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.
BBC video journalist Benjamin Zand arrived in 70805 in October 2014 by a meandering path. Over the past three months, he took a flight from London — where the BBC Worldwide offices are headquartered — to New York City, drove halfway across the country to Colorado, and then from the Rocky Mountains down to the Gulf of Mexico. Zand wrote in a blog post that the articles he’d read on 70805 focused mostly on how run-down and unsafe the neighborhood was.
Yet, people on Twitter and residents of Baton Rouge also told him repeatedly: There’s a story here, more than the simple narrative you’ve already heard.
“I wanted to give the people I spoke to an opportunity to tell the world how they’d change America,” Zand wrote. “So that’s what I asked.” The resulting film — “Life in Baton Rouge’s most dangerous neighborhood”— reflects this disconnect between how things are, how residents see them, and how they want them to be. Beyond depicting individual’s struggles, however, the film also places 70805 within a larger context of failing education, racism, and government neglect, as well as neglect from society at large.
“You can tell, if you ride down Airline Highway long enough, you know when you get to the ‘black part,’” said Brandon, a musician, in the piece. “Unfortunately, people feel comfortable staying on ‘their side.’”
Zand’s reporting seeks to give his subjects the power of self-definition, to reduce the journalistic divide of “us” and “them.” His interviews attempt to restore some of the agency taken away by previous journalistic depictions, giving people a chance to control their representation. And his reporting does not ignore how he got to where he is — after all, one of the most common sights in his videos is the red hood of his car.
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.
Rather than insisting all outlets should conduct their own version of this project — Zand himself will tell you that doing this just once was no easy feat — I will use BBC Pop Up as a vehicle (pun intended) through which I can examine industry practices and reconceptualize journalistic mobility.
I argue that reporting that embraces a model of wayfaring, considering the act of traveling as not separate from but intrinsically bound with the act of journalism, disrupts conventional journalistic power dynamics, and can lead to more empathetic and nuanced coverage.
BBC Pop Up kicked off its road trip from NYC, but like Zand, it originally hailed from overseas. The most recent product out of BBC’s Video Innovation Lab in London — a group formed by BBC News director of digital publishing James Montgomery and run by Danzico — BBC Pop Up was envisioned as the organization’s first “mobile bureau.”
As I wrote in an earlier article on the project for the Columbia Journalism Review, the BBC maintains 85 foreign bureaus around the world, including a handful in the United States. The Video Innovation Lab was tasked with bringing their products beyond major cities, focusing on what Danzico called the Internet’s “metropolitan hubs,” such as Reddit, Twitter, and Instagram.
With BBC Pop Up, Danzico took on the challenge of moving beyond American bureaus, which tend to be located in in coastal cities such as NYC, Washington, DC, and Los Angeles, where large populations, economies, and political impact draw the most media attention. When a story “breaks” in a smaller city or town, outlets fly “parachute journalists” in from major bureaus to report on the news for their national or international audiences. We saw this happen last year in Ferguson, MO, and then again in Baltimore, MD, as residents protest the unlawful arrest and death of Freddie Gray.
“I know that the poverty, police brutality, student frustration and community organizing going on in Baltimore could use the broader amplification that networks such as MSNBC and CNN can provide,” wrote Baltimore resident Stacia L. Brown in the Washington Post. “But it also feels voyeuristic for national reporters to swarm the heart of your home town and grill the people there about its brokenness.”
When the protests and legal proceedings end, only the local media — embedded in the towns, that best know the area, its history, and its people — will remain, reporting for a limited local audience.
“Instead of flying in to do a story, doing the story, leaving, and editing it back home, what if the journalist stayed in the community?” Danzico said, in my interview with him in January (he was in Tucson, AZ at the time). “What if you develop the content inside the communities you’re reporting on and became a member of that community?”
His vision for BBC Pop Up was “outsider eyes with insider information.” Danzico and Zand would take a car on the road with their video equipment, spending an entire month living in six different cities (with a rotating third crew member and an editor back in DC) and reporting on stories that both interested them and that community members cared about. Those videos would broadcast on BBC World Television and online, giving a global audience what might be its first encounter with these towns.
It’s here that we can think about Danzico’s work as fitting into a reconceptualization of “place.” In his targeting of “metropolitan hubs,” Danzico thinks of “places” as not simply where people are, but where people go. This carries over the physical world, as well. Tim Ingold, in his essay “Against Space,” argues against a view of places as static. “My contention is that lives are led not inside places but through, around, to and from them, from and to places elsewhere,” Ingold writes.
