Words, picture, video are used to convey the experience of change. But can they ever tell the whole story? In a world where all news seems ephemeral — with the next interesting tidbit just a click away — how can stories with deep complexities be easily understood and, even, remembered? At the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) conference in New Orleans, a set of great communicators took the big stage to offer their stories and tips for how designers can break through all the noise.
Richard Campanella, a Tulane University-based geographer, said the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe was the “searing result of generations of problems.” So many reporters began to realize the complexities in the tale. Soon, “all these arcane topics had become part of the global discourse.” He said in times like this, the only thing an expert with something to offer can do is “heed the call and communicate. You know more than most.” Campanella soon became stuck permanently on the “media rolodex, this worldwide juggernaut.”
Immediately after the storm, the “neighborhood recovery prioritization” was the most controversial topic. Not liking what he was hearing, Campanella waded in, offering proposals that helped shape the public debate. He said the effect of his guest op-eds in the local papers was critical. His argument: “Instead of moving residents out of lower areas, why not just encourage them to go to higher areas?” Using maps, he showed how 2,000 empty parcels were above sea level, providing space for 10,000 people. His report, Higher Ground, made the cover of the now web-only Times Picayune. Through his maps and analysis, Campanella showed how just 50 percent of the city is now above sea level, but how it used to be 100 percent. “The report showed that human activity has sunk us below sea level.” The report ended up “shaping the historical development of the city.”
Experts should “only opine when you have new arguments and data. Don’t rehash. Don’t get into the passions of the moment, as you can easily inflame them further.” Messages to the public must be “consistent and judicious.” He added that “the media is fickle and interviews are potentially dangerous.” Experts have the most control over their messages when they write op-eds. He said panel discussions are also fraught with potential dangers, as “you don’t know where the conversation will go. Be prudent when speaking improvisationally.”
For Michael Pasquier, who teaches religious history at Louisiana State University (LSU), images speak volumes. In Leeville, Louisiana, there was a shot of an old cemetery sinking into the delta, outside of the levees in the red zone (see image above). “This one image led to tons of news stories.” The New York Times covered it, saying “this fits with what’s happening here.” But “that’s an oversimplification of a larger set of problems.” Pasquier called these types of journalists “parachute artists. They interview a few talking heads and kooky Cajuns and then leave. The story I’m interested in is: what happens after they leave?”
Pasquier is a historian who has become a filmmaker, driven by the desire to capture and communicate change. His film, Water Like Stone, focuses on Louisiana fisherman, a group who have been “highly dehumanized through media coverage, but who have an intimate knowledge of these places.” Pasquier focused on these people’s stories, their history, also to humanize the local scientists, placing them in the landscape. “It’s not about trying to control this place, but being of this place.”
Nancy Levinson, the editor of Places, an online journal, pulled back from the conversation on New Orleans, saying “we are living through a genuine revolution” in how we communicate. The age of the press, created by Gutenberg centuries ago, is coming to an end. “It’s hard to see the edges. New technologies are disruptive as earthquakes. The old system is crumbling, and that’s messy.” The web was once something that could be ignored, but no longer. “The digital revolution is over. It has now entered a period of consolidation. As we enter a post-revolutionary future, we must rethink the old stuff.”
Places, for example, is now online only. But Levinson said the “very format of the journal may need to be rethought.” The traditional journal for one’s peers in a technical area is now “less important,” because, with the web, “these journals can be liberated from the specialists and can spur larger discourse and civic engagement.” While there may still be some tension between writing for one’s peers or the public, really, good writing should do both.
She added that the crisis in scholarly publications is already happening, as the momentum for open, digital access grows. The traditional journal provides a “vital services to academics but a low level of service to readers.” With the global connectivity of the Internet, there can be new types of publishing. Levinson pointed to Vector, a new journal that enables peer-reviewed multimedia scholarship to be accessed by all. She concluded, “design research can’t just circulate in the discipline; every investigation needs to be a narrative to build awareness among the public.”
Lastly, Makani Themba, who runs The Praxis Project, said too many advocates think if they simply marshal the right data and package it into a sensible argument, the other side will simply say, “wow, you are right.” She said, “sadly, it doesn’t happen that way. We come to every conversation with a set of beliefs. Any issue we are confronted with is set within a history and beliefs we have built over time.” Power relationships shape those beliefs. “They are embedded. We start east and go west. We start white and go black. This is what becomes normal for us. It’s deeply rooted.”
So when we communicate, “we shouldn’t start in the opposition. Some 30 percent of Americans side with progressive ideas. Another 30 percent side with conservatives. 30 percent can go either way, and 10 percent are just not in the conversation.” She said if the messages are inclusive, we can “easily find ourselves at 60-70 percent supporting us.” That inclusive message?: “we are all inter-connected. We should invest in each other.”