Blah Blah Blog

Last week NY Times Local blogger (and friend of mine) Andy Newman inadvertently brought up some complex ethical issues when he wrote a story about a business that had decided to renovate in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. The problem was that the deli that decided it needed a spiffy new facade was in an historic district and the owners hadn’t bothered to get any kind of permits whatsoever. As the blog is part of a ‘hyper-local” reporting experiment the journalist has become involved with the community he covers, in a way that he might not have in the past. In this case the commenters argued back and forth about the rights of the owner vs. the community as well as the role of the local journalist/blogger in creating a difficult situation for the owner. Andy wrote a longer story to discuss these ideas.

It all started when someone sent him a note asking him to look into the fact that the deli had taken down its historic sign. He put on his journalist hat and called the buildings department and left a message in reference to whether or not permits had been filed. Then he went to the site to ask questions. While he was there he got a call back from the buildings department letting him know that no permits had been filed but that someone had called in a complaint 6 days earlier. He was told that an inspector would be checking out the site in the near future.

Then as he writes, “After taking the call from Buildings, I returned to Jimmy [the owner’s grandson] and asked, again, if I could see the sign, and take pictures of it. He agreed. As we were heading toward the basement, he said, ‘Make a nice story about us. You’re not going to get us in trouble, right?’ ”

You can guess what happened next. The buildings department showed up the next day and shut them down. The truth is that they should have known better. Directly across the street a business owner had tried to renovate without basic building permits or historic preservation permits and has remained closed and stymied by the process for over a year. Across the street from our house (on the other side of this same neighborhood) an owner was trying to fix the side of his building without permits and … it fell down… oops. Some people tagged the journalist as tattle tale despite the fact that others had lodged complaints before he called to inquire.

The question then becomes how can a journalist be an impartial observer of such a small community. As my dad used to like to point out- it’s not a good idea to sh*t where you eat. Will Andy be able to write any hard hitting stories if doing so might turn significant segments of the small community against him? These issues become increasingly important as we get more and more of our news from hyper local sources. At the same time we also get more of our information from hyper-specific sources.

Earlier this week, I answered some questions about our Atlantic Yards film, “The Battle of Brooklyn” for a NJ Nets fan blog, Nets fans are interested in the Atlantic Yards story because if the project moves forward the Nets will move to Brooklyn. As the blog is focused on basketball one of the first questions was about whether or not we had interviewed anyone in the Nets front office. In this case, the point of view of the audience is basketball focused. However, our film has almost nothing to do with basketball beyond the fact that the real estate debacle we are following involves an arena. I took great pains to clarify the films point of view and our style of filmmaking. What I was attempting to do was “manage audience expectations”. Our films tend to be a little different from what average people expect in a documentary. Either they expect a Michael Moore style hell ride, or standard PBS fodder. In our films we often raise questions that aren’t answered in an overly direct way. One problem that we consistently run into is that when an audience expects X and you give them Y they think that the film has failed in its goals. As such, we try to manage the expectation of the audience so that they go in knowing what to expect. In this case I explained that we aren’t activists and aren’t journalists in the traditional sense. I wanted to make sure that they didn’t expect a film with a lot of talking heads talking about facts, figures, and policy. Instead it’s a film that follows characters through a narrative structure. Like any Hollywood film we’ll take some liberties with time frame in the interest of the drama. In addition the film will largely be told by following a small number of people, so it will be from a very specific perspective.

As stories move through the world they often bubble from the real world; of people connected by place, family, and physical community, to the virtual world of community through connection. Another hyper focused blog (focused on the technical aspects of documentary), found the story (most likely through a Google alert on “documentary”) and took issue with the idea that we could make a film about this complex story without it being a journalistic exercise. I wrote a comment clarifying our position and explained that I wasn’t trying to wriggle out of any kind of responsibility to the truth, but instead managing expectations as explained above. In this case, our very local story about real estate was discussed by a blog that focuses on professional basketball, and my comments were then critiqued on a documentary blog written by a journalist interested in the technical aspects of documentary. When context is a primary concern and it gets lost, ideas get knocked out of whack.

  • Mark Ginocchio
    Posted at 08:59h, 19 October Reply

    Michael –

    Thanks again for answering some of my questions, despite the obvious basketball-centric nature of my site. I still think it’s important for Nets fans to understand the issues in Brooklyn from more than just a basketball perspective and I thought the Q+A helped accomplish that.

  • Michael
    Posted at 09:23h, 19 October Reply

    i enjoyed answering your questions- and checking out your blog. I hope that you understand that I was using this as a means to discuss the way information moves and that it’s important to understand context- both as a reader/consumer of info- as well as a purveyor. I understood where the comments would be read and adjusted accordingly- and was glad to do it.

    my blogging is more about the process – from a filmmaking-philosphy perspective- than the product- a way for me to work out ideas about the process of making this mess.


  • Thomas Budd
    Posted at 14:27h, 01 December Reply

    I really liked your blog!

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