On self-doubt and people who write better than you

There’s always that moment when you look at a piece you’ve put hard work into, and you realize it’s crap. Not crap per se, maybe, but definitely not as good as you want it to be. The writing’s not as smooth, the lines of thought somehow don’t interweave as nicely as you envisioned.

It’s comforting to know that everyone goes through that – at least according to Ira Glass, host of WBEZ’s This American Life and idol of many a radio journalist.

“Most everybody I know who does interesting creative work, they went through a phase of years where they had really good taste and they could tell what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be,” he says in a video found online, apparently part of a sort of stump speech of encouragement.

Ira Glass on Storytelling from David Shiyang Liu on Vimeo.

His advice is to keep going. The more you produce, the better you get.

“… ultimately, writing stuff you want to improve makes you improve. A 2010 study found that a little self-doubt actually increases performance — quite different from the “be confident!” mantra we’re often fed,” Caitlin Dewey writes in a great blog post that led me to this subject. I like the idea of embracing your self-doubt to channel it into something that helps you improve.

Journalists have a reputation for being “insecure overachievers,” as one of my best Medill professors would gleefully point out. Somehow, our profession attracts people who obsess over getting everything perfectly right (if you’ve ever met a copy editor, you know what I mean), maybe because our work will be public for everyone to see and judge. But most of the time, we only see the finished product of a colleague’s hard work, the words flowing gracefully, the perfect anecdotes sprinkled throughout the text.

As Caitlin writes,

I had listened to the audio version of Steven Levy’s June Wired story about Y Combinator [online here], the “boot camp for startups.” It was clever. Terribly, subtly, brilliantly clever, with great color and funny wordplay and a fluent structure that somehow stretched through all 5,500 words. I think I was somewhere south of Hazleton, Pa., when the podcast finished, and I sat in my dark car shaking my head. Oh God, I thought. When will my writing EVER sound like that?

The funny thing is, I had a similar feeling when I read one of Caitlin‘s pieces recently, a beautiful essay on love in times of technology. How to solve the conundrum?

“It’s not magic,”
Washington Post reporter Emily Heil said at a recent journalism workshop.

Heil advised to take a closer look at the pieces that make up a story, the “notes assembled a certain way.” Where would this anecdote have come from? What parts follow one another? Which quotes are placed where, and how is detail used? Stripping away the awe helps see the bits of craftsmanship in the art of storytelling.

Global Warning wins ONA award

Global Warning, the Medill School of Journalism project I worked on last year, won an award from the Online News Association Saturday.

The project explored the implications a changing climate has on U.S. security – issues such as competition for resources, an increasing number of refugees, or food shortages that can play into the hands of extremists. We were nominated in the “Multimedia Presentation, Student” category, and if you take a look at the site you’ll see the many in-depth multimedia parts that make up the project.

I was honored to accept the award on behalf of myself and the nine other fellows who worked on the project. Thank you ONA for recognizing our work!

Congratulations to the Tiziano Project, which beat out NPR’s Andy Carvin and CNN for the award in community collaboration, to German Zeit Online for their fantastic visualization of phone data stored by telecom providers, and to the Washington Post for their incredible project “Coming home a different person” that shows the impacts of brain injuries on soldiers. And of course, to all the other winners for their great work! Let’s keep making journalism better together.

Using documents to tell stories

Reporters often collect and analyze government documents, reports, or public records, but until recently that analysis often happened during the reporting process, away from readers’ eyes. With Document Cloud, this process can be made public, allowing readers to browse the original material themselves – without requiring pdf downloads or for newsrooms to build their own embedded viewer.

Journalists have been finding some creative uses for doccloud, as the media blog 10,000 words noted in a recent post.

Transparent reporting

I recently used Document Cloud to analyze material collected by me and my fellow reporters for the inaugural National Security Reporting Project. I think the annotation tool is one of its most powerful, since it allows readers to go straight to the source and to discover information for themselves. Other features help reporters browse material quickly for names of people, places, and times, which can be insightful as well.

doccloud global warning

The page I built for the Global Warning website that holds the documents we collected.

