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Interview with Sue Ellen Christian – “Journalism is far from being dead”

Sue Ellen Christian, the author of Overcoming Bias and one of three recipients of the 2016 Michigan Professor of the Year award, is interviewed in Encore Magazine and talks about how teaching and journalism have changed over the years.

Sometimes Stories Fit the Stereotypes

by Sue Ellen Christian

Several months ago, Kalamazoo, Michigan, where I teach, became the latest in the awful and growing list of American cities that have experienced mass shootings. Two days after the February 20th shootings, editors at the Chicago Tribune asked me to write an opinion column about the incident in which random shootings by one man killed six people and critically wounded two others.

The shooter worked his way, literally, through the area streets as an Uber driver, conducting his spontaneous killings between rides. Murder charges have since been filed in the case, and Jason Brian Dalton, 45, of nearby Cooper Township, has been ruled competent to stand trial.

After the shooting, news outlets were looking for something fresh, something that would move the story beyond the local and put the crime, the nation’s 42nd mass shooting in 2016 alone, into national perspective. My book, Overcoming Bias, repeatedly emphasizes the importance of reporting new or underrepresented perspectives on people and events. The book cautions journalists to avoid the easy narrative, the “story that writes itself,” because such stories tend to be loaded with stereotypical characters and plot points. But, whether due to my own blind spots because the incident hit so close to home or because, simply and terribly, this is a story that plays out again and again with only slight variances, I found myself defying my own advice.

I tried three versions of the piece and all felt either too local or too expected: Can’t believe it happened here. Can’t believe how easy it is to get guns and how hard it is to keep citizens safe from them. Can’t believe things are back to normal just days after this tragedy. Even using the word “tragedy” felt cliché.

Now, three months after struggling to write that column that I never did finish (one editor called it “too Kalamazoo-centric”), I think the problem is that there isn’t much new to say about the shootings that regularly replay through U.S. cities. The details of each are different, of course, but often so much of the narrative is consistent: anti-social male, usually white; unsuspecting family, friends and neighbors; easy access to and comfort with firearms; unsuspecting victims; baffled community that then races to protect itself, too late.

Maybe some stories, this being among the worst kind, fit the stereotypes.

Quick Take: Another Example of the Confirmation Bias

by Sue Ellen Christian

This Nieman Storyboard piece is another take on bad journalism due to the confirmation bias. It includes the idea that editors may also suffer from confirmation bias. Sometimes they stick to the original story idea (often their own) at all costs.

Using the 360-degree video metaphor to guide reporting

by Sue Ellen Christian

The latest storytelling tool for journalists is 360-degree video. The medium allows a viewer to see all sides of a story, literally. The aptness of this metaphor for “Overcoming Bias” is too good to let pass without a brief reflection.

In November 2015, The New York Times made a virtual reality (VR) news splash with its documentary entitled “The Displaced,” about children driven from their homes due to war and persecution. Home subscribers like me received a free Google cardboard viewer with their paper that day.

More than a year earlier, in 2014, The Des Moines Register (with Gannett Digital) became the first mainstream news organization in the U.S. to use the technique of 360-degree video in its “Harvest of Change” series, which examined how Iowa farm families were dealing with demographic, economic and technological changes in America.

My capstone reporting class has begun to use the RICOH Theta 360-degree camera to shoot a series we’re calling “Work a Minute in Their Shoes.” It’s capturing 60 seconds of spherical video of various Kalamazoo workers on the job. What we are discovering is that only certain types of stories lend themselves to this form of immersive presentation. Breaking news of a public protest, for example, is a perfect event for this form of video, because there are many people to record from many vantage points. But a profile of a baker at work making bread in the early morning requires the camera to stay on her and follow her around the otherwise desolate bakery. In short, not all events require that you literally see all sides of the story.

This realization got me thinking about the bias of professional newsgathering to seek out both sides of the story. Sometimes, there isn’t a legitimate “other” point of view. For example, some partisan outlets still insist that President Obama is not legitimately a U.S. citizen. This question has been long settled by factual evidence in the form of Obama’s birth certificate. But the so-called “birthers movement” continues to champion its non-factual side of the story. Does that mean a reporter must trot it out each time he writes about Obama’s family background and/or ethnic origins?

In other instances, the story at hand is truly worth a 360-degree look. It may go beyond just two sides of the story, with multiple perspectives to capture. Chapter 5 of Overcoming Bias, Understanding Culture, Understanding Sources, discusses how social groups serve as lenses for looking at the world. Covering cultures different than one’s own requires a grasp of that culture’s history and customs, the context in which news events are considered because of the culture, and the unique perspectives of members within the culture.

Were we able to bust through the snowglobe effect of VR, were we able to bust through the artificial ceiling created by the camera’s many lenses, we would find yet more versions of truth that are influenced by culture, from religion to geography to language to income.

Immersive video has been called the future of journalistic storytelling. I hope journalists of every medium will keep this wonderful metaphor of capturing many perspectives at the fore of their thinking.

Beyond “Filter Bubbles:” Broadening the Scope of Journalism

by Sue Ellen Christian

Journalists’ jobs have become more critical in the online age for many reasons – for curation, verification, and also for magnification. Let me explain.

The most powerful websites online are tailoring their responses to individual users to reflect back what they think those users are most interested in. The days of news outlets telling news consumers what they need to know, as opposed to what they want to know, are well over and have been for some time, thanks to digitalization and the power of the search engine and clicking away from one outlet to another, all for free.

The upshot, however, is that audience members continue to access an increasingly myopic view of the world and its issues, ideas, crises and celebrations. Internet users aren’t getting the full picture of the world via the Internet because the picture is being cropped by the users themselves, albeit inadvertently. Eli Pariser, online activist and thinker, calls the phenomenon a “filter bubble.”

In an interview with Salon’s Lynn Parramore and in his own TED talk, Pariser explains the dangers of how the Web connects us back to ourselves via personalized search results based on our interests. The danger of this is that we never see a version of the world other than the one we already know and presumably, love – we are never challenged to put our attention anywhere other than where we’ve already been.

As Pariser said in his Salon interview, “What it’s looking like increasingly is that the Web is connecting us back to ourselves. There’s a looping going on where if you have an interest, you’re going to learn a lot about that interest. But you’re not going to learn about the very next thing over. And you certainly won’t learn about the opposite view. If you have a political position, you’re not going to learn about the other one.”

In this environment, algorithm-free information sources such as Twitter become all the more essential. “Twitter feeds which are not determined by an opaque corporate algorithms (sic) but my own choices” is how author Zeynep Tufekci put it when writing about the importance of Twitter for calling attention to the Ferguson shooting of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old African-American male, fatally shot by a white Ferguson police officer in 2014.

The phenomenon of “filter bubbles” requires that journalists do more to turn audience attention to the little-seen and little-noticed stories of the world. In Chapter 6 of Overcoming Bias, I discuss how journalism has an ethics of attention and urge news reporters to mind their attentional blind spots to keep coverage innovative, interesting and relevant.

To continue to broaden your scope of the world and what is being done in terms of news storytelling and how and why, visit these two innovative sites:
http://www.storybench.org/vision/ and https://medium.com/message.

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