Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Gillmor and visual communication after 9/11

There are myriad reasons why Sept. 11, 2001, was a life-changing day, for anyone "who was older than a baby" at the time, as Dan Gillmor says in his Introduction of the book "We the Media: Grassroots Journalism By the People, for the People" (2004). Among the many reasons it was life-changing for me was that I was taking Advanced Reporting that semester as a junior in the news-editorial program at UNL, and I was really starting to come into my own as a journalist. I was making the transition from being a reporter to a copy editor and designer.

However, I was not in my Advanced Reporting class on 9.11.01, as I should have been. My uncle had died a few days before, and I had flown to Austin, Texas, on Sept. 10, to be there for his funeral on Sept. 11 - at 9 a.m.

I was at the funeral home when all of the tragic 9/11 events were taking place. When we got back to my aunt and uncle's house, no one had any idea what had happened. Eventually, someone turned on the one TV in the house. My uncle hated TV (he was an avid outdoorsman) and only had an antenna so he got only one channel. Slowly, people started to spread the word and tell everyone to come see what was happening on TV as the station was replaying the events over and over. In our already grief-stricken state, none of us really believed it was actually happening. My cousin refused to watch any of it for several hours that day, not wanting to have anything take his attention away from paying respects to his father's memory.

Toward the end of the day, it started to dawn on all of us that had flown there that we weren't going to be flying anywhere anytime soon, let alone home. (Most of us just drove our rental cars all the way home, regardless if we were allowed to do so in our contracts.) Like Gillmor, who says he was in South Africa at the time and therefore couldn't "read my newspaper, the San Jose Mercury News, ... or any of the other papers I normally scanned each morning," I was going a bit crazy wanting to be able to watch several different news stations and get my hands on as much information as I could. I went back to the hotel at least once to watch more of it on TV, but I didn't stay long so as not to upset my family. A thought did keep crossing my mind though - so, if I had been in Advanced Reporting class like I was supposed to, would I have been trying to write a story about it for class? What did the Journal Star do with the news? Of course, when I finally got home, I worked part-time at the Journal Star so I was able to get a copy of the Sept. 12 Journal Star. But, part of me wished I hadn't missed out on some of the great journalism that was taking place that day.

I was a member of the Society of News Design then, so I hoarded every 9/11 front-page design I could find and liked, as well as any graphics that I thought were particularly helpful. As Gillmor discusses in chapter one, members of the weblog community were posting "personal views of what they'd seen, with photographs, providing more information and context to what the major media was providing." Several newspapers used photos even from citizen journalists because they were providing views the news photographers just hadn't gotten to in time. I guess the only good thing to come from 9/11 from my perspective as a graphic designer is that newspaper designers were given complete design freedom that day. You knew people would keep those newspapers from that day for years so you wanted to present the events in a respectful and magnificently-designed way.

A Society of News Design editor in 2001, Matt Mansfield, also worked at the San Jose Mercury News at the time (and Gillmor's favorite newspaper as aforementioned). Mansfield was a design idol of mine, and I remembered that he wrote a great article in 2011, for the 10-year anniversary of 9/11, about the design lessons we learned from 9/11. In the article, he states several similar ideas as Gillmor, the most important being his final lesson, trust your instincts: "Your audience is at least as smart as you are, probably smarter. Count on your viewers or readers to be thinking people. Be aware of that. Especially in a crisis and because information can flow so quickly, it’s imperative to be thoughtful. In fact, that’s maybe the biggest lesson of all" (Mansfield, 2011). As Gillmor says, the former audience is "learning how to join the process of journalism, helping to create a massive conversation, and in some case, doing a better job than the professionals" (2004).

Mansfield makes two other important points in his 9/11 anniversary article that demonstrate how 9/11 affected me as a visual communicator. That experience taught me to:

1) Use images to "transport the audience to new places for contemplation and connection. When possible, use graphics to illuminate the places the audience cannot access" (Mansfield, 2011) and

2) "take more risks with our storytelling. Nothing else could have in the same way. Our design did become more bold. We did play photos larger, with more emphasis. We found new immediacy online. We explained more in graphics. We helped people understand in whole new ways" (Mansfield, 2011).

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