The examples on 10,000 words show some of doccloud’s strenghts. Through the annotation tool, journalists can comment and explain exact parts of the document for readers to view.

doccloud annotation

Document Cloud's annotation tool in action.

Document Cloud also allows links to highlighted parts of a document, meaning a reporter can link from his or her text story to the exact phrase or page s/he is referring to. I think this leads to an increase in transparency for audiences: They can now see exactly where the reporter got their information, without having to browse hundreds of pages of a pdf-document.

A downside of Document Cloud is that while it has an embeddable viewer for single documents, there is no built-in easy way to present a collection of multiple documents pertaining to the same issue. I built a part of our website to let readers browse and discover the documents we collected. The Las Vegas Sun has come up with a very elegant solution. They built an interactive interface for their collection of hospital complaints. Color-coded dots lead to the document annotations referring to those issues.

las vegas sun

The interactive interface of the Las Vegas Sun allows users to easily browse the documents.

The examples Mark Luckie presents on 10,000 words also show that presenting a document in this way can allow for new, creative connections. The Washington Post annotated the U.S. Constitution to show which sections are currently subject of political debate – a great way to connect the discussions with the document.

That’s a wrap

It’s been a while since I have posted anything, and the reason is obvious: deadline! Big monstrous deadline. The reporting project I’ve been part of has wrapped up this past weekend, and the weeks leading up to it have been filled with lots of work, too little sleep and too much anxiety.


The logo for our "Global Warning" project, designed by NPR's Nelson Hsu.

Now the website is all set up, and the great content me and the other nine reporters created is waiting to be revealed. When? That’s still a little up in the air. We partnered with a major news organization, which will run parts of our content. Until they put our stories into print, we’re holding publication of our website.

The site will have a lot of great features, though, and is definitely worth seeing. Interactives designed by the wonderful Kat Downs, great stories, photography, video and resources are waiting to be explored. Stay tuned!

Starting out covering Afghanistan

My first weeks here in Washington, DC, have gone by incredibly fast (am I here for a month already?). I’m now covering National Security with a focus on Afghanistan.

I can definitely say I’ve learned so much already, and with it comes the realization of how little I actually know about this incredibly complex conflict. That’s why I’m reading lots of studies and books and talking to people who know a lot more about this – how lucky I am to be able to do that and call it my job.

Here are some of the stories I have worked on so far.

Continue reading

Notes from the field

Hey everyone!

I’m alive! Sorry about the infrequent postings, there’s been so much going on. Here’s an update.

Somehow I’ve become the Chief Catholic Correspondent for MTC2-111 (our class). That wasn’t even on purpose, just that one Catholic story let to another. For example, Chris and I spoke with the pastor of a catholic school, St. John Berchmans, the other day, and he told me about a pastor exchange where German pastors come to Chicago and vice versa. Check out the story here, I thought it was pretty cool!

But I branched out a little bit, for example on a story Sofia and I did together. We really don’t hesitate to go to any lenghts for our reporting. That includes getting up after 3 hours of sleep to treck out to Skokie for a law enforcement hate crime sensibility training.

We reported on a workshop for about 50 police officers-to-be about hate crimes and the holocaust – meaning asking a lot of police officers a lot of questions. I have about 400 pictures from two days of training sessions. I love my job.

Sofia interviews police officers in training for our article.

Sofia interviews police officers in training for our article.

I love my camera

We also had a broadcast day where we put on a would-be newscast. The whole thing ended in a lot of goofing around and picture taking.

Jessica and Jessica

Jessica and Jessica

The other Jessica and I worked on our part together – unfortunately we passed up the great chance of playing up our shared name “Jessica?” – “Yes, Jessica?” “Back to you, Jessica”. Next time!

These are the people I hang out with every day:

Most fabulous lab of all

Most fabulous lab of all

fuel for journalists

fuel for journalists

Afterwards, we moved on to Nevin’s, the gathering and drinking spot of choice for all first quarter students. You gotta unwind after all this pressure, right?!

