Journalists navigate often-choppy seas to make sense of conflict and change
Editor's note: The following column is abridged and adapted from a presentation May 25 at the University Laboratory School* to the Hugh O'Brian Youth Leadership seminar, which drew 26 students from 20 Hawaii public and private high schools.
EVERY HAWAII STUDENT knows the feats of Polynesian explorers, who sailed across vast expanses of the Pacific guided by stars, winds, swells and birds.
Journalists today are explorers as well, but in an ocean of information.
The woman's water broke on a passenger jet between New Zealand and Chile. Her baby was coming as the plane soared at 35,000 feet over the South Pacific. Nine hours into the flight, there was no turning back. Luckily, there was an Australian obstetrician on board. Unluckily, the mom-to-be, from Brazil, spoke only Portuguese.
The typical American is awash in information, some of it reliable, much not. With innumerable Web sites and blogs, hundreds of cable channels, satellite and conventional radio, books and magazines, no one has the time nor inclination to absorb it all. Add new laws, rules, budget decisions, military missions, advances in science and medicine, health trends and hazards, risks to the environment, storm warnings, zoning variances, building permits, bankruptcies and other court actions, and this sea of data seems impenetrable.
Where I sit at the Star-Bulletin, I listen to nearly incessant chatter from the police, fire and ambulance radios. The phones ring with tips and questions, and our e-mail and snail-mail in-baskets quickly fill with releases from government agencies and public relations firms.
From this we are entrusted to cull the news from the noise, to identify information that matters or is innately interesting.
Our divining rod for this task dips toward the kindred elements of conflict and change.
Aboard Chile's LAN flight on April 7, Dr. Jenny Cook examined the woman and determined that she was nine centimeters dilated -- despite her vehement insistence that she could not be pregnant. What's more, the baby was in a breech or feet-first position, a complication that often requires a Caesarean section.
Conflict and change are two sides of the journalistic coin.
At its most basic, conflict is a person or group with a problem, but with something substantial at stake.
Big-scale conflicts include wars, terrorism and presidential campaigns. Business competition also can qualify, with billions of dollars in play.
Small-scale conflicts include bar fights, convenience store robberies, traffic jams, accidents and litigation.
Conflict also can pit humans against nature -- sharks, tsunamis, hurricanes, blizzards, rock slides, avalanches, cold, heat, darkness and disease. Distance, time and cost can play a role. Humans also can experience internal conflicts -- fears real and imagined, guilt, denial and self-doubt.
In Hollywood films, these are often blended, as when Charles Bronson's character must dig a narrow tunnel despite his claustrophobia in "The Great Escape."
Weighing the safety of a few against the inconvenience of many, the pilot offered to land the plane at Rapa Nui (Easter Island). But the infant was already on the way, so flight attendants spread blankets on the floor near the food-service station and Cook went to work.
"I didn't know what was going to happen -- if the baby was going to breathe, if the mother was going to bleed," she later told news outlets in Australia. "And if I had to make cuts to get the baby out, were they going to give me a plastic knife?"
The pilot hit the gas, aiming to land in Santiago as soon as possible. Was it the right move?
Change and conflict often march in lockstep. Soldiers die, regimes fall. Tax increases seldom win unanimous applause.
Train wrecks and explosions are fast-paced changes. Alzheimer's morbidity, health and lifestyle trends and greenhouse global warming are slow-paced changes. Change also embraces novelty and innovation -- using a plastic knife in a breech delivery, for instance.
The woman was lifted onto a row of seats with her head against the darkened window. A flight attendant acted as translator as the contractions intensified. Equipped with only a first-aid kit, Cook successfully turned the baby. Soon the infant was born and breathing.
As journalists, we look to change and conflict as our hoku (stars) and manu-o-ku (white terns) as we navigate seemingly endless waves of information. The goal: to present the most relevant and immediate facts in coherent order.
For the last two and a half hours of the flight, the woman cuddled and nursed her daughter.
Cook, for her part, was moved up to first class and treated to French champagne.
"There must be easier ways to get an upgrade," she said.
Friday, June 8, 2007
» The editor's note at the beginning of Jim Borg's "Media Matters" column Sunday on page E6 incorrectly said a presentation at the Hugh O'Brian Youth Leadership seminar was held at the Pagoda Hotel. The presentation was at the University Laboratory School cafeteria.
Jim Borg is an assistant city editor at the Star-Bulletin.