Shooting Ghosts: Discussing war, trauma and recovery with T.J. and Finbarr

After years in different combat zones, photographer Finbarr O’Reilly and Sgt. T.J. Brennan ended up together in Afghanistan. Their bond, forged under fire, has been renewed as they face the painful aftermath of combat back home. Sgt. Brennan has turned to writing in his quest to overcome post-traumatic stress disorder and is now a frequent contributor to the New York Times At War blog. O’Reilly uses his Nieman fellowship at Harvard to study psychology and the impact of trauma on mind and body. Now, both are collaborating on a book.

On Monday, I was in a conversation with T.J. Brennan and Finbarr O’Reilly to talk about their story of friendship, loss, struggle and recovery. Here is the full video of two remarkable men discussing their experiences.



Editing for Nieman Reports

Tickled to see that the Nieman Reports summer 2012 issue, for which I produced a cover package on truth in the age of social media, is being read and discussed! It’s been very inspiring to think this through and work with some truly terrific colleagues who agreed right away to share their observations, struggles and tricks so we can enrich and push an important conversation about how journalism is changing. Here is the issue, and below are some responses, and make sure you join the conversation on twitter at #NRtruth

  • The Poynter Institute’s Craig Silverman, a contributor to the issue, called the “exhaustive cover package” a “state of the art crib sheet of best practices” for vetting information. In addition, his Poynter colleague Bill Mitchell tweeted that Storyful founder Mark Little, in his piece “Finding the Wisdom in the Crowd,” “makes [a] compelling case for collaboration [with] competitors as well as non-journalists.”
  • NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen highlighted Linda Greenhouse’s article on the perils of seeking balance over truth, tweeting “Bit by bit the ‘he said, she said’ glacier is breaking off and crashing into the sea … The practitioners themselves balk.”
  • On his iRevolution blog, Patrick Meier, former director of Harvard’s Program on Crisis Mapping, highlighted some of the issue’s “gems,” including “Inside the BBC’s Verification Hub.”

Global Interests, Local Failures

Peruvian miners turn rain forest into wastelands. Corruption and mismanagement keep West Africans from clean drinking water. Hear these and other stories from international journalists who are mapping the impact of globalization on people and the planet.

Join us Thursday evening, April 12, for a panel discussion on what it takes for journalists to accurately tell international stories that have economic, scientific, cultural, political and public health impact; and how these complex, global subjects are still being covered well, even as journalism reinvents itself online and via social media. Our panelists will be:

Ameto Akpe is the foreign affairs and energy correspondent for BusinessDay newspaper in Nigeria. Akpe’s recent reports expose mismanagement of the country’s water resources.
Stefanie Friedhoff (moderator) is special projects manager at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. A 2001 Nieman Fellow, she also is a freelance journalist and science writer for U.S. and European media.
Tom Hundley is senior editor at the Pulitzer Center. He spent 21 years at the Chicago Tribune, including 18 years as a foreign correspondent that took him to more than 60 countries.
Cristine Russell is a science writer with three decades of experience. She is a contributing editor for Columbia Journalism Review, a correspondent for, and president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. She is an adjunct lecturer at HKS and senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science & International Affairs.
Stephen Sapienza is an Emmy Award-winning news and documentary producer who has reported human security stories from across the globe for PBS NewsHour, Al Jezeera, and CNN. His recent work focuses on the impact of extractive industries and access to clean water.

This program is part of the Nieman Foundation’s collaboration with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting in Washington, D.C., and will feature two ongoing Pulitzer Center reporting projects:

Global Goods, Local Costs,” which assigns journalists around the world to trace the hidden costs for both people and the environment of the rising demand for raw materials used to produce consumer goods.

Waiting for Water,” which pairs U.S. journalists with West African colleagues to follow up on promises by governments and aid organizations to improve water and sanitation and pushes for more accountability from all involved.

Thursday, April 12, 7-9 p.m.

Walter Lippmann House
1 Francis Ave.
Cambridge, Mass.

A wine and cheese reception will follow the discussion.



tinkering with twitter, live tweeting

So, it’s happened. After a few months of quiet watching, a first twitter post is out. It’s an attempt at joining the conversation. Appropriately clumsy.

Spent two days at a Yale conference on Journalism in the New Media Ecology that was simultaneously twittered (and live blogged.) People in the audience threw snippets of speaker’s comments at each other and their followers around the world. Then added their own comments and observations on what was being said.