How'd we do?

How'd we do?

After a few drinks we were brave enough to evaluate our performance on camera. It was pretty great I have to say! Everyone was nervous of course, but we put on a good show.

Especially the question-part was funny – the news anchor is wired up to the producer, who can talk to the anchor through his/her earpiece. So after the reporter has finished reporting “from the scene” (another room with a funny skyline painted on the wall), we’d be told a question to ask. I had to ask mine in German, which was pretty fun.

Yesterday, Virgi send me some super-cute pictures from home! Including this one of the best cat of the whole wide world, Rufus, being a tiger in the jungle. Danke Schwesterherz!

world's best cat. he's a tiger.

world's best cat. he's a tiger.

The next week will be absolutely crazy with exams, final projects and all kinds of stuff going on. What keeps me going is the promise of a pretty great party at the end of it all. Updates to follow, if I can remember…



Theology series sets its sights on 30th anniversary next year

Julie Hurt kneels in prayer during the service at Madonna della Strada Chapel. Theology on Tap, she said, was "a great thing to do" during the week.

Julie Hurt kneels in prayer during the service at Madonna della Strada Chapel. Theology on Tap, she said, was "a great thing to do" during the week.

Cardinal Francis George called it “one of the most creative initiatives” in the Roman Catholic church. This year’s “Theology on Tap” series closed with a mass and picnic at Loyola University Chicago. Meanwhile, organizers said they are looking ahead to the event’s 30-year anniversary in 2010.

During the mass, Cardinal George said “Theology on Tap” offered “a space where young Catholics in their 20s and 30s can come together … not just to socialize, but as a matter of thinking things through.” About 300 people attended the mass at Loyola’s Madonna della Strada Chapel, according to the organizers.

 Participants of Theology on Tap signed ribbons with their names and parishes.

Participants of Theology on Tap signed ribbons with their names and parishes.

“Theology on Tap” started in 1981 out of a casual meeting of students at the University of Illinois. The series, called TOT, is aimed at young Catholics in their 20s and 30s and offers speaker sessions and seminars over the course of four weeks each summer.

This year, it was held at more than 40 churches across the Archdiocese of Chicago. The mass on Sunday concluded the event.

Afterwards, participants moved to a nearby university hall for food, soft drinks and music (the “tap”, apparently, is not always taken literally).

Julie Hurt, a member of St. Clement parish, in Lincoln Park, said she attended three of the four TOT meetings at her church. The name and setting, she said, “makes [Theology on Tap] seem like a social atmosphere” and “less scary” for people who usually do not go to church. “It makes it seem more fun,” she said.

At St. Clement, she said, between 60 and 100 people attended each of the four sessions, and about 40 of them had come to the final event at Loyola.

Organizers from two churches on the Northwest Side, while not sending as many people to the final event, said they want to build on the TOT events to connect young people in their parishes.

Joanna Deane, chairperson of the organizing committee at St. Bartholomew parish, in Portage Park, said that Theology on Tap “is suppose d to break down barriers in a way.”

About 20 people had been at St. Bartholomew’s TOT meeting on August 3, but only Deane and Michael Giordano had come to the final event. However, attendance at their church has grown, Giordano said: “We’re really happy with that … every year, it got bigger and bigger.”

Giordano said St. Bartholomew’s group will have a closing meeting the following week to set up plans for the fall. “I would like to keep the group together,” he said.

Steven Birello of St. Sylvester parish, in Logan Square, shared similar plans in a phone interview Friday. At St. Sylvester, the TOT series has been held for five years, he said. 2009, Birello said, was their “best year”, with about 20 people at each meeting.

“It was very encouraging that so many people wanted to see Theology on Tap [at St. Sylvester] just because our parish doesn’t have that young adult group yet,” he said. He added that he wants to continue organizing events “along the lines of Theology on Tap” in the fall.

