Walking the streets, reporters notice religious presences that they never knew were there. The stroller gets to know the religious personalities, the habitat, and their congregants at work and play. Of course, this is a strength of any beat reporting. The value-added is that the on-the-street reporters are forced to notice religious actors and networks that they could never know by an over-emphasis on phone interviewing or forays for specific stories. Walking releases the curiosity, which is a type of muscle: the more you use it, the more it can do.
“A friend once told me,” recalls investigative reporter Katherine Boo, “that I find my stories because I never learned to drive. It’s true. I take the bus; I walk around. By being out there – not the driver of my story but the literal and figurative rider – I have the opportunity to see things that I would never otherwise see.” Boo won a Pulitzer Prize for her investigative series on group homes that started off with her notice of one such home as she was walking. Based on her experience, she advises young journalists to take journeys in the streets.
“Go to a place in your community that you don’t know very well, ride a few buses, get off them, explore, and ask yourself questions about what you see. I guarantee you will find something that the public doesn’t know about because too few journalists bother to make these trips anymore. It’s considered inefficient…Doing this work may involve some subversion of your editors…” You should follow editor and peripatetic religion reporter Walt Whitman’s advice, “Manhattan’s streets I saunter’d, pondering.”
A good example of the value for noticing religious phenomena by walking around your neighborhood is the response of A Journey to the destruction of a church and apartment building associated with the church and the death of several people by a gas explosion in East Harlem on March 12, 2014.
Although A Journey through NYC religions doesn’t usually cover breaking news, the staff felt a responsibility to cover this disaster because a few months before, Journey had visited the church and each of the other 186 religious sites in the area. Of course, the television news helicopters arrived over the smoking rubble quickly to give a bird’s-eye view. However, Journey’s street reporting gave it unique knowledge of the community before it was disrupted.
Because of their street reporting method, Journey staff knew what kind of church it was, the names and phone numbers of its leaders, and had photos that went beyond the widely published Google Street View. Journey also knew the church’s religious neighbors and other social service organizations.
In our first reporting phone calls to leaders of nearby churches Journey was able to parenthetically arrange offers of temporary housing for the church’s congregants and worship services. At the funeral of a mother and daughter killed by the explosion, Journey’s reporter was the only reporter allowed into the funeral. The husband and father of the victims came out to take the reporter through the police line with the comment, “Let her in; she’s with us.” Journey also was the only U.S. news media to know about and to report on the religious shrine set up by the mother’s father in southern Mexico.
A street-level approach to reporting on religion emphasizes the authenticity of the reports. There isn’t much blow-drying on any religion story so that it looks like it is an advertisement. On the other hand, because streetwise religion reporters don’t just show up when a scandal happens (churches claim that this is a too common of an occurrence), they can give a fuller picture of the religions in our city.
While studio work has its usefulness, spot visuals with hand held cameras and tripods better capture the spontaneous, outpouring of the religious spirit in New York City. This rough and ready aesthetic also fits a mobile strategy of journeying down the street for impromptu entrance into religion scenes.
Aestheticized news runs the risk of being over-determined by the producer’s emotions. Overly beautiful, harmonious portrayals detach religious personalities, events and groups from the reality of their contexts and tame religion into an animal in the cage of public relations. On the other hand, hype or snark can motivate the snap of the photo or shooting of the video, but these simulations of news emotions are really the selfish display of the reporter’s prominence while also losing the reality of the actors in the news. If not quite stick figures for decimating critical darts, the cartoons of hype or snark, or the make-believe people of public relations news reports, too often are still artificial simulations of reality. Reporters are too tempted to make the objects of news reporting into puppets pulled about by our strings of editorial godlikeness.
A better way for multi-media news aesthetics is to be guided by sympathetic objectivity in which the religious actors’ emotions, actions, gestures, views, strengths and failings take center stage as complex, real personages. If the reporter wants to enter onto this stage, then his or her real emotions, views, strengths and failures ought to be there too. Then, at least the reader can see the whole picture and decide accordingly.
However, the rough and ready recording of New York City’s religious reality is not unmediated nor can it be if the reporter is going to plunge into the depths of some aspect of the story. Some focus of the eyes, ears, and mind is necessary to reduce the noise so that a theme can be viewed. The reality of multiple perceptions, which comes across as so much noise if unfiltered, can also be included like alternative doors for the viewer. Such things as sidebars, interactive features, forward glances and backward retrospectives complicate the story while keeping things somewhat tidy.
Jacob Riis faced the dilemma of how to portray the misery of the poor immigrants’ lives without taking away their dignity. How can the reporter provoke sympathy without pity or recognition without voyeurism? Riis looked around for some way to do this. Reading through a German periodical, he noticed the announcement of an experiment with a flash-gun. Riis thought that if he could figure out how to make and use a flash gun, then he could take photos in the dark, cave-like conditions of ghetto homes that would show both the wretched conditions but also the dignity of people keeping house and tending to families.
So, he introduced flash photography into U.S. reporting as a way of instantaneously showing moments of every day dignity amidst squalor. He evoked not just the pity, but also the admiration for the downtrodden. Perhaps, this was his greatest accomplishment. We hope we can live up to that and use Riis’ standard by which to chasten ourselves when we are undermining the reality of religious people by making them cardboard cut outs.
See the previous feature in this series: