve never heard of him before, but from what I know now I assume he’s not very professional) published a post on his website about a sex toy lesson given to 6th graders in a school in Jacksonville. Many American right-wing websites jumped on it and expressed their outrage. It soon turned out, though, that the story was completely fabricated — and the images actually came from an event that was held 2 years ago in Brock University in Canada. The aim of the event was to teach safe sex practices to gay students; and, of course, the attendance was completely voluntary, and all the people in the audience were grown-ups. Now I don’t know why this Alex Jones decided to make that up, but I definitely do know that if some of those websites that were so shocked by this story had thought of checking if it was true, they wouldn’t look so ridiculous and unreliable.

My point here? Pure and simple: always perform an accuracy check. More often than not it’s not a technical procedure, but something that distinguish a journalist from a non-journalist.

Death and All His Friends

Yesterday I had my second GA shift at the Missourian. And now I’ve got another story out. And it’s an obituary — or, as we call it at the Missourian, a life story.

I thought it would be hard psychologically — it’s never easy for people to talk about their relative who just passed away. Well, actually, it wasn’t hard at all. Frances Marie Colley, the daughter of the man whose obituary I was writing, was very welcoming and willingly told me a lot of stories about her father — how he survived the World War II, how he learned to ride a motorcycle when he was almost 50 years old, what a passionate farmer and a loving father he was. Ms. Colley will probably never read this, but I still would like to thank her for that. She made it a lot easier for me to deal with such a peculiar task.

Strictly speaking, it wasn’t by far my first obituary. But in a sense, it was. And not just because of the language. In Russia I wrote a bunch of obiaturies, but all of them were about famous people, mostly musicians — like Lou Reed or, say, Yegor Letov, one of my favourite Russian psychedelic punk singer-songwriters. And of course, it was a completely different thing. You didn’t have to talk to relatives. You didn’t have to learn anything more about their lives than you already knew. Essentially, these were not so much obituaries, but more like essays about the cultural impact of these musicians, their songs, their lives and their legacy.

This time, however, I had to write about an ordinary man — and by no means I want to say that “ordinary” equals “less important” or “less interesting”. Of course not. Marshall Colley, as it turned out, lived a great life. He survived the war, he was happily married for many years, he raised three children, he worked hard, he was kind to people and helped them whenever he could. As far as I came to understand, he was a great man and he will be remembered. Still, it’s obviously harder to write a good and touching obituary about a farmer from Harrisburg than about, say, Whitney Houston. It’s much more challenging — but I like this challenge (although I’m not completely sure that I was totally successful in addressing it this time). Because being able to see a story where anyone else wouldn’t see it, and being able to find something extraordinary and appealing about any given human being is one of the most important journalistic skills. Basically, that’s the difference between a journalist and everybody else — a journalist sees the world as an endless range of stories that are waiting to be told.

And to finish this story, here’s one the best and deepest songs about death I’ve ever heard.

A Time to Be So Bold

Just stumbled upon this very, erm, passionate post by Jeff Pearlman, a sports journalist and an author of several books featured in New York Times’ best-sellers list. (Again, I’m late — the post was actually published more than a week ago. Again, I still find it worth blogging about.)

I won’t quote it here, because quoting the most passionate parts would probably seem inappropriate. But, seriously, read it. It will take 5 minutes of your time, it’s funny and sad at the same time, and it’s really insightful and helpful for any discussion about the state of American news media. To put it short, Pearlman puts the blame for the current decline of newspaper industry on the publishers and the owners of newspapers — and precisely on Gannett corporation. He says that it was them who set new rules — both in terms of reporting itself and business — and these rules, Pearlman argues, were wrong, and they are one of the main reasons why Gannett newspapers are now going down and the corporation has to perform many layoffs. Pearlman thinks that we should not sympathize with them, but condemn them.

Well, I have to say that Pearlman sounds pretty persuasive. But since I’m not an expert in American newspaper industry by any means, I can’t properly elaborate on that. What intrigued me about his post, though, is not only what he says, but how he says it. There’s a lot of profanity in there — in fact, the f-word frames the post and pretty much constitutes its message. And that brings me back to the discussion that at some point we had in class. Of course, Pearlman wrote that in his personal blog — but this blog is published on his official websites which, among other things, sells his books, so it is clear for any reader of his post that the author is a professional journalist who occasionally writes for Wall Street Journal, Sports Illustrated and other honorable publications.

So the question goes: does his passion and his use of profanity compromise Pearlman as a journalist? Can it offend his readers and/or his employers? Can it be considered unprofessional? Well, I can’t speak for all the audience, but it surely didn’t offend me. Moreover: I didn’t know anything about Pearlman beforehand (probably because I don’t know anything about American sports), but now he in a way won me over. I didn’t buy any of his books right away (probably because they are about basketball, and not Gannett), but now if I see a link to one of his stories on Twitter, I will probably click on it. Being a journalist, he expressed his personality very vividly and strongly, and now I’m interested in his writing.

Of course, I am not trying to say that all the journalist should start cursing. My point is: controversial things are not necessarily bad for your reputation — they can also do some good. It’s not about words or feelings themselves, it’s about how you use them in your writing.