viernes, junio 26, 2015

Reporting and Storytelling

Surprising revelations on a Twitter conversation

Today I had an interesting Twitter exchange with Huffington Post reporter Roque Planas. I have been meaning to write about it, but before I do this there is something that I need to tell about Mr. Planas.  

I have not had the honor to personally meet him, although I've been having periodic Twitter exchanges with him regarding his coverage of certain news about the Dominican Republic (where I was born and raised).  These conversations have in my opinion been cordial; maybe a little intense because we both have strong opinions about this particular subject matter.

I consider Mr. Planas a very patient interlocutor and it appears that it is his modus operandi to engage via social media with his readers. If you look at this Twitter account you will see various conversations with other readers that also have strong opinions about his work.  I have to applaud that, because I don't think I could do it.

I do have a lot of interest about the news; I'm what most people will call a "news junkie" and have been for as far as I can remember.  But news is not my occupation; it is for Mr. Planas and I wouldn't be able to effectively do my job if I had to deal with readers looking over my shoulder and commenting about my work.   To be fair, if I was Mr. Planas I would have muted or blocked my Twitter account long time ago.

Aside from that he is actually covering the recent news about undocumented immigrants in the Dominican Republic in the country, which is commendable.  Twitter user Giselle Corporan echoed a lot of Dominicans when she wrote the following:

But I was still apprehensive and frustrated by what I consider the lack of balance in the coverage in Mr. Planas work.  And sure, there it was on the day of my birthday this "gift" from Mr. Planas and his colleague Julia Craven:

"Almost All of Them Are Black", reads like an implication that this is the reason why they are being deported.  Otherwise, why even mention the race of the people at risk of deportation? The fact is that 87.3% percent of the immigrant population in the Dominican Republic was born in Haiti, according to a census carried out in 2012 with the assistance of the U.N. and the European Union (source, page 30).

Another fact, according to the CIA World Factbook, 95% of Haitians are either black or mulatto.  Some back of the envelope calculations reveals that the probability of a random immigrant being black is 83%.  Any action that the Dominican government takes that affects immigrants will have a large impact on black immigrants because they are the absolute majority of them.  Is that evidence of racism?

That is a good question for a reporter to ask.  How to answer it? Well, is every black immigrant being expelled from the country?  Local media reports that 288,000 immigrants were able to successfully apply to regularize their status and now have an opportunity to stay in the country. Are all of them white?

That's unlikely if we apply the same formula used above and assuming the same proportion, at least 240,000 of them are black people from Haiti.  That's where I retook my conversation with Mr. Planas when I asked the following:

I went and checked Mr. Planas entries at the Huffington Post and found the following:

I was at work, but in a break I read both pieces.  Apparently Mr. Planas was unable to find any of the 288,000 who the government claims successfully applied.  Checking his Twitter feed, I found the following entry:

In fact, he showed a few pictures of a march by cane cutters demanding residency and the payment of pensions.  I asked again, now with a little exasperation if he had been able to interview anyone who had successfully applied to regularize his/her status:

That exchange ended with the following tweet:

So we both moved on, but I couldn't get this conversation out of my head and this is the reason for this very long post.  This is because my understanding of reporting differs a lot from how Mr. Planas describes it.  Giving him the benefit of the doubt, I decided to look and see if the actual definition of a reporter is different from what I always thought it was (somebody that gather facts and transmit them to a larger audience, usually via a newspaper or other mean of publication).

I hate to use Wikipedia, but that's where I headed first and found the following definition:

reporter is a type of journalist who researches, writes, and reports on information to present in sources, conduct interviews, engage in research, and make reports. The information-gathering part of a journalist's job is sometimes called reporting, in contrast to the production part of the job such as writing articles. Reporters may split their time between working in a newsroom and going out to witness events or interview people. Reporters may be assigned a specific beat or area of coverage.
This definition matched closely with what I thought a reporter did, but like I said I don't trust Wikipedia a lot and I couldn't find a source for that particular definition.  So I kept looking and found this definition in the Houston Chronicle Website:

A reporter has a more specific function within the realm of journalism. Reporters are usually engaged in the direct gathering and communication of public information, usually through primary information sources such as first-person interviews, news conferences and attendance at news events. The material they communicate is usually -- but not always -- limited to the facts they have gathered; editorializing or sharing opinions on the news is not considered part of the reporter's role.[emphasis mine]
It's important to notice that the Houston Chronicle is one of the largest newspapers in the United States (in fact, the largest in the state of Texas).  It has a daily circulation of 360,000 copies (over a million for their Sunday edition) and 300 of its 2,000 employees are journalists and reporters.  We should presume that they know what they are talking about when it comes to their definition of a reporter.  And it does not seems that they agree with Mr. Planas that "Reporting for the most part is storytelling".

Now, I agree with Mr. Planas that what he is doing is storytelling, because its definition is "the telling or writing of stories".  Stories are in turn defined the following way:

  • A narrative, either true or fictitious, in prose or verse, designed to interest, amuse, or instruct the hearer or reader; tale.
  • A fictitious tale, shorter and less elaborate than a novel.
So I will accept Mr. Planas advice and move on.  It's clear that he and I have a difference of opinion regarding the role of a reporter.  But given that he is the one who works as one and is putting his reputation on the line I should defer to his understanding of what his role is.

I for one will heed my own advice and will from now on just continue to follow the news and read between the lines to try to find out the real facts behind the "stories".

NOTE: This post was update on June 26th to correct grammar errors.  Sorry, but I wrote the first draft really late at night and I was tired.

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