Craft Lesson: The Transformation of Documentation

Craft Lessons

When I started reporting for a tiny daily newspaper in 1972, a notepad, pen, manual typewriter, camera and a landline telephone were the only tools I had to collect information for my stories.

Those analog days are long gone. Today, a panoply of new information sources and outlets cram the reporter’s toolbox as well as prosecutors. We saw it with the prosecutions of the January 6, 2021 Capitol insurrectionists whose own videos, text messages and emails were used to confirm their guilt.

We see it regularly in stories where journalists, especially during the COVID 19 lockdown, had to use their ingenuity to report stories from their homes.

To illustrate a family riven by a mother who bought into post-2020 Presidential election and QAnon conspiracies, Washington Post reporter Jose A. Del Real, unable to travel, relied not just on traditional phoners, he “also mined digital communications, sifting through hundreds of anguished Facebook posts, emails and text messages the siblings exchanged with each other and with their defensive mother,” I wrote in a Nieman Storyboard annotation of the piece. “Del Real uses them to build an escalating series of scenes, giving his story a revealing, epistolary quality, reminiscent of 19th-century letters between families and friends.” 

Jason Fagone, a narrative writer with the San Francisco Chronicle, went a step further. In “The Jessica Simulation: Love and Loss in the Age of A.I.,” he spliced his three-part series with eerie conversations, generated by a web robot powered by a supercharged artificial intelligence program, between a man grieving the death of his fiancee and her A.I. chatbot.

Mitchell S. Jackson won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize and a National Magazine Award for his story in Runner’s World about the life and death of Ahmaud Arbery who was killed running while black in a Georgia suburb. Jackson, a novelist, created a vivid reconstruction by culling a New York Times visual investigation of smartphone videos of the murder taken by one of the three white men accused of murdering Arbery.

Of course, journalists have been mining public databases for decades and continue to use these digital warehouses to buttress shocking investigations. (I used one in the late 1980s to expose the dearth of arson convictions in Rhode Island when I worked for the Providence Journal-Bulletin.)

But social media, smartphones and the lightning speed of the Internet often outpaces such time and labor-intensive projects now.

This new brand of journalism signals an important warning to today’s journalists. If you’re not constantly moving beyond traditional information sources and searching for innovative new ones, you’re cheating your audience of journalism that reflects a landmark transformation of documentation that has revolutionized storytelling. And you’ll be left behind.

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