Why geography means a lot to journalists

A short guide to a more immersive narrative.

When I was at school, one of my teachers asked my classmates and I to write a journalistic piece to understand how the media works. The piece was part of a bigger project aimed at letting us get a glimpse of how non-classical school-like texts should be written.

Before giving us the assignment, she introduced us to some of journalism’s key elements such as doublechecking and interviews. I clearly remember that one of the first aspects the teacher introduced us to was what she called the “golden rule”, namely that whole 5W+H thing.

A scarce result for a priceless lesson.

As far as I know, I am the only person in that class who followed a journalistic path. Surely, a reason for such a scarce result was her obsession with location accuracy. She wanted us to be extremely clear about the place the fact we were writing about had taken place.

Something like “Yesterday in the neighbourhood I live in there was a car accident” really didn’t work properly.

We were supposed to provide something like “Yesterday in the northern corner of Piazza Re di Roma, a square between San Giovanni and Colli Albani, there was an accident with a car coming from the Eastern corner and a van coming from Via Appia Nuova”.

Well, that was a bit too much, maybe. But she really got the point. And, to be honest, that was the very beginning of my commitment to journalism, a job that is (and needs to be) extremely linked to the space we move in and — therefore — connected to geography, a subject I love still today.

Don’ tell. Explain, instead.

I often say and write that journalism should explain rather than tell. Over the years, I learned that we cannot explain what happens if our audience does not fully know where the stories we’re telling take place.

It’s not about the golden rule. It’s about letting people be immersed in what we are writing about.

Over the years, I learned that we cannot explain what happens if our audience does not fully know where the stories we’re telling happen. It’s not about the golden rule. It’s about letting people be immersed in what we are writing about.

There’s a huge difference between geography and the mere description of a place. According to National Geographic, geography is a science that analyses the places and the relationships between people and their environments.

This means that it’s not only about describing, but also about going in-depth and figure out the way the environment around us affects our own lives.

So, here is my question for you: how can we tell our sources’ stories and explain their importance in a bigger picture if we don’t understand the role that the space around them plays in their decision-making process?

I honestly believe that the answer is that we can’t.

Our five senses.

A similar input came from Robert Chesal, one of my journalism Professors in the Netherlands. He used to say that “you gotta look, hear, touch, breathe, smell and even taste all the places that mean something important to your sources”.

He was fully right.

However, I don’t believe that journalists are supposed to be geographers. All we journalists need is to understand what geography is about and try to develop a strong (or better, at least) sensibility towards the relationship between humans and the places they live in.

We should switch our focus from a superficial and old-school description to all the small and apparently meaningless details that define how people behave in that specific spatial context.

It might sound boring or, at least, like another of that silly and ridiculous competences we journalists are required to gain nowadays. But it’s actually a very fun thing to do, especially if you are that kind of real-life-nerd journalist, as I luckily am.

A practical guide.

I’ll give you some examples of what I mean by that. Last August, my editor Andrea Spinelli Barrile asked me to go to Berlin and write a long series about the city life 30 years after the Wall fell down. The first thing I thought was that this one would have been a great opportunity to develop my sensibility towards humans and their environment.

After all, the main subject here was the way an urban unification is still affecting a city and its inhabitants.

In Berlin geography is not a theory, but real life. There was a proper wall, people were stuck either in the East or in the West without communicating with each other. And despite the very short distance, everyday life conditions were deeply different.

Most importantly, some pieces of the Wall are still there.

Even though I was confused, I remembered that the Internet is our friend. For instance, I’ve found an unbelievably good GIS project called Memorial Landscape Berlin Wall which virtually shows what is left of the Wall.

Also, I managed to speak face-to-face to some eyewitnesses of the time and asked them to walk in the city after sitting in a bar.

It certainly is more complicated than usual (holding a microphone all the time while taking notes is not the best option, to be honest). But trust me, it is definitely worth it.

I got a very clear image of what being stuck in the East or in the West meant to those people because I have looked, heard, touched, breathed, smelled and even tasted their old lives.

I was able to literally walk on and in their lives.

What to do when you’re back.

Sadly, journalism is not only about being there and collecting good-quality stuff. It’s also about editing. Boring, I know, but there’s plenty of free tools that really help us out.

For instance, La Sapienza University in Rome used a tool called JuxtaposeSJ to describe the urban development in the Italian capital between 1954 and 2002. The city has major difficulties because of this phenomenon it still hasn’t dealt with.

The Berliner Morgenpost used the same tool to talk about the differences between Berlin in 1945 and 2015.

Example of what you can do with JuxtaposeSJ

JuxtaposeSJ is free, easy to use and embed. It allows us to give the audience an idea of what certain places were like in the past or before something disruptive like a war or building speculation came.

In other words, it pinpoints the historic evolution of a place, and helps describe how people’s perception has changed with reference to that specific place.

Well, this is geography.

Another great tool is StoryMaps. It lets us take the reader right in the place where things happen. The audience can in fact interact by clicking on a map and read what went on in that specific location.

It’s a great tool for complicated stories that talk about completely unknown places or take place in many different locations.

For example, the City Journal used it to tell the stories of world’s most expensive football player transfers, while the MinnPost wrote about the so-called Green Line.

I’ve never been to the Green Line, but one way or another I feel home here because I understand what those places mean to the people involved.

Well again, this is geography.

What I personally did.

StoryMaps is what I’ve used for the first episode of my story from Berlin. It really helped me keep track of all the attempts a source made to escape from the East to the West.

These are just examples, of course. But there’s a lot more to dig deep into.

We can use Google Earth and Google Maps (just think about the amazing journalism Bellingcat delivers), ArcGIS and a number of other digital tools.

Above all, we need to keep in mind that the on-field part and human relations we establish with our sources are the very heart of our job, even in the Internet era.

Basically, all we need is to get a pass at my schoolteacher’s assignment. The more details we provide about the place, the more complete our story will be.

So, we better get out there and see first-hand what geography really is.

Born in Rome in 1994, passionate about journalism and carbonara since then. Correspondent and Community Editor at Slow News: good, clean and fair reporting.

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