Journalism Fellows Showcase the Many Dimensions of Aging in America

Aug. 27, 2010Bookmark and Share
Ten reporters have spent this summer at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism producing a series of in-depth multimedia reports on the elderly, depicting the complex dimensions of aging. The reporters are fellows of News21, a national program that supports new forms of reporting and investigative journalism. Several pieces from their recently launched website, Brave Old World, have been featured in The Washington Post, The New York Times and AARP Bulletin.
 
Dementia patients talk about their illness in "What We Know About Dementia," produced by News21 fellows at Columbia's journalism school. (5:59)
The project involved comprehensive research to address a subject of growing importance to Americans. According to federal statistics, in 2008, 39 million people age 65 and over lived in the United States, accounting for 13 percent of the total population. The U.S. Census Bureau projects that the population of people age 85 and older could grow from 5.7 million in 2008 to 19 million by 2050.
 
Under the guidance of Columbia faculty, the News21 fellows utilized traditional reporting techniques, as well as innovative approaches, such as using animation to show how communities may adapt to meet the needs of a growing elderly population. In “How We Live Now,” a series of six video portraits show the places and circumstances in which seniors are carrying out their days, including an assisted living facility in Minnesota, a nursing home in New York State, and a cabin in rural Montana where 79-year-old Sue Cushman lives with her husband and chops down trees for winter firewood. In “Growing Old in Three Minutes,” short videos drawing from the latest science demonstrate the impact of aging on the body’s senses.
 
“This was our strongest effort so far, and we’ve had many strong years,” said Duy Linh Tu, coordinator of the journalism school’s digital media program, and the project’s multimedia editor. “The project demonstrates what Columbia Journalism is all about: strong reporting and clear and compelling storytelling. I could not be happier with how the project turned out.”
 
Nine of the ten fellows, who were selected last winter from a group of seventy-five applicants, graduated from Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism in May; the tenth is entering his senior year at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Each worked on several projects at a time, performing different roles as needed.
 
Fellow Connor Boals (JRN’10) edited one video, co-produced another, and contributed reporting to two other features. He said his most challenging task was editing a video in which dementia patients spoke about their illness.
 
“The dementia video was particularly challenging because I was tasked with culling hours of straight interviews with people in all stages of coherence into a succinct narrative,” he said. Boals received help from seven other fellows, who picked highlights from specific interviews and created a rough story arc for the video to follow.
 
“It’s really a testament to the importance of working in teams on in-depth multimedia projects like this,” he said.
 
Paula Span, director of the project and an adjunct professor at the journalism school, emphasized the importance of teamwork and flexibility to today’s journalists. “Our newsroom was very much like newsrooms are today—highly collaborative,” said Span. Journalists must be able to work across different platforms and master a variety of skills. “No one is just a print person or just a camera person.”
 
This is the fifth year of News21, which is funded by the Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education. In addition to Columbia, eleven other journalism schools participated in the News21 program this year, each undertaking its own project. Past projects at Columbia focused on charter schools, faith in America and the 2008 presidential election.
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