BBC Pop Up in Brooklyn, I believe. Everyone uses this image because it’s great, so I will too.

The Wayfaring Journalist

Why Mobility is the Key to Empathetic Reporting

Zip code 70805 is known as the “most dangerous neighborhood in Baton Rouge.” The area suffers from high unemployment and poverty and has some of the highest homicide and HIV rates in the United States. Drive down Airline Highway and cross over Florida Boulevard, locals say, and the change is immediate. Buildings suddenly appear neglected, the population switches to majority-black, and rates of violence jump up.

A New Model of Journalism

Zand and his fellow video journalist Matt Danzico comprised the two-person core team of BBC Pop Up, a journalism experiment that traversed America over the course of six months — from September 2014 through March 2015 — setting up in six different cities to report on local stories for an international audience.

A map I created of the approximate route BBC Pop Up took to travel across the United States. Full interactive map available on ARCGIS.
Don Lemon of CNN in Ferguson, MO.
Image taken from Ingold, Tim. “Against Space: Place, Movement, Knowledge.” Boundless Worlds: An Anthropological Approach to Movement. Ed. Peter Wynn Kirby. New York: Berghahn Books, 2011.
Also from Ingold. I thought these scribbles were actually incredibly great at making his arguments tangible.

Journalists are people too, and they inhabit the same world as the rest of us.

The BBC Pop Up car (“Rufous Motmot,” as it was dubbed) traveled about 15,000 miles inside the United States, according to the BBC Pop Up reporters.

Power Dynamics

Because BBC Pop Up documented its creation process and journey on Tumblr, their itinerary is easy to piece together. Danzico arrived in NYC on July 12, and Zand arrived just over two weeks later. They spent July and August buying equipment and a new car (a used Ford they bought at a dealership in Albany, NY), which they outfitted with custom-made BBC Pop UP decals. On August 28, 2014, they left from Bushwick, Brooklyn, drove across Route 80, and arrived in Boulder, CO (population ~103,000, #279 largest city in the US) on August 31.

A BBC Pop Up town hall in… well, you get it.
Matt Danzico works on a story in Nunn, CO about gun laws.

Reporting in the Contact Zone

Through their town hall-style meetings with community members, Danzico and Zand reinvent that “contact zone” where journalist and source meet, redefining the roles not through domination and subordination but collaboration. They also extend the contact zone beyond that initial encounter in their month-long residency: they stay as guests, eat dinner, and spend their leisure time with sources and residents. In doing so, they earn the trust of townspeople and assemble their own inhabitant knowledge about the area.

Matt Danzico films glass blowing students at the Jason Lee Middle School in Tucson, AZ.

Empathy provides the means not to dispel contention, but to create understanding.

It’s fitting, then, that Blank-Libra goes on to conclude that “embedded in the empathetic, compassionate act are fellow travelers: honesty, trustworthiness, respectfulness” (emphasis mine). I argue that the road trip provides a scenario in which empathy is most easily developed: the wayfaring journalist, traveling from town to town, becomes entangled in the varying threads of a (socioeconomically, geographically, racially and ethnically) diverse swath of people. Living among such people levels the journalistic power imbalance and dispels assumptions, as well as humanizes the reporters themselves.

Krissy Clark applied her “location-aware storytelling” in a journalism-art installation called “Block of Time” on O’Farrell Street in San Francisco. At each red balloon, passerby could call a phone number to hear a story about that location read to them.

Where’s Next?

For a few years in the 1970s, George Salter — a columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution — would take out a highway map of the state of Georgia, pick a small town he had never heard of, and drive there. He would ask the people he came across, “Who in your town is the most unforgettable person you’ve ever met?” Salter’s “Georgia Rambler” column gave him a venue to share “good stories from ordinary folks.” Chuck Salter, his son, found connection within the contact zone as well. “I remember how amazing it was when one minute, we didn’t know this person, and in the next, we were hearing all these things about their lives, that they probably didn’t tell many people at all,” he told “This American Life.”

Digital news editor, music geek, pun aficionado.

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