3. The observer effect. That is, the Times should have disclosed the extent to which its involvement—months of following her every move—affected Dasani’s life. In one case, her family comes into an upscale wine shoppe and Mom gets a few sips; would she have been so welcome without the tagalong NYT team? More importantly, Dasani’s story ends with a gleaming apartment in Harlem; would they have been moved uptown at the end of the series if city bureaucrats didn’t know her family was under the lens of a powerful newspaper? The “observer effect” is a hard thing for a journalist to detect. But it is a question worth asking, especially in a series where the reporter—much to her credit—went to such lengths to provide footnotes and background on her research.
4. The relentless focus on narrative. Why did such a long story give such short shrift to the policies, the politics and the past of how homeless people are treated in New York City? The promise of such depth seemed implicit in its length, its play and its sweep. And so, when the Times left largely untouched the bureaucratic jujitsu that has bedeviled homeless policy for years, some readers felt cheated.
Still, that reaction was more common in responses from journalists than non-journalists. Indeed, some of those who don’t work in the news business came to the story with no expectations that it would, or should, have provided this kind of information, any more than Francis Ford Coppola should have ended Godfather II with a panel discussing 19th-century Sicilian emigration patterns.
5. The risk of the “single story.” In journalism and at Columbia Journalism School, we see a lot of stories in search of characters. That is, editors first decide what the story is, and then reporters search for people to fit the tale that we’ve already constructed.
The biggest risk in these kinds of stories is that they become caricatures of larger and more complex issues. This point is made, powerfully, in a 2009 TED talk by novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. (Video here, transcript here.)
Adichie warned of what she calls “the single story.” She grew up in Nigeria, the middle-class daughter of a professor, and attended college in the US. When she arrived on campus at the age of 19, her American roommate assumed she didn’t know how to use a stove, and that she had learned English as a second language. Her roommate, Adichie says, was relying on the “single story” that most Westerners know of Africa:
“She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. In this single story there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way.”
Adichie goes on to say that “the single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” [Emphasis mine.]
And so this package, or any narrative that is so long yet is so focused on one character, can turn into what Adichie calls the “single story.” Dasani became the prism through which many New York Times readers view homelessness, poverty, income inequality, and/or the efficacy and empathy of the Bloomberg administration. But no 11-year-old girl, no matter how courageous, no matter how eloquently her story is told, can turn into the vehicle for such complex and difficult issues.
Indeed, within a few weeks after the series ran, Dasani became a prop for city politicians; while newly elected Mayor Bill de Blasio was rolling her out for his inauguration, the city’s public advocate was calling Dasani her “new BFF” and exaggerating her own role in the Times’ series.
Is the Times to blame for that? Not literally, of course. But it is a danger when we produce a story that is both so big and so narrow.
This is less a problem with the story per se and more a problem with the way journalists rely on characters to serve as linchpins for our big pieces. Once we find the right person, the story’s contours gel and, sometimes, calcify. The news organization—wittingly or not— can become the captive of the profilee. And the subjects of our stories, whether they’re pre-adolescents or much older, usually figure that out sooner or later.
It is to the great credit of the Times that it would devote so many resources to this issue, that it could produce a piece that stirred so much reaction and brought to our consciousness this girl and our family. I can’t remember many stories that have delivered on that promise.