Step by Step:
Decisions that Shape Meaning

Initially, debate about including the Pointe Coupee meeting story centered around news judgement:

“It’s a good story, but it’s not local,” said multimedia director Joel Beeson. He challenged the student reporters to relate this story to the stories of evacuees featured on the site and to West Virginia.

“Let the issue of race speak for itself,” advised project director, Bonnie Stewart, who favored including the content in a background piece for the main featured stories.

Suggestions to place the story in the “Dialogues on Race and Poverty” section were rejected as too contrived. We all agreed that the sudden appearance of a news story about a town meeting in Louisiana with no links to the rest of the site seemed awkward.

These are the kinds of conversations professional reporters and editors have as they decide whether to pursue or publish a story. We ask about news value. We think about audience. We consider the media and publishing venue. We talk about “packages.” We envision titles, blurbs and pull quotes. And on the Web and in the multimedia landscape, we map hyperlinks, navigation and interactivity.

The more we talked, the more we recognized that the story did have a place — but not as a conventional news story. Because we are journalism educators and students as well as reporters and editors, we recognized that our own anxiety about addressing race was a legitimate topic for examination in our site. Although most journalists try to keep themselves out of their work, readers often appreciate insight into the process of crafting a story. There is the story itself. And then there is the story of the storytellers.

Once we moved beyond the conventional story form and recognized the potential for telling a more complex, interwoven story in the multimedia environment of the Web, we were free to use nonlinear storytelling. In short, we followed the story where it led us.

We want to give our viewers the same opportunities we had — to explore the video footage and to navigate the decision-making that resulted in this section. One of the project’s student producers, Justin Weaver, walks you through this process:

Step-by-Step

News Judgement One of the first decisions in covering any event is asking the question: Is it newsworthy? Journalists have a series of litmus tests for making this call: Timeliness; impact; proximity; controversy; uniqueness. For us, the Pointe Coupee FEMA trailer story was timely, given the rise in a national discussion on race relations in Katrina’s aftermath. It clearly had an impact locally in Pointe Coupee, but we felt like the issue also would resonate with our audience in West Virginia, where residents had opened their homes and neighborhoods to evacuees.

We encountered this story after returning to New Orleans with the Greg and Glenda Avery (story link) as they reunited with family members in New Roads, La., about an hour and a half outside New Orleans. Here, we learned that race relations was on the agenda of an upcoming Police Jury meeting for Pointe Coupee Parish.

After hearing that the jury planned to vote us out of the meeting, we
We notified the Police Jury attorney that we were going to attending the public meeting with video cameras. Jury lawyer John Jewell notified us that if we came, we would be voted out of the meeting. This motivated us to head to the library to track down Louisiana’s open meeting laws. Armed with this information about our rights, we pursued the story.

Reporting It is not our job as reporters simply to transmit information. We gather and organize relevant information and then synthesize that data into a form that gives meaning and context and makes sense to an audience. For this story, Ivy Guiler and I positioned two video cameras on opposite ends of the meeting room in order to capture as much of the full discussion as possible. We didn’t know what would transpire, but we wanted to have as much footage as possible. This tactic proved to be effective for in filming capturing both the speakers and the reactions of those attending the meetings. If we had made different choices about camera placement, or only used one camera, resulting footage would have been different and less complete.

Following the meeting, the discussion unofficially spilled out in to the hallways where members of the public spoke about race for nearly two hours. Our goal was to get as many interviews as possible in order to show the complexity of the debate, so we followed the discussion into the hallway to capture this footage, too. If we had shut down the cameras with the meeting’s closing remarks, we would have missed content — and context — critical to the story.

Editing The final step was the most difficult for us — narrowing down hours of interviews into manageable stories that provided a balanced portrayal of the dialogue that took place. This was not simple. We had long discussions as to how the pieces should be edited and presented.

One option was to put together a standard television package that we would narrate. We did not like this idea for of two reasons: First, we wanted the people to tell their own stories in their own voices. Further, the time constraints in a conventional piece would not allow us to convey this story with adequate depth.

The second option was to put together a documentary- style video to post on the website. This would provide more time to tell the story, but we were concerned the editing would unintentionally sway the viewer to a particular viewpoint.

In the end, we decided to go with a more raw approach in which we allowed different elements of the storytelling to stand on their own and intersect with each other. To do this, we broke the entire footage into four parts, The Discussion, The Discussion Continues, Two Days Before the Meeting and After the Meeting. We also decided to provide transcripts and official minutes from the meeting so that viewers could navigate and access this content on their own terms.

Producing The Discussion contains segments from the meeting in chronological order because we wanted to show events in the sequence in which they happened, rather than run the risk of editing something together that could have been taken out of context.

The Discussion Continues focuses on the conversations that spilled out into the hallway after the race relations discussion was stopped and the Police Jury moved onto other business. This is one of my favorite pieces because I believe we captured how intensely each side wanted to be understood by the other side.

After the Meeting is revealing because throughout the interview, President Bueche of the Police Jury goes back and forth on whether race is an issue in the area. In contrast, in Two Days Before the Meeting, Jury member Albert Dukes is adamant in his belief that racism is a profound problem in his community.

I am proud of the choices we made in pursuing and presenting this story. I think the resulting package gives the viewer the most accurate story possible. As journalists, we want our work to appear seamless and to let content unfold in a way that is meaningful and accessible for the viewer. That was our goal — to let the story tell itself