Contextual Journalism

If journalists want to help us understand the world, they need to provide some context.

For example, an article about Brexit politics includes the sentence: “Vince Cable, leader of the Liberal Democrat party and an arch opponent of Brexit, [criticized] the announcements and their timing.”

Since many readers don’t know who Vince Cable is, the information about his position and views are necessary to help make sense of the quote. Without it, for most readers the sentence would translate to: “Someone criticized the announcements and their timing.” Which of course is not particularly useful or interesting.

However, news reports rarely provide this type of context for numbers. For example, many recent stories cover the news that “the president is demanding $5 billion in funding for a border wall” but very few of them include the context needed to understand that number. Is $5 billion a lot or a little in this scenario? For most readers, the sentence may as well be: “The president is demanding a number of dollars.”

For the same reason audiences need context for people and places, we need context for numbers. Here’s an attempt at the version I would like to see: “The president demanded $5 billion in funding for a border wall — triple the amount spent in 2018 on border walls and a 16% increase in overall federal spending on immigration and border security.”

I’m not asking for full-on data journalism here — just a small bit of additional information to put things in context. One or two points of comparison with basic arithmetic would be a major step forward.

I created a few more examples:

“The terrorist attacks of 9/11 killed 2996 people — comprising about one third of US deaths on that day and 2% of all mortal injuries that year. (By comparison, 42,443 US residents died in 2001 in car accidents.)” [Data from CDC]

“Researchers estimate that US involvement in the war in Iraq cost $750 billion from 2003-2010, or 3% of the federal budget during those years. (This was 200 times the amount spent on traffic safety.)”

In these examples, I tried to provide some balance by including both a larger and smaller point of reference. I also did my best to choose comparisons that most people would agree are relevant (perhaps slightly less so in the parentheticals). Of course, judgement and subjectivity is involved in choosing which comparisons to include — just like any other aspect of journalism, which always involves choices about which stories to report and which facts to highlight.

I had to spend significant time searching through documents to find the data I wanted for my comparisons — enough work to reinforce the idea that it’s unreasonable to expect casual news audiences to do this spontaneously, but not so difficult that it seems to present a major barrier to a professional newsroom. Much of what’s needed is basic government data on population statistics, economics, health, spending, etc., which can be reused across many stories. And experts already being interviewed for a story may know which metrics would provide useful context in their field.

Perhaps there’s resistance because context can make a story less sensational. “$5 billion” sounds more impressive than “a fraction of a percent of the federal budget”. But of course that’s part of why I want contextual journalism in the first place — I’m tired of hype. I’m looking for an accurate picture of what’s happening in the world.

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Compassionate Journalism

“When we settle our attention on other people’s feelings and needs, we experience our common humanity. … I’ve learned that I enjoy human beings more if I [focus] on what’s going on in their hearts and [don’t get] caught up with the stuff in their heads.”

-Marshall Rosenberg (Nonviolent Communication, p.151)

Lately I’ve been wondering what it would look like to create a news source based on the practices of compassionate communication. What would it be like to report the news in a way that focuses attention on people’s feelings and needs rather than their judgements and opinions?

As an experiment, I started re-writing an existing news article and quickly realized that the effort would require going back to the source and performing new interviews — asking a different set of questions to try to uncover what the various parties were feeling and needing.

So for the next experiment, I took one of Marshall Rosenberg’s dialogues as the basis for a hypothetical news segment. Here is part of the interview:

Palestinian crowd: “Murderer! Assassin! Child-killer!”

American interviewer: “Are you angry because you would like my government to use its resources differently?”

Palestinian man: “Damn right I’m angry! You think we need tear gas? We need sewers, not your tear gas! We need housing! We need to have our own country!”

Interviewer: “So you’re furious and would appreciate some support in improving your living conditions and gaining political independence?”

Man: “Do you know what it’s like to live here for twenty-seven years the way I have with my family—children and all? Have you got the faintest idea what that’s been like for us?”

Interviewer: “Sounds like you’re feeling very desperate and you’re wondering whether I or anybody else can really understand what it’s like to be living under these conditions. Am I hearing you right?”

Man: “You want to understand? Tell me, do you have children? Do they go to school? Do they have playgrounds? My son is sick! He plays in open sewage! His classroom has no books! Have you seen a school that has no books?”

