GUEST OPINION: Telling stories in a transformed world

  • The town of Butte LaRose, La. is seen from the air Friday, June 10, 2011. Although La. Governor Bobby Jindal and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers predicted fifteen feet of flooding in the town with the opening of the Morganza Spillway to alleviate the swollen Mississippi River, the predicted high waters never materialized. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

In the news business, we rush to respond to big stories. Whether natural disasters such as floods, hurricanes, fires or other calamities, or manmade events such as scandals, elections or trials, journalists gear up.

I thought about this the other day when a reporter was sent to cover an expected natural disaster that ended up not occurring. Working in coastal communities years ago, I recall preparing for hurricanes that didn't strike and then quickly moving on to another story. If there was a sigh of relief that disaster had been averted, it was a quick one because in modern newsrooms, there is always something else that can be covered.

The reporter had been dispatched to a rural region of Louisiana that was expected to be overrun by the swollen Mississippi River. In a part of the country that had been literally swamped by water in recent years, this was no small threat. But for various reasons relating to geology, weather patterns, absorption rates and other technical points, the flooding was much less than predicted.

Some towns that had prepared to be engulfed were not; residents who had fled homes in advance of the water returned to find dry land. Instead of panic, there was calm. So, the reporter proceeded to tell a far different story than the originally planned one. There was some hesitation on the reporter's part because the storyline had changed. It was a story of fears not realized. That's not the kind of story you see often in the media.

The reporter was a college student who was working in New Orleans where I teach each year in a training program for some of the brightest collegiate journalists in the nation. A few years ago, one might have thought that to be a pretty unlikely group. Who would go into journalism, at least given the steady drumbeat of gloom and doom about the news industry?

Now, journalism schools are doing quite well, media companies are transforming, and more than a few people are opting to consider careers in this field. For one thing, the definition of media has dramatically morphed and expanded to encompass many platforms, many sources and many forms. It's not much of a revelation to report that you can keep up with news on a computer, phone or newspaper with ease.

The digital transformation in our world has presented some real challenges for our business, as has been the case for most industries. We hear a lot about that. But it has also created a much bigger audience for news providers. That fact seems to get overshadowed sometimes.

The expansion of available information has also meant more stories can be told. And the ranks of professional journalists have been supplemented by citizen journalists. I have a colleague who has been collecting images and videos that people in Egypt shot on their phones as that country's government was being overthrown a few months ago. Those storytellers, like the students entering the journalism profession nowadays, are finding that there is value to being a credible reporter.

Sure, disasters still get a lot of attention, and deservedly so. To watch a tragedy unfold, or a community pick up the pieces, is a gripping scene, and empathy is a natural human emotion. Yet as many journalists are demonstrating in communities across the world, there's room for other kinds of stories too, ones that may not be as sensational but may strike chords as well.

Greg Retsinas is interactive editor of The Press Democrat.

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