Last summer, the magazine I edit published the story above, a long and in-depth piece looking at what happens with dyslexic children in Romanian schools. We believe that getting people to read and pay attention to a story tackling such a huge topic requires that we go deep inside the lives of individuals through which we navigate the landscape. (The story of one can stand in for the story of many).
The goal of this is to create empathy. The danger, often, – as Rowan Williams said in a lecture on empathy at Harvard – is that focusing narrowly on one person (especially in pieces about social issues) you only trigger the emotional response, which leads people to take action that takes care of their immediate discomfort, but doesn’t always trigger the cognitive response, which can generate larger-scale solutions. (This research on the moral molecule, empathy, and donations is an illuminating. // Williams also wrote a more convoluted and calm version of the Dobelli piece.)
If we accept the premise that journalism should help find ways for people to get involved, the challenge – both of the journalism itself, as well as of any way of involving the public – is to balance the emotional response and the cognitive response.
Let me go quickly through what we tried in both the journalism and the follow-up, and then see what we could have done more of/better.
The story. We had one character, Robert, who lives in a small town with his working class family. He was diagnosed late, the parents though he was lazy, the school didn’t offer any remedial classes. All in all, he somehow made it to VII-th grade with little to no progress. We also had a contrasting character, Ioana, who lived in the capital, had a wealthier family, was diagnosed early by good psychologists, her parents moved her into a private school, and paid for speech classes. She was the same age as Robert, and flourishing.
We didn’t want to leave it there, and we also looked into the systems: what made one school work, and the other not. We looked at the psychologists and therapists and found that schools in Romania are understaffed – a therapists would have to evaluate an average of 45 kids/day for 5 minutes each to get through all. We also looked at NGOs and associations involved in this space, and learned that their funding had dried up (they had done good work publishing special manuals, and training teachers). We also looked at the law and saw that it actually said everything it should – it was not implemented because it required both material resources, as well as more involvement from families.
This seemed like a complicated, but interesting set of conclusions. The law is good, but there are no resources. Some schools do good, but families need to learn about them.
It seemed like there was an entire universe of stakeholders that could all do a better job: kids, parents, teachers, administrators, lawmakers, doctors / therapists, NGOs.
The follow-up. We didn’t have a systematic approach to involve readers – it wasn’t something we had done before. We did publish it on our website immediately (which we don’t do), we gave out the contact details of the reporter (which we also don’t often do), and we did encourage people to reach out if they had ideas of how to help. This is how we got a few people reaching out to contact Robert’s family, and somebody donated an iPad, which Robert dreamed of.
The bigger thing we did is an event, where we tried to facilitate the interaction between some of our stories, and our readers. At the event, the reporter laid out the issues, and also presented a bulleted list of the needs of some of the relevant NGOs in the field. Unfortunately, most of the needs were in the realm of fundraising, and I don’t know exactly if something came out of it.
Looking back, here are some other things we could have done better to increase the potential of getting people involved. (I’m still working on these kinds of ideas, as it is a priority for us in the next year or so).
The story. Should have definitely used some of the tools and processes discussed in class:
- the way the system works could have been much clearer explained in infographics. The visual representation would have spotlighted more clearly where the system breaks;
- we could have created interactive elements that attempted to put the reader in the experience of a dyslexic kid – reading texts, writing texts etc.
- we could have used videos;
- in the style of solution/constructive journalism we could have more clearly did sidebars/breakouts on how various situations have been handled, and/or what best practices are around the world;
The follow-up. This is the more difficult part. The advocacy, if this is the word, is not (necessarily) the problem. It’s tougher to decide how you use resources, and whether you need to take over the lives/action of others (doctors/teachers/parents). That being said:
- we could have pointed to groups/ways to contact relevant stakeholders;
- certainly we could have pointed to the more traditional petitions/donations opportunities.
- we could have brought together all relevant stakeholders for a series of meetings, and moderate a conversation, and offer the results to the public. The journalist as a facilitator of dialogue seems an important role in a culture where stakeholders don’t read, take action (as it still happens in Western media).