Interviewer: “I hear how painful it is for you to raise your children here; you want what all parents want for their children—a good education, opportunity to play and grow in a healthy environment…”

Man: “That’s right, the basics! Human rights—isn’t that what you Americans call it? …”

How might a journalist report on her experience in Palestine?

  • Palestinians View American Involvement as Child Murder
  • Palestinians Furious Over American Participation In Conflict
  • Palestinians Request Desperately Needed Supplies and Infrastructure

All of these versions are equally true — they just emphasize different aspects of the truth. The first reports on what people are thinking; the second reveals what people are feeling; and the third focuses on what people are needing and requesting.

I can feel the wide disparity in my own reactions to these headlines. The first puts me on the defensive (as an American), with tightening muscles and a desire to hurl my own accusations. The second feels more neutral; a description of an emotion. And reading the third, I soften as I imagine the difficult situation.

The news is not simply an impartial collection of facts. It reflects a series of choices about which facts are included and how they are framed. Compassionate communication demonstrates how to look for shared human experience rather than judgements and blame. It seems possible to me that by focusing on the human needs driving current events, compassionate journalism could actively promote empathy toward a wide range of people and situations.

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The Cynic

“The [person] who looks least engaged may be the most committed member of the group. A cynic, after all, is a passionate person who does not want to be disappointed again.”

-Benjamin Zander, The Art of Possibility (p.39)

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“People are used to hearing blame. Sometimes they agree with it and hate themselves—which doesn’t stop them from behaving the same way—and sometimes they hate us for calling them racists or whatever—which also doesn’t stop their behavior.”

-Marshall Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication (p.152)

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The paradox of loneliness

“One of the tragic ironies of modern life is that so many people feel isolated from each other by the very feelings they have in common.”

-Sir Ken Robinson
(as quoted in Brené Brown, Rising Strong)

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Doing our best

“[I’ve found that] my life is better when I assume [that] people are doing the best they can with the tools they have. … It keeps me out of judgment and lets me focus on what is, and not what should or could be.”

-Brené Brown (Rising Strong p. 108-113,
quote attributed to her husband Steve)

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The myth of closure

“There is no such thing as closure. … Once you’ve become attached to somebody, love them, care about them — when they’re lost, you still care about them. … I don’t like to use the word ‘acceptance’, but I think we can try to be comfortable with what we cannot solve.”

-Pauline Boss (via On Being)

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Compassionate thinking

“While studying the factors that affect our ability to stay compassionate, I was struck by the crucial role of language and our use of words. [However], Nonviolent or Compassionate Communication (NVC) is more than a process or a language. On a deeper level, it is an ongoing reminder to keep our attention focused on a place where we are more likely to get what we are seeking…. The essence of NVC is in our consciousness of the four components, not in the actual words that are exchanged.”

-Marshall Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication (p. 2-8)
(italics mine)

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“One sign that I am violating my own nature in the name of nobility is a condition called burnout. Though usually regarded as the result of trying to give too much, burnout in my experience results from trying to give what I do not possess — the ultimate in giving too little! Burnout is a state of emptiness, to be sure, but it does not result from giving all I have: it merely reveals the nothingness from which I was trying to give in the first place.”

-Parker Palmer (Let Your Life Speak, p.49)

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“Americans… resist the very idea of limits, regarding limits of all sorts as temporary and regrettable impositions on our lives. Our national myth is about the endless defiance of limits: opening the western frontier, breaking the speed of sound, dropping people on the moon, discovering ‘cyberspace’ at the very moment when we have filled old-fashioned space with so much junk that we can barely move. We refuse to take no for an answer.

“Despite the American myth, I cannot be or do whatever I desire… there are some roles and relationships in which we thrive and others in which we wither and die.

“If I try to be or do something noble that has nothing to do with who I am, I may look good to others and to myself for a while. But the fact that I am exceeding my limits will eventually have consequences. I will distort myself, the other, and our relationship — and may end up doing more damage than if I had never set out to do this particular ‘good’.”

-Parker Palmer (Let Your Life Speak, p.42-46)

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“Authentic abundance does not lie in secured stockpiles of food or cash or influence or affection but in belonging to a community where we can give those goods to others who need them — and receive them from others when we are in need. … Abundance is a communal act… in which each part functions on behalf of the whole and, in return, is sustained by the whole.

