Geography as an Analysis Tool for Shoe-Leather Reporting

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Aerial map of Old San Juan

Google Map image

When they get to college, more than a few students associate geography with simple exercises in memorizing places that they will have to identify on a map. Many were taught that way in middle and high school. Only some risk taking at least one undergraduate course in geography, without imagining that this decision will enable them to expand their knowledge of how spatial reasoning can be integrated into different disciplines, situations and processes.

In journalism, geography contributes to expanding communication strategies. It also strengthens the ways of presenting the context of the events that are being covered. In human geography, one of the topics that is most studied and emphasized upon is the cultural landscape. Being able to establish a critical approach to the concept of landscape can be very useful for those who write chronicles or develop photographic essays on or from places, streets or public spaces.

A good photo essay will not always include the images that the photojournalist considers to be the best quality or their favorites. At the end, the photos to be selected will be those that contribute to presenting a coherent, pertinent narrative that can capture the attention of the receiving public. Similarly, when  writing a chronicle, everything that was observed or experienced during the coverage of an event or series of events is not included. On the contrary, it only includes the information that transports the reader to the moment  narrated. It is in this process of choosing images and organizing content when integrating geographic analysis will provide evaluation tools and criteria to develop the narrative.

Next are five strategies in which geography or spatial reasoning can contribute to shoe-leather reporting.

1) Locate the area of the selected scenes.

The first step to understanding the spatiality of the phenomenon to be told in a photographic or chronicle essay is to identify its location. Geography comprises the principles of absolute location and relative location. The first refers to the coordinate system in which the latitude and longitude of a space, place or phenomenon on Earth is identified. Several tools, including global positioning systems and some mobile phone applications, provide absolute location information.

In the case of relative location, the spatial reference studies the location of places in relation to other places, spaces or geographic points of reference. For example, whoever decides to make a photographic essay of Old San Juan, perhaps from the air, will understand that this geographic area of the Puerto Rican capital is located northwest of this city, north of San Juan Bay and northeast of the coasts of the neighboring municipalities of Cataño and Toa Baja. Or, when narrating from there, they will mention that it is the walled city where La Fortaleza, El Morro and the cobble-stoned streets are found. The use of maps is vital in identifying the relative location.

To develop a chronicle, it’s important to understand that no place exists in isolation. For example, if you are going to write about the inauguration of a bridge for vehicle traffic, it is important to know the location of the neighborhood and town that will use that infrastructure. With the relative location analysis, it will be possible to understand which other communities and towns will benefit from the new bridge. Likewise, knowing its location will allow the chronicle to integrate an analysis on how the mobility and daily routes of those who will benefit will change after this road opens.

2) Think about the spatiality of the location.

The study of geography is not limited to the exercise of locating those spaces and places that you want to communicate or illustrate. It is essential to reflect on the reasons why the places that are studied are located where they are. For example, if the project is about a recreational area, you may ask the following question: Why is the park located in this neighborhood and not in another?

In this phase of the analysis, integrating a tool such as Google Maps can be useful. The journalist must select the spaces and places that they will highlight in their work and search for those same geographical areas on Google Maps. As the scale of the digital map is changed to facilitate analysis, some of the nearby places and streets can be seen and identified. For example, if the purpose of the writing is to describe or illustrate a public square and its church, the Google Maps tool will help expand the geography being analyzed by identifying nearby businesses and streets.

By integrating a digital map, it will be possible to analyze the potential connections and interactions between the main area underscored in the chronicle and those nearby spaces and places (for example: adjacent streets and buildings). What impact does the chronicle or photo essay’s main area have on nearby places (and vice versa)? What impact does it have on people and their mobility? What cultural, ideological and economic aspects are relevant in understanding the geography represented in the chronicle or in the photographic essay?

Let’s consider those assignments that focus on abandoned buildings in urban areas. It is the journalist’s responsibility to investigate the uses that were given to that building prior to becoming an abandoned or disused infrastructure. It is also important to ask about the current impact that this area has on its surroundings and on its closest geographic location. This includes analyzing the role of the people who live, travel or frequent that area. This type of spatial reasoning will give more substance and context to what you want to tell.

