Inspiring and Informative: Unspeakable Conversations

Before reading Unspeakable Conversations, I had never even been aware that infanticide was a topic that people discussed. I have heard of those who believe that a woman should have the right to abort a fetus if it is disabled or believed to be suffering from some sort of mental or physical disability, but actually killing a living infant or child because of a disability is an argument that I (thankfully) have never come across.

I had also never read a story in this form. I was very honestly very intimidated when I was approaching this article because it is a long story with no breaking points in between. It goes against much of the writing techniques we’ve been taught in j202, but it works. It works so well that I don’t think this story would have quite the same effect in any other form. When I was reading it, I felt as if I was right there, listening to Harriet McBryde Johnson telling the story. Though I had never heard of her or Peter Singer, I could visualize them and the situation as if I had seen them every day of my life.

I was curious to learn more about both of the main characters in this story after reading Unspeakable Conversations, and was saddened to learn that Johnson, the author that moved me with this story, passed away suddenly in 2008, at age 50. The Post and Courier of Charleston, South Carolina said her sudden death stunned everyone in Charleston. They describe her as a strong woman, a fighter, but also as having a great sense of humor, and a love of passing people on the street with her power scooter.

The other character in this story, Peter Singer is still a professor at Princeton. Reading more about his beliefs and ideas, I am very confused as to how he could feel this way and so publicly say things like that he doesn’t consider handicapped children as people (paraphrased by Johnson in paragraph 3). An idea like this seems so monstrous to most people, and in fact Johnson refers to him as a monster and a Nazi in the story, names that those around her called Singer. The fact that he basically believes she shouldn’t have had the chance to live, and says this to Johnson, and yet she still by the end looks to him almost as a friend, says so much about who she was as a person.

I really enjoyed this reading. I not only learned about these important ethical issues that I had been previously unaware of, but also learned about a truly inspiring person. How she lived her life is amazing, and a real wake-up call to appreciate what we have, and to treat those around us with kindness and respect no matter what their abilities or their opinions are.


Going Live: Quality or Stupidity?


If Bill O’Reilly had read chapter 16 of Aim for the Heart by Al Tompkins, the American people would have never been gifted with the YouTube phenomenon that is Bill O’Reilly’s Inside Edition freakout.

In his chapter on how journalists can report ethically to minimize harm, Tompkins addresses questions every journalist should ask before going live. I’ll highlight a few of the most important questions in this post.

  1. The most important is “What are your motivations for going live?”

Tompkins uses September 11th as a perfect example of necessary live reporting. People both wanted and needed to know what was going on. The events according to Tompkins were of “vital public importance.” The live reporting on 9/11 also allowed the millions of people watching around the world to “quickly understand the scope and nature of the threat, even as the story was still unfolding,” according to Tompkins.

2. “Are you prepared to air the worst possible outcome that could result from this unfolding story?”

Fox News clearly was not prepared when they went live with a car chase during Shepard Smith’s show on September 28, 2012. The show had been cutting to the Phoenix, Arizona car chase periodically throughout Shep Smith’s hour long show, which airs at 3 p.m. EST. When a man emerged from the car being chased, Smith started narrating the man’s actions while viewers watched the live footage. The man shortly pulled out a gun and shot himself on live TV in front of millions of viewers. Smith yelled “Get off it!” and the show cut to commercial.

The show did have the footage on a five second delay, which Tompkins refers to as an “electronic safety net.” Smith and Michael Clemente, Fox News Vice President of News, both apologized for the disturbing scene. Clemente blamed the footage airing on “severe human error.”

3. “What factor does the time of day play in your decision to cover a breaking event?” 

Twenty-four hour news channels like Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN often rely on breaking live news to fill their endless amounts of time. These channels also usually reach a specific audience, such as the elderly, and other adults who are home during the day. Hopefully, not too many kids were watching Fox News when the disturbing image above was played. Local news and national news have to be more careful with live footage, as families often watch these programs together.

Going live is a risky practice for any journalist. Asking these questions can help avoid terrible situations like the one faced by Fox News in September. As Tompkins shows in this chapter of Aim for the Heart, reporting live without being adequately prepared can have dire consequences. It can also be a very stressful situation for everyone involved, including the journalist (lookin’ at you O’Reilly).

Worth a Thousand Words?: Graphics in Journalism

Al Tompkins’ discussion of graphics in chapter ten of Aim for the Heart proves that looks really do matter.

According to Tompkins, viewers only understand 1/3 of what they see on television (pg. 132). Graphics in news broadcasts need to be simple and to the point, but still pleasing to the eye.  Shapes are important in news graphics, as most people can understand certain images and signs with little to no explanation. Tompkins illustrates this point using a hippo crossing sign he saw in South Africa (pg. 130). The shape of the sign, along with the colors used, and the overall design enabled Tompkins to understand the sign completely without the use of a single word. An overabundance of graphics without explanation though, could create confusion.

Accuracy in graphics is just as important than the aesthetic aspects. Graphics, just as the story itself, should answer the who, what, when, where, why and how in the most concise way possible.  Relating a statistic, such as an extremely large number, to a visual thing an average viewer would understand creates a successful graphic.

Tompkins cites the MegaPenny Project as a great example of this. This website compares various amounts of pennies to other object. This website seems relatively pointless to me though. Who cares that ten million pennies would make a perfect 6 foot cube? It’s completely unrealistic for most people to imagine ten million pennies in a cube!

A much better example is the one Tompkins cites from Diane Sawyer’s 20/20 report where she relates finding a cancerous cell in a PAP smear to finding a certain type of car in a distant, massive parking lot. Everyone can understand this analogy, we’ve all seen huge parking lots. ABC News succeeded in this aspect again with this report on SAT scores. By using a soccer team as an analogy to describe how colleges determine admissions by SAT scores, ABC News took a very confusing topic and made it easy to understand to everyone, without requiring them to imagine how something would be stacked or weighed to be relatable to something else.

At my job at the Wisconsin Historical Museum, we had to take a self-inventory test to determine what kind of learner we are. I was an overwhelmingly visual learner, rather than auditory or kinesthetic learner. The rest of the staff also all identified as visual learners. We took this test to determine how we could best reach our audience. We act as educators at the museum who inform and entertain our audience, very similar to journalists. This test made me realize how important it is to use graphics and images not just in my museum tour, but in any situation where I need to explain something. Chapter ten of Aim for the Heart reinforced this idea by using powerful graphics itself!