Everybody seemed really proud of it. I was, obviously, the aged idiot in the room. How did they handle the distraction? What should get your attention first, the speaker or the twitter feed? Were others really capable of grasping both at the same time? Or was it more about the skill of switching from one to another constantly and knowing, almost instinctively, when to be where?

Decided that my preference was to to respect the speakers and the fact that I’d traveled to New Haven to actually meet people in person. Learned that if you listen to the panels first, it is possible to catch up on twitter feeds during boring presentations. To choose when to listen in on the ‘other’ conversation. The twitter feed will even direct you back to interesting things the speaker may have said while you were not listening. Assuming someone else was listening; and doesn’t twist the comment all that much.

The twitter feed, interestingly, had two sides to it: One was clean cut wire service typing of what others had said; the other was emotional, subjective, and pointed. So, one was providing information, the other opinion.

Almost a week after the conference, some striking elements of this coming together in actual and virtual spaces at the same time still have me pondering: How many conversations can you follow simultaneously? And what happens if you keep switching between one and the other?

I quizzed other participants about this during breaks. Of the seven people I talked to, all seven were tuning out of presentations as soon as they got disinterested in what was covered at the moment. They switched to and enjoyed the twitter discussion, which was often much more lively, diverse, and inspiring than what was going on on stage. They also switched to doing e-mail or reading online.

The NYT’s David Carr, being on the last panel of the event, said in his talk that at some point during those two days, he stopped sitting there with his laptop open; he closed it, deciding he did not need it anymore.

Earlier, he had twittered what kept racing through my mind: “Conferences have morphed into presentations to aud who are in their own media silos. Like me twittering. #kmedia. 9:20 AM Nov 14th from TinyTwitter “

This, it seems to me, is the big challenge in the world of opportunities offered by live access to such an event via various platforms: Just as online, we need to find ways to organize and “utilize” (mhm, management science lingo was abundant)  the information and conversation streams and, assuming that’s why you’re having a conference in the first place, find ways to engage everybody who is interested in a dialogue–not in simultaneous monologues.

(We could have an argument about several inside-the- silo conversations going on at the same time, both via twitter and in the panel discussions. Not to be confused with across-the-silo turf battles, of course.)

The organizers had put great care into having life bloggers and fantastic tweeters at the event (next to the great line-up of speakers, that is.) It was all video streamed. These new media tools made the event accessible to those who could not be there.

What was missing was moderators who connected the panels and thoughts with each other; or a “curator”, to use more new media language, of the conversation happening at the event and online. There was a lot of simultaneous talking but too little discourse. On a subject so polarized and discussed mostly through anecdotal evidence and strong opinions (involving strong egos…), there was too little following up on claims, not enough detail, examples, case studies and thus not enough depth, not enough progress in the discussion (which to me is the major draw to convening such a meeting.)

I was not surprised that my colleague Zach Seward at the Nieman Journalism Lab got only one tiny post out of the two day conference.

Aside from occasional highlights, the event felt to me like a rushed piece of reporting on a posh topic throwing in “balance” in lieu of diversity and confident questioning & analysis cutting through the clutter.

What’s ironic is that many of the smart thinkers on the subject were actually present (here’s the program.) But — everybody was multitasking. Speakers tweeted from the panel. Everybody was here and there.

Instead of pushing when things got quirky, ignoring the long panel structure and starting a conversation right then and there, we turned to something else whenever we got upset, bored or tired of the disconnect.

As I try to understand what twitter is to people and their interactions (and their institutions…), one image prevails: Bruno Ganz walking through a library in Berlin in Wim Wender’s film “Wings of Desire/Der Himmel ueber Berlin.”

As the angel Damiel, Ganz can listen to people’s thoughts. He roams around the women and men listening in, entering the magnificent world of people’s inner conversations for brief moments of time. He can listen to it all, but Wender’s angels can not enter a conversation with a human being.

(There’s a lot more in this analogy, I think: the film is mostly narrated in poetry contributed by Peter Handke; I’d argue that some of what comes along via twitter is pure poetry of the moment. Also, the angels are there to “assemble, testify and preserve reality”, as another angel, Cassiel/Otto Sander, puts it.)

On twitter, and to some extend Facebook, we can now listen to each others thoughts (yes, there are also all kinds of other uses.) As we are all discovering, there is some value in just listening in. We don’t always have to respond.

But there’s a reason why the angels in the film want to be humans. We benefit from having actual conversations, from our encounters as human beings. May they happen on twitter or elsewhere. Be factual or emotional. Poetic or profane.

Which is why I sent that twitter post.