My journalist friends on Facebook have been asking each other “remember when?’’
Today is the 25th anniversary of the space shuttle Challenger explosion that killed seven crew members, including Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher chosen to go into space. My Facebook feed has been filled with Florida journalists recalling how they were dispatched to the Cape to begin reporting or rushed into the office to start working the phones.
Like most people my age, I remember exactly where I was – and for once, it wasn’t a newsroom. I was at home in Tennessee on vacation. I heard the news on the car radio.
It seems impossible that it has been 25 years since that day. Reading people’s remembrances of it made me think about how the most traumatic news stories burn themselves so deeply into our experience that we can remember where we were and how we first heard the news.
It is the how we heard it part that intrigues me, and that I think requires us to think more purposely about the role of journalism in a digital age. I’m not thinking so much about the medium through which we get the news, but the ways in which we process what we’re seeing and hearing.
For two of these searing news events in my lifetime – Challenger and 9/11 – I was alone when I learned what was happening. In both instances, my first impulse was to get somewhere where I could be around other people. The news was so overwhelming, so unexpected, that I needed to watch it unfold with others. I needed to talk and to listen. I needed, as the towers fell on 9/11, to just stand in utter silence with a roomful of people who where just as shocked as I was.
News is a communal experience. We remember that when the horrific happens, when we all gather around the television set together. But it is true of all news of any import.
What is the first thing you want to do when you read a story that amuses or angers you? You want to tell someone about it. Reading or watching it is only half the experience; the human impulse is to share it.
What is different now from that day 25 years ago when the Challenger exploded is the ease with which we can share the experience. When I was a reporter, I did more “man on the street’’ stories seeking to gauge reaction to a news event than I care to remember. Now, user comments allow reporters to tap into that conversation in real time – and, when used properly, allow them to feed back details and help the community fact-check reaction.
Social media has created ways for us to connect across time zones and geographic barriers, in real time. No longer do I have to stand in a newsroom to feel connected to friends and colleagues as news unfolds. When Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot in Tucson earlier this month, I was immediately connected to the reaction and thoughts of friends and colleagues through Facebook.
All of this means that we have to approach journalism differently, as a dialogue from the moment we begin covering a story instead of as a lecture in which we seek input only after we are finished conveying our thought.
When I was a young reporter I had an editor who told me to think of myself as writing my stories to a single person, who was opening the newspaper over the kitchen table. If that ever was the right model, it certainly isn’t any more. If I were a reporter now, I’d think of myself as feeding into a conversation, one that started before I was on the scene and will continue after I’m gone.
I’d view my job as helping to enable the very human impulse when it comes to news: the impulse to share it.
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