Journalism gets fused with art

“Empathy — putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, a natural product of journalism — is now limited by our screens.”

Here we are, experiencing loss together, but we can’t gather. I can FaceTime you; I can text you puppy photos. But this process makes us that much more dependent on the phones we use for work, life, doomscrolling, and the other pandemic realities we desperately want to escape.

It’s like an apocalyptic movie where the credits never roll. And we’re still sitting there, staring at the screen.

We’re pushing journalism into that same 2-D world. When people finish consuming our work, much of it hard and depressing this year, they sit in their sadness, alone, that screen their only companion. Empathy — putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, a natural product of journalism — is now limited by our screens. Empathizing together is difficult, and it can often feel forced or exhausting. That’s a tough new normal, especially for those of us with “engagement” or “community” or “audience” in our job titles.

In 2021, I predict that more of the creative among us will turn to art to go beyond screens that will never be big enough.

When we tie our journalism to art, stories feel bigger than just you and your screen. Art naturally connects an audience that’s consuming something together: theatergoers, book clubs, music festival fanatics, crowds at comedy shows, dances, movie theaters, art galleries. The togetherness art brings — even if it’s brief — makes our work finally feel 3-D again, almost like a hug. Art is access, and it feels impactful when the communities we’re reporting on can access our work. I believe art makes our journalism better. I’ve been lucky to find myself as both a journalism–art organizer and observer this year. Here’s how the magic happens.

As an organizer

It was July, and artists with intellectual and developmental disabilities were sharing monologues with me — personal and deep — and even though I’d seen them in practice run-throughs, I was tearing up.

In that moment, I almost forgot we were on Zoom and that others were watching with me. The event was with ProPublica Local Reporting Network partner the Arizona Daily Star, part of reporter Amy Silverman’s investigation into services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in Arizona.

We’d been collaborating with Detour Company Theatre, a group that works with people who have cognitive and physical disabilities, and Rebecca Monteleone, an assistant professor in the disability studies program at the University of Toledo. Most of the performers workshopped their monologues with Monteleone in a storytelling course this summer.

Attendees were applauding the performers in the chat, and about 10 people shared their own stories with our team during the event. Live performance does this: We get bound together in shared experience.

The art from the summer helped me realize the importance of community accessibility, to the point that I recorded eight audio stories with a homemade audio setup when Part 1 of the investigation launched this year. That reading felt like its own kind of art, which I talked about in a Twitter thread here. In each story I recorded, I thought about the community: who it was for, why I was doing it — theater, but also journalism. Monteleone translated reporting into plain language, and we had a Spanish translation of the main story, too.

As an observer

The journalism–art community Venn diagram is everywhere. My colleague Shoshana Gordon worked with Make Studio in Baltimore to commission illustrations of people featured in the disability investigation, created by people with disabilities. Mona Chalabi’s data journalism is also art (I often find it on Instagram). This mural of COVID frontline workers at Domino Park in Brooklyn made me stop and reflect. Writer and artist Mari Andrew’s Instagram art is filled with slices of navigating pandemic life. After my colleagues at the Anchorage Daily News and ProPublica published a series of portraits and stories from sexual assault survivors in Alaska, the Anchorage Museum displayed those portraits and audio clips on the museum’s facade as a public installation. Hasan Minhaj’s monologue “We Cannot Stay Silent About George Floyd” inspired me to start writing my personal stories (as his work always does). And of course, The City’s incredible three-day virtual event memorializing New Yorkers lost to the coronavirus, which included poetry readings and workshops. During the event, I caught a performance from actors inspired by obituaries and felt that familiar pang in my heart, the goosebumps.

Most of these stories, I accessed through a screen. But they all felt 3-D to me.

Beena Raghavendran is an engagement reporter for ProPublica.

Here we are, experiencing loss together, but we can’t gather. I can FaceTime you; I can text you puppy photos. But this process makes us that much more dependent on the phones we use for work, life, doomscrolling, and the other pandemic realities we desperately want to escape.

It’s like an apocalyptic movie where the credits never roll. And we’re still sitting there, staring at the screen.

We’re pushing journalism into that same 2-D world. When people finish consuming our work, much of it hard and depressing this year, they sit in their sadness, alone, that screen their only companion. Empathy — putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, a natural product of journalism — is now limited by our screens. Empathizing together is difficult, and it can often feel forced or exhausting. That’s a tough new normal, especially for those of us with “engagement” or “community” or “audience” in our job titles.

In 2021, I predict that more of the creative among us will turn to art to go beyond screens that will never be big enough.

When we tie our journalism to art, stories feel bigger than just you and your screen. Art naturally connects an audience that’s consuming something together: theatergoers, book clubs, music festival fanatics, crowds at comedy shows, dances, movie theaters, art galleries. The togetherness art brings — even if it’s brief — makes our work finally feel 3-D again, almost like a hug. Art is access, and it feels impactful when the communities we’re reporting on can access our work. I believe art makes our journalism better. I’ve been lucky to find myself as both a journalism–art organizer and observer this year. Here’s how the magic happens.

As an organizer

It was July, and artists with intellectual and developmental disabilities were sharing monologues with me — personal and deep — and even though I’d seen them in practice run-throughs, I was tearing up.

In that moment, I almost forgot we were on Zoom and that others were watching with me. The event was with ProPublica Local Reporting Network partner the Arizona Daily Star, part of reporter Amy Silverman’s investigation into services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in Arizona.

We’d been collaborating with Detour Company Theatre, a group that works with people who have cognitive and physical disabilities, and Rebecca Monteleone, an assistant professor in the disability studies program at the University of Toledo. Most of the performers workshopped their monologues with Monteleone in a storytelling course this summer.

Attendees were applauding the performers in the chat, and about 10 people shared their own stories with our team during the event. Live performance does this: We get bound together in shared experience.

The art from the summer helped me realize the importance of community accessibility, to the point that I recorded eight audio stories with a homemade audio setup when Part 1 of the investigation launched this year. That reading felt like its own kind of art, which I talked about in a Twitter thread here. In each story I recorded, I thought about the community: who it was for, why I was doing it — theater, but also journalism. Monteleone translated reporting into plain language, and we had a Spanish translation of the main story, too.

As an observer

The journalism–art community Venn diagram is everywhere. My colleague Shoshana Gordon worked with Make Studio in Baltimore to commission illustrations of people featured in the disability investigation, created by people with disabilities. Mona Chalabi’s data journalism is also art (I often find it on Instagram). This mural of COVID frontline workers at Domino Park in Brooklyn made me stop and reflect. Writer and artist Mari Andrew’s Instagram art is filled with slices of navigating pandemic life. After my colleagues at the Anchorage Daily News and ProPublica published a series of portraits and stories from sexual assault survivors in Alaska, the Anchorage Museum displayed those portraits and audio clips on the museum’s facade as a public installation. Hasan Minhaj’s monologue “We Cannot Stay Silent About George Floyd” inspired me to start writing my personal stories (as his work always does). And of course, The City’s incredible three-day virtual event memorializing New Yorkers lost to the coronavirus, which included poetry readings and workshops. During the event, I caught a performance from actors inspired by obituaries and felt that familiar pang in my heart, the goosebumps.

Most of these stories, I accessed through a screen. But they all felt 3-D to me.

Beena Raghavendran is an engagement reporter for ProPublica.

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