Only half the story

Last fall, Mac McClelland was in Haiti reporting for Mother Jones on the aftermath of the January 2010 earthquake. She caused a tempest in a tweetpot after live tweeting a day spent with a young woman seeking medical care after being gang raped in a camp. It was, as you would imagine, a horrific story. Reading it as it happened, in 140 character installments, was a bit like what I imagine getting kicked in the stomach repeatedly feels like. 140 characters doesn’t allow room for context, or room to breathe.

McClelland got a lot of criticism for telling the story the way she did. She was accused of a lack of journalistic integrity, rudeness, sensationalism, taking advantage of her subject and a lot else besides. If you trust a good journalist to be one across multiple media, much of it didn’t have much merit, though I’m not aiming to write a defense of the morality of the endeavor.

But I thought it was kind of great.

Though it’s changed many aspects of the industry, there’s not enough experimenting with technology and storytelling in publishing. Do I think Twitter is the right medium for long form journalism? Well, no. But can you use it to tell a story, with an immediacy other media can’t match and bring attention to an incredibly difficult topic? Yeah.

Phil Bronstein’s interview with McClelland’s editor Clara Jeffrey had a useful take

 “It’s not that different than someone doing live radio or TV at a disaster, reacting to what’s going on.” Like Edward R. Murrow from the rooftops of London during WWII bombing? “We’re not claiming we’re Edward R. Murrow but it does unfold in real time, the way it used to do. The emphasis is on the immediacy.”

The article McClelland eventually wrote was a fine piece of reporting, but had nothing on the impact of those tweets in real time.

Which is a very long way of getting to the point I wanted to make. In an article just published by GOOD, McClelland reveals that the day she spent tweeting touched off a PTSD-triggered breakdown. The article has nothing to do with twitter, but if you match up the narratives, what followed this tweet:

Stuck in traffic on way back to camp, K starts *screaming* when tall dude in blue strolls past us. That’s one of the rapists.

was, according to the GOOD article,

Unfortunately, when K* turned around in the front passenger seat and started wailing, flailing and slapping her chair, I lost the ability to locate myself in space and time in the backseat. It’s called dissociation, and is a common and quite unsettling response to extreme trauma. She eventually curled into a ball and grew quiet, tears still pouring down her face. But I could sense only a disembodied version of myself hovering somewhere behind me and to my left, outside my window. “Who are those people?” I could hear it asking. “What’s that awful thing going on inside that car?”

It puts the whole series of tweets in a new light. Journalistic experiment? Or a journalist just trying to hold on?

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