Ingold argues that humans inhabit the earth as “wayfarers,” not confined to pre-existing places but actively creating places in their paths. “Proceeding along a path, every inhabitant lays a trail. Where inhabitants meet, trails are entwined, as the life of each becomes bound up with the other. Every entwining is a knot, and the more that life-lines are entwined, the greater the density of the knot. Places, then, are like knots, and the threads from which they are tied are lines of wayfaring.”
What we consider established places such as towns or cities are created from the intersection of a great number of paths — hundreds, thousands, millions — that stretch outside of the seeming “boundaries” of the city but tend to frequent a central area. Similarly, people’s views are informed by the information they gather along their paths and where they intersect with the paths of others. Ingold calls this experience their “inhabitant knowledge.”
For outsiders, journalists included, these smaller towns and cities can appear insular (“quaint,” perhaps), as if America’s “Heartland” is isolated from “the rest of the country” and stuck that way. In parachute reporting, the journalist’s long thread from their home to their current stay is there but obscured through flight, from airport to airport, rendering the landscape as a series of discrete points. That the journalist is encouraged to remain “objective” by distancing themselves from their own preconceptions only works to lose their location in this landscape (I’ll get more into this later in this essay). In a movement-oriented model, however, we can better locate the journalist in relation to a particular place.
The journalist-as-wayfarer, as I propose, acknowledges their own inhabitant knowledge, gathered over a lifetime from their work and experience. They know where they are and how they got there, physically and mentally. They do not necessarily have to drive to every scene, but they are always traveling, nevertheless. To paraphrase Ingold: Journalists are people, too, and they inhabit the same world as the rest of us.
Journalists are people too, and they inhabit the same world as the rest of us.
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.
Danzico and Zand criss-crossed the country for half a year, and except for the occasional stopover, they avoided “the big cities”: Boulder, Baton Rouge, LA (population ~230,000, #93), Pittsburgh, PA (population ~ 306,000, #62), Sioux Falls, SD (population ~165,000, #147), Tuscon, AZ (population ~526,000, #33), and Tacoma, WA (population ~203,000, #107).
While the towns BBC Pop Up visited always had media of their own — they would often share office space or coordinate with local journalists at publications like the Arizona Daily Star and the Scranton Times-Tribune — their impact in national and international coverage was minor.
Each time BBC Pop Up entered a new city, they often knew little about it, and didn’t pretend to. They set up a community meet-up, sometimes advertised in advance— at a college, perhaps, like the University of Colorado in Boulder or Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh — and sometimes on the fly — at wherever the local hotspot was, like the Empire Mall Hy-Vee supermarket in Sioux Falls or the Heirloom Farmer’s Market in Tucson. They asked the people they met: What stories are important to you and your town? What do you want people to know about your city?
It’s worthwhile to consider these meet-ups within Ingold’s wayfaring model, in which even smaller “places” such as schools or grocery stores can be visualized as knots where the threads of many individuals intersect. Whereas universities provided somewhat of an institutional legitimacy to BBC Pop Up, and the audience tends to be younger but more self-selected, the farmer’s market or the downtown street provide the opportunity for the journalists to “cross paths” with a wide range of residents. Significant Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Tumblr presences allowed the team to ask for and receive even more information about their locations and ideas.
From the list of those suggestions, Danzico and Zand narrowed down the pieces they would report — usually between four and seven films, which range from two to eight minutes in length, and culminating in one half-hour documentary per city. Their crowdsourced brainstorming gave residents the opportunity to guide the coverage, leading to journalism that reflected the needs, problems, and personalities of the area. And, in more than one city, BBC Pop Up had the opportunity to directly compare the views of residents with the impression of the “outside world” and the authoritative determination of the government. Their films on Scranton’s impression as the most depressing place in America, on life as a young Native American on South Dakota’s Rosebud and Pine Ridge reservations, and on what it means to be Mexican-American (or Chicano, or Hispanic, or just plain “Mexican,” depending on who BBC Pop Up asked) question these stereotypes but leave final assignments of identification (or not) to the interviewees.
Here, we see a revision of the traditional power dynamics that fuel journalistic activities. Mary Pratt, in her book Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, considers how travel writing originated as an imperial project and perpetuated asymmetrical power relationships. Just as European travelers controlled the representation — and justified the domination — of colonial subjects through their writing, so too does reporting (parachute or otherwise) represent a struggle for control over American subjects.