While churches are hoping to retain their flocks throughout the fall, Katherine F. DeVries of Young Adult Ministry for the Archdiocese of Chicago, said she is looking toward next year, when “Theology on Tap” will celebrate its 30-year anniversary.

She said the organizers had “just started talking about holding a national conference” to mark the date. Further ideas include a “super-Theology on Tap session” to focus on key issues concerning young adults. The most important one, DeVries said, is relationships.

The Rev. John Cusick, director of the young adult ministry office, said he has “big dreams” for the anniversary. “I want to try to invite anybody who has ever attended to come back and celebrate,” he said at the picnic. “We will see if we can make that happen.”

By Jessica Binsch

You can find more information about Theology on Tap Chicago at the website of the Young Adult Ministry.

Archdiocese of Chicago to survey Asian Catholics

A participant at the Young Adult Catholics Conference aimed at Asian and Pacific peoples hands out singing sheets to other attendants on Friday.

Maikue Vang hands out singing sheets to other attendants at the Young Adult Catholics Conference aimed at Asian and Pacific peoples.

A plan to better address the spiritual needs of Asians and Pacific Islanders in Chicago’s Roman Catholic community needs more analysis and planning before it can be implemented throughout the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago.

The Office for Asian Catholics is readying a demographic study of predominantly Asian parishes and their members. The main part of the study is expected to begin in October.

“The results and data are going to help the parishes to minister more effectively to Asians in the archdiocese,” the office’s director, Teresita Nuval, said.

Over the past weekend, about 200 young Asian Catholics met at Loyola University Chicago to discuss the specific needs of Asian and Pacific Islanders to provide better service to them within the Catholic church.

Language and cultural differences are among the challenges Asian Catholics face, said Eva J. Diaz, coordinator for intercultural ministries at the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, on Friday at the conference.

“Some of the needs are very similar to what they would have been for European Catholics a century ago,” Diaz said. “But even for Asian Catholics who have been here for generations, it’s a different spirituality; it’s a different world view for Asian Catholics.”

One of the goals for the meeting was to arrive at a set of guidelines for ministers to follow when addressing Asian and Pacific congregation members. Nuval said the actions planned there now have to be implemented.

Teresita Nuval,  director of the Office of Asian Catholics of the Catholic Archdiocese, said the conference energized its participants.

Teresita Nuval, director of the Office of Asian Catholics of the Catholic Archdiocese, said the conference energized its participants.

“I think it is a solid effort, a very good beginning. I think we are just scratching the surface. There are so many things we need to know,” Nuval said Friday before the beginning of the conference. “We found out that most of the concerns relate to being Asian and being American at the same time.”

People of Asian descent represent 4.4 percent of faithful in the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago, 2008 figures show. That makes them a much smaller ethnic group than Hispanics, who make up more than 40 percent of the archdiocese’s members. However, Asian and Pacific Islanders are expected to grow in numbers in the coming years.

Next to being a comparably small group, another challenge for the Asian Catholic community stems from its diversity. Paul Evangelista, youth minister at Our Lady of Mercy church in Albany Park, said that compared with Hispanic Catholics, Asian and Pacific Islanders were a less homogenous group.

“We have very different languages and backgrounds,” he said in a phone interview Wednesday. “That is going to be a challenge.”

“There are a lot of different organizations, but they do not necessarily collaborate. The conference helped link those organizations together,” said Evangelista, who also attended the conference.

The planned study will focus on the 70 to 80 parishes with strong Asian membership, Nuval said Wednesday, but information on the survey has been sent out to all parishes in the archdiocese. The North Side of the city, she said, has the most numerous Asian Catholics in Chicago.

An important aspect, Nuval said, is to meet “with the communities to make them feel they are going to own this, this is their study.”

The information gathered will be used to help adjust programs and ministry services to the needs of Asian and Pacific Islanders. “The more pastors get educated in how to write programs like this [for the Asian Catholic community], the better,” Evangelista said.

By Jessica Binsch. This article was written for Medill Reports – Methods.