3) Carry a notebook or any device that allows you to take notes or trace routes.

A camera and a cell phone are not the only tools to have on hand when doing field work for journalistic duties. A recorder will help capture those sounds that may later influence the content selection. When they decide to go outside to take photos, observe, or interview, the journalist also engages in a tour.

For the chronicle, the narration is strengthened when it involves matters related to the landscape, people and their behaviors or body language, sounds, smells, among other sensory aspects. In a photographic essay, this can also integrate short texts that complement the story told by the images. Likewise, considering aspects such as people’s gestures, sounds and colors, will provide references that will help the photojournalist to choose and order those photos that can best project or narrate the subject at hand.

4) Go to the area of interest at different times.

Sometimes spatial or geographic reasoning is strengthened by time-based analysis. The same area can show different dynamics of coexistence and mobility, depending on the moment of the day, the time of the week or the season of the year. The geography of a place can vary, depending on the time of a day or the month. For example, the content of a chronicle about food businesses in coastal areas will be influenced by when the area was visited. The time and day of the week will influence the dynamics of the economic activity alongside the beaches. It is to be expected that a holiday afternoon will have more people consuming than during a regular Tuesday at 10 a.m.

Likewise, the number of people and their profile may vary if the visit to take photos or interview took place in February or July. It is very likely that there will be more bathers on the beach during July if the chosen beach is located in a country in the northern hemisphere.

The decision to go to an area at a specific time or period may be the result of prior thought that led the journalist to plan their trip based on specific objectives. Sometimes it is helpful to visit the area of interest at different times. In addition to broadening the understanding of the place or geographic sector being studied, the differences that can be seen as a result of visiting at different times could also inspire creating narratives about the contrasts that the same area presents, according to differences by the hour, day or month.

5) Question the chosen area’s dominant forms of representation.

As the content of the story is being developed, one of the initial reflections will be to think about what criteria or objectives led the journalist to select an area or place for their work. Some criteria are related to aspects such as popularity, diversity of people, the different uses and services available, the history of certain streets and buildings, among other traits.

At times, the information to be conveyed may be similar to the prevailing narratives or discourses about the selected geographic area. For example, developing a chronicle or photographic project on the Golden Mile or financial district in San Juan can lend itself to repeating the usual discourse that describes that area as the sector that, through the presence of banks and financial institutions, is a benchmark for progress and economic development. However, it doesn’t always have to be like that. The journalist can and should have the critical capacity to question the prevailing narratives that are associated with certain geographic areas. On the Golden Mile, you could choose to tell a story from the point of view of a janitor, a cook, a driver, or any other trade that is not traditionally associated with large financial capital.

While each journalist will have their own goals in terms of the message and information that they want to communicate in their project, the duty of journalism is not to repeat or reproduce those speeches promoted by the ruling party and power groups. This is why it is necessary to investigate the attributes of the chosen area, including the contradictions, struggles and possible elements of resistance of the adjacent communities.

If analyzed critically, the example of the Golden Mile can also lead the journalist to question the dominant ideologies that are used to define that cultural landscape in the capital city. This critical approach will also lead them to identify those voices that present other alternative visions about what the Golden Mile represents. They should also inquire about those people or groups that are overshadowed by the prevailing representations of the landscape in question (Which communities near the Golden Mile are excluded from the dominant representations of this landscape?).

Just as there are people all over America who take to the streets to question the existence of monuments to colonizers or corrupt people in public spaces, the journalist and photojournalist must also use their critical eye to evade the dominant narratives about certain spaces and places. As we know, journalism is there to question and investigate to be able to make judgment.

A critical approach from the concept of geography will contribute to strengthening a narrative focused, not only on the description, but also on critical thinking about landscapes. Just as geography is much more than finding places on a map, journalistic work goes beyond presenting or narrating pictures in an uncritical way. In the case of chronicles and photographic essays, one should aspire to tell stories that invite the audience to analyze the cultural geography of spaces and places.

Rafael R. Díaz Torres is a member of Report for America

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