“News is born in a display of courtship between journalists and sources,” write Marcel Broersma, Bas den Herder, and Birte Schohaus in the journal Journalism Practice. In this courtship, journalists seek to seduce sources into contributing information and quotes, while sources seek to best present themselves and their causes. However, in determining what will be published and who will have a voice in the news — and, most importantly, what stories are reported in the first place — journalists have the first and last say about what is “newsworthy.”
In this way, the journalist takes on the role of Pratt’s “Seeing Man” — “he whose imperial eyes passively look out and possess.” Rarely with in-depth knowledge of a region, the seeing man-journalist picks and chooses what aspects of “local color” to declare as “authentic” or “definitive.”
This process occurs at all levels of a news organization, from reporters to editors. The big city bureau-based model of journalism reinforces these issues by defining what areas of the country are “most” important through their very presence. Pratt finds that the dominance of these political and economic power centers have a distorting effect on information presented both within and outside of them:
“While the imperial metropolis tends to understand itself as determining the periphery (in the emanating glow of the civilizing mission or the cash flow of development, for example), it habitually blinds itself to the ways in which the periphery determines the metropolis.”
The coasts, just as much as the middle of the country, construct “America’s Heartland.” The reporting process, Folker and Fürsich argue, is a site of ideological formation:
“Travel journalists, even more than ‘average’ tourists, are trying to fix the Other. Their professional purpose is to come up with a narrative, a well-told story about other cultures, the past or distant places — in short, to package culture.”
The images built and broadcast of the “Heartland” (a catch-all for non-coastal states, especially those in the Midwest and the southern “Bible Belt”) often look very similar: a close-knit farming community with old-fashioned values, holding tight to religion and guns.
“The good life or the armed life? Stereotyping or warts-and-all portrayal? It depends on whom you talk to — and whose story you’re reading,” wrote Sharyn Vane in a 1997 American Journalism Review article. Such a flat image further justifies the coast’s economic (specifically industrial) dominance and reinforces the seeming “cultural superiority” and progressiveness of the power centers. And it looks almost nothing like the town its residents know.
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.
BBC Pop Up’s emphasis on overall transparency — using social media to detail their journeys, but also sharing their story ideas and the process of reporting those pieces — only adds to the trust they earn in person.
“We become good friends with people, but there’s this level of professionalism,” Zand told me in an interview. It serves their journalistic purpose, by giving them access to a wider range of stories and experiences, especially from people who would be nervous to talk to an “outsider.” At the same time, there’s a limit to how much they can become familiar with a town in a month, and that’s by design.
As a project of the BBC, the Pop Up team still had to concern itself with presenting information in a way that made, say, a flood in Jamestown, CO that killed “only” one person relevant to someone thousands of miles away. While that story did connect with audiences, others that Danzico, Zand, and residents deemed interesting — such as a film on voodoo spells in Lafayette, LA — did not. Finding what is meaningful to people away from a story’s immediate surroundings still requires the “outsider eyes” part of the equation. And when journalists feel “too close” to a subject — as Danzico told me he often did while in Pittsburgh, closed to his own hometown of Scranton — their preconceptions and assumptions about an area begin to override their news judgment.
Journalists should question the notion of “objectivity” before even leaving home. “Objectivity” is often upheld as a journalistic virtue, distancing the writer from partisanship or bias and cementing the reported material as inarguably factual. As we established above in considering Ingold, however, not even the journalist can truly disconnect from their inhabitant knowledge or their emotions. (That the BBC Pop Up videos almost always show the reporter in the process of filming is near proof they take this point to heart.)
In 1996, the Society of Professional Journalists officially removed “objectivity” from its Code of Ethics, CJR noted, and changed its guiding principle from “Seek the Truth and Report It” to simply “Seek Truth and Report It.” Biases can be acknowledged and “sides” can be avoided, but there is never one singular “Truth” to be ascertained. Rather, we find there are many truths — sometimes conflicting, often intersecting — that require journalistic attention. So we must move to a better metric for ethical reporting.
This is not the first essay to propose “empathy” as a superior objective than objectivity, and it won’t be the last. Janet Blank-Libra wrote for Poynter in 2012 that “the objective reporter who integrates into his or her work an empathetic, compassionate approach does not face irreconcilable demands. The compassionate act, one that seeks to alleviate suffering, often follows a process that starts with empathy, i.e., the moment within which one connects with the other in an effort to see through his or her eyes, to know something through its meaning for that person.”
Empathy provides the means not to dispel contention, but to create understanding. Through understanding, the journalist — and, by extension, the reader or viewer — is moved to fair treatment, for the subject ceases to be alien.
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.
Folker and Fürsich write that journalists “operate at the border between the foreign and the familiar.” An empathetic journalist, I would add, crosses that border.
So how can these practices of journalistic wayfaring be applied elsewhere? Can the road trip be employed on a smaller scale, and, more importantly, can these journalistic values be translated outside of the road trip?
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.”
413: Georgia Rambler
In the 1970s a reporter named Charles Salter wrote a column for the Atlanta Journal called "Georgia Rambler." He'd get…
Fast-forward to 2010, and nine reporters from public radio program “This American Life” (and one comedian) flew down to Georgia to revive the format. Each spent a day or two in a different county around the state, asking the same question Salter would ask, and the resulting hour-long show brought together what they discovered. From rumors of President Franklin D. Roosevelt drinking moonshine in Meriwether County to the first black mayor of Jeffersonville, the reporters followed the threads of inhabitant knowledge to find a story that everyone around agreed was worth telling.
As CJR reported in 2013, it was a road trip that provided one of the best insights into the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. A team from The Washington Post, including an energy reporter, photographer, and videographer, drove 1,700 miles along the oil pipeline’s proposed route from Alberta, Canada to the Gulf Coast. The resulting “Keystone: Down the Line” series and e-book revealed the “long hunk of steel” to be intrinsically connected to people’s lives and wellbeing — even before it’s been completed — as well as various industries, legal fights, environmental threats, and a long history of exploitation.
There’s also “Backtrack,” a recent European reporting road trip for the French newspaper La Montagne that covered how farmers and small business owners were adapting new technology, “The Road Trip” class out of Middle Tennessee State University that reported in three towns around Tennessee over three weeks, and Danzico’s previous American road trip project, “Around America in 2.0,” that he did in 2007.
“I understood that a landscape is made of stories over time, layer upon layer, like geologic strata,” wrote Krissy Clark, a current “Marketplace” reporter, who was inspired into journalism by a road trip with her own father. She spent her 2009–2010 John S. Knight fellowship developing what she called “location-aware storytelling.” The final project, “Block of Time,” a “site-specific radio documentary/cell phone tour/super-hyper-local-journalism experiment” that Clark installed on O’Farrell Street in San Francisco, is more than worth checking out. And those examples are just the few recent ones that I found in a brief Internet research spree.
And BBC Pop Up, since I published the first version of this essay in May, is continuing to travel, taking its road trip to Kenya in July 2015 and somewhere not-yet-announced in September.
In Kenya, they covered a range of stories: President Obama’s visit, surfers, entrepreneurs, illicit alcohol brewing. It’s not exactly the same format as the U.S. journey, but some things don’t change: First, of course, they asked Americans what they knew about the country, and then they asked Kenyans what they wanted the world to know.
A CJR feature published this spring suggests where this realm of study might go next. Studying the effect of digital media on communicating empathy, the report compares reading in print and online to exploring cities of information. Whereas print unfolds like a gridded metropolis, the digital world offers paths to either pursue paths further, or wormholes to bypass streets entirely. “Can readers adapt to this new environment, and will they lose anything in the process?” the report asks. We should also ask if the environment deserves exploring in the first place.
This essay is not a complete set of directions, but it is at least a starting point in moving beyond a static view of journalism. To keep journalism in sync with — and therefore useful to — the public, journalists cannot stand still. They must travel to the stories and bring those stories to viewers and readers. They must make the trip worthwhile. The wayfaring journalist, I have argued, is most equipped for such a journey.
Note: This essay is adapted (mostly intact) from an ARCGIS project of the same name that I completed for CHUM309: “Road Trip! Mobility and Encounter in the Americas” at Wesleyan University in Spring 2015, which in turn was expanded from an article I wrote on BBC Pop Up for the Columbia Journalism Review in January. After I made the original project open to viewers in May, I got such great responses from Twitter that I wanted to make my thoughts on the subject more widely available to the journalism community. If you wish to experience the StoryMap interactive web app, that is accessible online here.