“Community doesn’t just create abundance — community is abundance.”

-Parker Palmer (Let Your Life Speak, p.108)

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The spiritual journey

“In the deeps are the violence and terror of which psychology has warned us. But if you ride these monsters down, if you drop with them farther over the world’s rim, you find what our sciences cannot locate or name, the substrate, the ocean, …the unified field: our complex and inexplicable caring for each other, and for our life together here. This is given. It is not learned.”

-Annie Dillard (as quoted in Palmer, Let Your Life Speak, p.80)

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Adding a delay to the end of an animated gif

I converted a screen recording to a looping animated gif. It looked and played fine, but I also wanted it to pause for a few seconds at the end before starting the loop again. I couldn’t find an easy way to do this using online tools without increasing the file size of the result.

I eventually figured out how to add the delay using the open-source command-line tool gifsicle. Here is the command:

gifsicle -U original.gif "#0--2" -d200 "#-1" -O2 > with-delay.gif
  • The -U option unoptimizes the input gif so that we can operate on individual frames.
  • -d specifies the delay to use in hundredths of a second.
  • “#0” format specifies a frame number or range of frames. Negative numbers count backwards from the last frame, starting with #-1. So the range from the first to second-to-last frame is #0 to #-2 or “#0–2”.
  • -O2 (capital letter O) directs gifsicle to re-optimize the gif using recommended settings.

In summary, this command unoptimizes (-U) the original gif into its component frames; then says we want a new gif with the first frame through the second-to-last frame (#0–2) unchanged and the last frame (#-1) with a new delay of 2 seconds (200 hundredths of a second); and finally specifies that we want to re-optimize the result (-O2).

Thanks to the gifsicle manual and a reddit user for helpful hints.

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Microwave cooking frozen fish

I don’t think it’s widely known that (1) you don’t need to defrost fish before cooking, and (2) microwave cooking is not only fast and easy but yields better-tasting, melt-in-your-mouth results (at least for hapless chefs like me).

Most “fresh” fish sold in grocery stores is actually defrosted frozen fish. So it seems to me that you may as well just buy it frozen and let it sit in your freezer until you’re ready to cook. At that point, defrosting is time-consuming and smelly, so you may as well just cook it from frozen.

After doing some internet research and experimenting with frozen salmon and cod fillets, I feel it is my civic duty to share with the world the easiest, least messy, and most delicious way to cook fish.

  1. Rinse the frozen fillet in warm water to remove its crust of ice, then pat dry with a paper towel.
    (Do not skip this step! I learned this the hard way. The fish interior will not cook if there is too much ice/water on the outside. Also: you need to pat-dry the fish quickly or else the paper towel will stick.)
  2. Place the fillet on a plate. Drizzle with oil, salt, pepper, and any spices you want.
    (I often just spread coconut oil with a little salt and pepper and maybe some dried sumac. The internet is full of ideas… pesto, sriracha, mayonnaise, lemon, parsley… just be aware that too much water content will affect the cooking.)
  3. Cover the plate lightly.
    (It does not need to be airtight. I just use a normal plastic microwave cover.)
  4. Microwave on full power for 4 minutes.
    (This works well for an 8oz fillet in a 1000-watt microwave. A large fillet needs an extra minute or two of cook time.)
  5. Wait 1-2 minutes after the microwave stops. Then check the interior with a fork for uncooked areas (they appear translucent or bright). If there are uncooked areas, microwave again for 1 minute and wait 1 minute.
    (The reason for waiting is that the heat inside the fish continues to cook for a while even after the microwave stops.)

Over time you get a feel for how long you need to cook different fillet sizes in your microwave. The goal of course is for it to come out fully cooked (but not overcooked) after the first microwave session. In my 1000-watt microwave, 4-5 minutes is usually enough (plus the 1-2 minutes of waiting).

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Interactive blog post

I updated my javascript library and blog to play well together.

That means I can illustrate a point about interest rates with an interactive widget for you to play with. (Go ahead, try it!)

(For more details, see the Visual Loan Calculator.)

It’s all part of the vision to make it easier to communicate using the tools of explorable explanations.

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Religion from the perspective of game theory

Religion serves many purposes, but I’ve come to believe that one of the most important is helping people cooperate with each other. “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”

Many religions label behaviors that serve the community as “good” and those that are overly self-serving or detrimental to others as “evil”. Individuals are often cast as having a “light side” and a “dark side” or dual influences from “god” and “satan”. Religion helps and encourages people to engage in the former type of behaviors.

Robert Wright realized that we can insightfully describe this using the language of game theory.

Specifically, some situations are “zero-sum” or “win-lose”, meaning that one person’s gain is the other’s loss. For example, if there is only one rabbit to eat, then if I eat it, you go hungry.

Other situations are “non-zero-sum” or “win-win” meaning that cooperation results in gains for both people. For example, if we can only catch rabbits by working together, then cooperation is what allows us both to eat — cooperation leads to abundance.

Humans are equipped to handle both types of situations. If we sense a zero-sum situation, hormones like cortisol flood our body and we become protective, aggressive, and narrow-minded. If we sense a non-zero-sum situation, hormones like oxytocin flood our body and we become generous, caring and creative.

I’ve come to believe that one of the key insights at the core of all successful religions is that nearly every situation can been seen as non-zero-sum. In other words, we can nearly always apply creativity to find win-win solutions (which generate abundance) even if a situation at first seems clearly win-lose. The key hurdle is that our ability to be creative and generous depends on our non-zero-sum hormones being activated. In other words, this is a self-fulfilling prophesy where believing that a situation is win-win is required to put us in the right state of mind and body to figure out what set of actions will make it win-win.

Viewed in this light, many (even most?) religious and spiritual practices are ways of maintaining that community-oriented, win-win mindset. For example, an emphasis on forgiveness helps us return to a cooperative stance with a person who has betrayed our trust. A practice of gratitude inspires us with past examples of generosity and abundance. A weekly gathering helps us stay connected and aware of the community which we all depend on.

It makes sense to me that successful religions became successful in part because they helped communities cooperate and create more win-win solutions leading to abundance, relative to religions which were less effective at promoting cooperation and whose communities thus missed out on valuable opportunities.

The Dalai Lama has often said, “My religion is kindness.”

I’ve come to believe that this has a sound basis in mathematics.

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“A tool can give you something concrete that you can imagine using, but a tool is not going to give you persistence… it’s not going to tell you which path to take. It’s not going to give you mettle… when everything feels like it’s been destroyed around you, you can’t just pull out a tool… Where do we nourish and foster the creative imagination that permits you to bring into the world something that does not now exist?”

-John Paul Lederach (via On Being)

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“There is a whole section in the bookshop called ‘self-help,’ but there is no section called ‘help others.’ The irony is that success and joy actually come from the service we offer to others. It’s not ‘How can I lose ten pounds?’ — it’s ‘How can I help my friend feel healthy and strong?’ It’s not ‘How can I find my dream job?’ — it’s ‘How can I help someone I care about find their calling?’ It’s the act of service, not the selfish pursuit, that actually helps us solve the same problems we may face in our own lives more effectively.”

-Simon Sinek, Together is Better (p. 131)

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The Non-Doing Paradox

“The flavor and the sheer joy of non-doing are difficult for Americans to grasp because our culture places so much value on doing and on progress. Even our leisure tends to be busy and mindless. The joy of non-doing is that nothing else needs to happen for this moment to be complete. The wisdom in it, and the equanimity that comes out of it, lie in knowing that something else surely will.

“It reeks of paradox. The only way you can do anything of value is to have the effort come out of non-doing and to let go of caring whether it will be of use or not. Otherwise, self-involvement and greediness can sneak in and distort your relationship to the work, or the work itself, so that it is off in some way, biased, impure, and ultimately not completely satisfying, even if it is good.”

-Jon Kabat-Zinn
(Wherever You Go, There You Are, p.38-39)

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One observation from Radical Honesty by Brad Blanton has stuck with me. He writes:

“More lawyers have come to me for therapy than have members of any other profession, and it’s not coincidence, since so much of their training is to learn to live by rules. One important rule they try to live by is that the proper way to be angry is to have a fight using the rules. They often try to do this in their private lives, with complete lack of success. Perpetual arguing to convince others of the rightness of your case doesn’t work worth a damn in personal relationships, and we all know it but can’t seem to stop.” (p.21)

I thought this was fascinating. You’d expect lawyers and the legal system to be a reasonable place to look for ideas about how to resolve conflicts. Indeed I have repeatedly done so in the past, in both home and work settings. But if I’m being honest, Blanton got it right — my attempts tended to fail miserably, leaving me confused and deflated.

It’s only recently that I’ve come to understand that resolving conflicts has absolutely nothing to do with arguing a case. Quite the opposite, it is a creative process of collaboratively inventing new solutions that have the potential to meet everyone’s needs.

The courts are built on punishments, blame, winners, and losers. Conflict resolution is built on a search for opportunity and shared goals.

The two have essentially nothing in common except that they are both methods of dealing with a dispute.

I think it’s telling that our legal system evolved directly from the methods used by kings and patriarchs to issue decisions. We merely replaced the sovereign with a set of laws, interpreted by judges and juries. We the people hold the power to create the laws (at least in theory), but we remain subjects of those laws and juries, just as we used to be subjects of the king. If we do not follow the rules, we are judged and punished by an outside arbiter. The rule of law.

There are many reasons why this doesn’t work well anymore, at least in normal life. For one thing, we want to be free, autonomous adults — not subjects to an outside authority (not even one called “fairness” or “justice”). For another, the technique of punishment focuses our minds on fear, scarcity, and self-protection, all of which work against any quest for peace and reconciliation.

Of course, fighting it out in a courtroom is preferable to fighting it out on a battlefield. And trial by jury is certainly preferable to the whims of the monarch. But do we really need to be fighting at all?

Could we be using some of that energy instead on inventing new ways of living together and helping each other such that people feel less compelled to commit crimes in the future?

This is the direction known as restorative justice and it is clearly on to something.

Perhaps the spouses of lawyers have known it all along.

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A friend was recently telling me about a frustrating encounter they had had with a relative.

“I was trying to have an open-minded discussion but it became clear that their political beliefs were simply whatever the NRA endorsed. How was I supposed to engage with that? It left no room for debate.”

I suspect a lot of people have found themselves in a situation similar to this. We’d like to be able to talk with people on the other side of the political spectrum but cannot seem to find a bridge. I tried to bring to mind what I’ve learned about nonviolent communication. What question could be asked that would invite connection rather than judgement and conflict? Something that would reflect our genuine curiosity? Something that would honor the fact that everyone is the expert of their own experience?

How about this:

“Why is the NRA so important to you?”

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“We spend our lives rushing around hardly pausing
to breathe” my friend said. “Are we
human beings or human doings?”

I wondered the same as I sat
at a committee meeting listening
as the debate circled back for the third
or fourth time.

And yesterday at the department of motor vehicles
as a representative reached for a form,
assisting the gentleman twenty six ticker spots
ahead of me

And as I drove home, stopping behind
a woman cautiously awaiting an opportunity
to turn left

While a crane leisurely hoisted a beam
into its place on a new overpass, then meandered back
to the pile where a few thousand more
were ready

And this morning as I sat at the window
watching the birds in the soft morning light
as a light snow fell around them.

I think I am both.

A human being
And a human doing

(inspired in part by “The Present” by Billy Collins,
from The Rain in Portugal)

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Language of control

“Life-alienating communication both stems from and supports hierarchical or domination societies, where large populations are controlled by a small number of individuals to those individuals own benefit. It would be in the interest of kings, czars, nobles, and so forth that the masses be educated in a way that renders them slavelike in mentality. The language of wrongness, should, and have to is perfectly suited for this purpose: the more people are trained to think in terms of moralistic judgments that imply wrongness and badness, the more they are being trained to look outside themselves — to outside authorities — for the definition of what constitutes right, wrong, good, and bad. When we are in contact with our feelings and needs, we humans no longer make good slaves and underlings.”

-Marshall Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication (p.23)

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The building blocks of community, as outlined by Peter Block (in his book Community: The Structure of Belonging) and summarized for the Enlivening Edge community conversations:

  • Invitation rather than mandate
  • Possibility rather than problem-solving
  • Ownership rather than blame
  • Dissent rather than resignation and lip service
  • Commitment rather than barter
  • Gifts rather than deficiencies

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To be

In the entire history of the world, not one person has ever chosen to be born. It’s simply not a power we have. We’re a planet composed of people who found ourselves here and are doing our best to make the most of it.

All this is obvious, yet it’s just so existentially strange.

I suppose the uneasiness many people feel about birth control has to do with this. Deciding to have or not have children really is a way of playing god.

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