The details in reporting on life.and death

Lesley Ciarula TaylorAfter watching the graphic video of the young Iranian Neda Agha-Soltan dying, The Toronto Star’s Lesley Ciarula Taylor questions how storytelling is changing and if spotting the telling details is a dying art in journalism.

Among the most important things to learn about the video of the young Iranian Neda Agha-Soltan dying is that life is nothing like the movies.

Real death is more gruesome, more erratic, more chilling.

I’ve watched the cellphone video of Neda Agha-Soltan dying several times and each time it’s a surprise. Each time, I see something different. The eyes, wide and staring. The blood that comes suddenly. The men around her gagging, recoiling.

Within hours, the graphic videos were posted on YouTube, and broadcast repeatedly on TV. They revealed only the images of the final second of her life: a woman shot in the chest as she was walking down a street in Tehran, caught by a bullet intended for someone else, equally young, protesting the outcome of the Iranian election. But details about her life and circumstances of her death are missing from the horrifying video, details that if reported, produce a journalistic story.

And that’s why good journalism is so fundamental to our modern lives. We are supposed to be the people who tell the rest of the world what real life is like.

The sun was shining, but it doesn’t matter quite so much. The story is in the details.
You could argue that the video camera told the story with all its horror of Agha-Soltan’s death but that’s a tangent for people who like to bicker. Video cameras can’t be everywhere — not yet, anyway — and they can only point in one direction at a time. A journalist can spin around and take it all in without having to adjust the focus.

Here’s where the talent and training come in.

I was reminded of this when pressed into online writing of the city of Toronto municipal workers’ strike. As breaking stories go, it wasn’t the explosion of the space shuttle, but it still required updating, fresh information and conveying a sense of what was going on from Kipling to Kennedy.

Talking to reporters in the field, I had to ask over and over: “What do you see? How high is the pile? What colour are the bags? What are the pickets saying? What does it smell like? What do you hear?”

It all resonated with my husband, who had done the same job for The Star during the Sunrise Propane explosion last year, a far more fast-moving and complicated story.

“I basically had to interview them when they called,” he said. “Just tell me what you see.”

Could it be a lost art, this seeing the telling details, because we think the public is going to take up the slack using things like YouTube, cell phone cameras and blogs? Could it be the impossible-to-please assignment editors who kept our hearts in our throats are softening up?

Could it be that story-telling is changing and I’d better figure out how to change with it?

On the other end of this precarious balancing we do each day is the writer who is all colour, nicely stitching phrases with cadence and drama and a little bit of dialogue. But what actually happened? Ah, well, there wasn’t room for that.

Having been on both sides of the delete key, the writing and the editing, I know that adjectives and the telling details are often the first to go when a story is cut. And we’re still learning how to use all of our space: print, online, video, airwaves, with confidence that it’s all part of the story.

I confess, I’ve never used a tape recorder. Too distracting and too time-consuming to transcribe. I’ve thought of using my cell camera for visual notes, but until they have one with a head that swivels, I’ll stick to talking to myself about what’s going on.

We can only hope that when we’re there and the video camera isn’t, we can do it justice.

Lesley Ciarula Taylor has been a journalist for 33 years in three countries for newspapers and wire services. She currently covers the immigration beat for The Toronto Star.