A screen grab of Brian Stelter's Instagram photo page. He used the photo sharing app to report on the aftermath of the tornadoes in Joplin, Missouri.
I am adding “What I Learned in Joplin,” a personal blog post by New York Times reporter Brian Stelter, to the reading list for my fall Online Journalism course.
In the post, Stelter’s reflects on his experience of trying to cover the aftermath of the tornado that hit Joplin, Missouri in May. Due to unreliable Internet and phone service, Stelter did much of his reporting using social media – texting, tweeting, and posting photos via Instagram.
Stelter’s post has generated some spirited debate on journalism blogs, including Jeff Jarvis questioning if traditional news articles might be a luxury in the Internet age and Michael Ingram’s response to Jarvis, “No, Twitter is Not a Replacement for Journalism.” While I find this debate intriguing, I am including Stelter’s article in my course for more practical reasons.
Here are some things I like about his experience and blog post:
It’s About Reporting
Stelter covers TV and media for the New York Times and was traveling to Chicago to cover the final episode of the Oprah Winfrey show a few hours after the tornado hit. On the plane, he decided to delay his trip and go report on the devastation of the small town. He lacked preparation and experience, but he followed his instincts.
It seems like an obvious choice, but on the night Osama bin Laden death was announced rowdy student-led celebrations broke out on my college campus, I observed a range of responses from my journalism students. Some continued to study for exams. Some stayed in their dorm rooms and followed it on Facebook and Twitter. And some grabbed cameras and went live on the campus TV station to report the story.
Old Advice for New Media Reporting
Many of the things Stelter lists as his lessons learned sound like a nagging journalism instructor or an Intro to News Reporting textbook. Carry extra pens. Bring backup batteries. Avoid the pack of reporters. Wear sturdy, comfortable shoes. McDonald’s has WiFi. All obvious, but essential, advice.
Using Social Media as a Reporting Tool
With his cell phone, Stelter was able to send out short bursts of texts and photos. He tweeted and snapped photos as a form of note taking, but also to relay that information to others.
I parked a block from the south side of the hospital and approached on foot, taking as many pictures as possible, knowing I’d need them later to remember what I was seeing.
I started trying to tweet everything I saw — the search of the rubble pile, the sounds coming from the hospital, the dazed look on peoples’ faces. Some of the texts didn’t send, but most did. Practically speaking, text messages were my only way to relay information.
And because he created this record of online information, it could be easily incorporated into the overall news coverage. A link to Stelter’s Twitter feed, which has more than 60,000 followers, was put on the homepage of NYTimes.com.
Revisiting Tweets to Create a Stronger Story
Stelter’s tweets from the scene tell their own unique story. There are concrete facts, descriptive scenes, and quotes from survivors and rescue workers. But Stelter also notes the limits of this kind of reporting and storytelling. He writes that it would be helpful to have an editor “rewriting the reporters’ tweets and reworking them into the live news story.”
He also writes:
I believe it’s true that ‘my best reporting was on Twitter,’ but only up until a certain point on Monday, probably around 11 p.m. local time. After that point, with a more stable Internet connection, I was able to file complete stories for NYTimes.com, not just chunks of copy.
At that point, Stelter could incorporate his reporting into a front-page story that provided a richer overview of the events, not just brief snapshots.
“What I Learned in Joplin” also has a simple, yet effective, story structure. Stelter begins with an anecdote that contains concrete and vivid details. And then he has a moment of reflection (“What I Learned”) when he explains the point of the anecdote. He repeats this refrain – anecdote and moment of reflection – seven times in the blog post.
By revisiting his tweets and experiences, Stelter turns even “a stream of consciousness” blog post into a compelling narrative.