The Freedom to Inform

I am not really a reality show person. I haven’t really followed a TV series since Gilmore Girls ended. I don’t anxiously await the results of any sort of competition from week to week. 

However, I was enamoured by The Washington Post’s "Top Secret America" this week. The series, which ran Monday through Wednesday, sparked my interest in Freedom of Information issues. Despite my love of journalism and involvement with SPJ, I just have never been bitten by the FOI bug like I have been this week, thanks to the way the Post chose to present the information. I don’t even know why I clicked on the link in the first place, but for some reason that Post tweet really stood out from the constant news updates that make up my Twitter feed.

And from that moment on, I was hooked like a Lost fan.

I really admired their reporting, their dedication, their faith that investigative reporting is not dead (contrary to popular belief) and their insistance on excellence. Others have agreed that they will likely be up for a Pulitzer. Maybe it is just the community I am in at the moment, but I kind of feel like we are discussing Emmy nominations after seeing a really great movie.

Beyond the actual reporting, I was captured by the way the story was presented, both online and in print. As journalists across the world are realizing, it doesn’t matter how well we report something, if it doesn’t appear to be reader-friendly, no one will read it. The Post did the unthinkable – presenting a huge story to an American public that thrives on 140 character shots of news. The 30-second video streamed on the web is more common than the family around the radio or TV for the evening news hour.

Instead of presenting it well in only one medium, the Post presented their findings in a variety of ways with maps, charts, lists, databases, video (a documentary by Frontline will air in October), photos, tweets and (my personal favorite) a Q&A with Dana Priest and Bill Arkin, all in additon to the massive three-part story itself.

The Q&A was such a special time for a cub like me. I really enjoyed reading the feedback the reporters would get and how they reacted to it. For example, someone asked a question about ethical lines with an ad on a page. Priest responded that she didn’t have any control over the ad policies and hoped she never would. haha Such a reporter.

My favorite Q&A moment, of course, was when she answered my question. I asked how they decided on how to present the material. She said they wanted to prove that the web can be a legitimate source of information. Actually, she said it better than I could…. 

Q: I love the way you have conveyed the information. In this world of multimedia, tweets, online updates and short-form journalism, it is hard to present an in-depth piece like this. How did you decide how to present your coverage?

·         Dana Priest writes:

A: First, it had to be simplified so people without expertise could understand it; needed to boil it down to specific conclusions that the facts supported; needed to be written in a way that, we hoped, would keep people reading; needed a web component that was even more in-depth because we wanted to show, as our little experience within this series, that web journalism does NOT mean opinionated blather. It can mean more journalism, presented in a different fashion.

I agree, Ms. Priest. Thank you for helping to make it so.

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