Posts Tagged ‘Allan Thompson’

I savor every uplifting story about journalism in these difficult times.

My last post dealt, as most of my work and writing today does, with the difficult times in the news industry and in our search for solutions. Sometimes we need stories of great journalism, to fuel our fight for a prosperous future.

I read two such stories this week in the New York TimesLens photojournalism blog.

First Lens recounted the stories of the four photographers who captured the moment 20 years ago when the “tank man” stopped a line of tanks attempting to quell student protests in Tiananmen Square. Their stories are filled with fascinating details about saving film from Chineese authorities, personal risk and protection and transmitting photos in the pre-Internet age.

Even more fascinating, to me, was the Lens story of Terril Jones and the photo he shot moments before the tank confrontation. The other photographs were shot from the balconies of a hotel. Jones was on the ground, fearing for his safety as the tanks approached, firing their guns. In the last shot he fired before fleeing to safety, you see a young man dashing toward the camera, his head ducked in fear. And in the distance, calm amid the uproar, you see a man with a white shirt and two bags, awaiting the oncoming tanks. It’s a compelling story, a compelling moment of premeditation and courage.

Context matters, even 20 years later.

I love hearing the stories behind great photos and these two stories remind me of some other uplifting stories about great photos or videos:

  • My April post, The heart: one of journalism’s best tools, about Allan Thompson’s story in the Toronto Star, identifying the father and daughter in Nick Hughes’ horrifying video of genocide in Rwanda.
  • I remember the evening Gazette photographers spent at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, explaining the stories behind some of the photos in the Year of the River exhibit of Gazette flood photography.
  • National Geographic’s A Life Revealed story about the successful attempt to find the Afghan girl with the haunting green eyes, photographed by Steve McCurry in 1985, who came to symbolize the hard life of Afghan refugees. 
  • One of the best stories of my career was the story of Buddy Bunker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photo The Homecoming, told first in 1997 at the Omaha World-Herald and then again as a multimedia story for GazetteOnline after a home movie surfaced 65 years after the homecoming. 
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The best journalism comes from the heart. And sometimes it breaks your heart.

That’s why I want to tell you about Allan Thompson’s heart-wrenching story, “The father and daughter we let down,” published today in the Toronto Star (and called to my attention on Twiter in a simple but eloquent tweet by my friend Roger Gillespie).

I have written before about the myth of journalistic objectivity. Journalists are not objects; we’re people. We write for people and we connect with those people by learning and telling stories that matter to people. The best journalism does not just fill the human mind with facts. It touches the heart. It roils your gut. It moistens your eye. It kicks you in the nuts. Objects can’t do that, only people.

Yes, we should be absolutely vigilant and stubborn about getting the facts right. And we should maintain independence from special interests. But the truth is even more important than the facts. And sometimes a human heart is one of the best tools for telling the truth.

Any summary of Thompson’s brilliant work will not do it justice. He tells how he first failed to grasp the importance and horror of the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, but later became haunted by a Nick Hughes video that depicts the murders of a man and his daughter as they prayed. He tells of his quest to identify them and tell their story. I have seldom been as moved in reading a story as I was by the account of his 2007 visit to Rwanda, when he not only identified them but met with their widow and mother and — at her insistence — showed her the video.

I won’t tell you any more about Thompson’s story. You should read that yourself and watch the video. But I will tell you what his story reminded me about journalism:

  • Too often, we keep the writer out of the story, following misguided notions about detachment and objectivity. We should not insert journalists into stories where we don’t belong, but sometimes we become characters or at least personal narrators. And we should recognize that. One of the best stories I wrote in my 10 years at the Des Moines Register was not published because of editors who were squeamish about using the first person. I’m not so squeamish. That’s why The Gazette has published first-person accounts by Lyle Muller, Adam Belz and myself about our involvement in stories we were covering.
  • We can’t let tight budgets and high newsprint costs keep us from telling great stories as they should be told. I haven’t seen how much space Thompson’s story took up in The Star, but I know lots of editors would have fretted over whether to publish it at that length. I couldn’t stop reading and I’m sure many readers of The Star felt the same way. When you get a great story, space should be no object.
  • Storytelling still matters. Often we write stories when all we have are sets of facts that could be presented in a variety of ways. But when you have a great story, employ your narrative skills and tell a great story. Thompson takes us right into the home of Rosalie Uzamukunda and you feel as if you are there, feeling every raw emotion as this woman finally learns how her husband and oldest daughter were killed.
  • Don’t let obstacles become excuses (a journalism rule I have written about before). Tracking down and identifying people in a grainy video shot 13 years earlier sounds impossible. Most journalists wouldn’t have tried. Thompson persevered and found the story of a lifetime.

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