On Thursday, September 8, 2016 the Pulitzer Center in partnership with the Columbia School of Journalism hosted a panel discussion on "Fractured Lands: How the Arab World Came Apart," a 41,000-word piece written by Scott Anderson and photographed by Paolo Pellegrin for The New York Times Magazine, accompanied by a virtual-reality film by Ben Solomon.
Anderson began by noting how his interest in the Middle East was sparked by a spontaneous trip to Beirut in 1983, weeks before the U.S. Marine barracks there were bombed. That initial trip in the middle of the Lebanese civil war led to a career in foreign correspondence, with Anderson working on stories in the Middle East and beyond, including over a dozen with photographer Paolo Pellegrin for The New York Times Magazine.
Anderson said that he and Pellegrin spent weeks at a time getting to know the six characters at the heart of “Fractured Lands”—“ordinary” individuals from Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Iraqi Kurdistan, and Libya. He shared an example of this style of reporting: “Paolo and I set up a shop on an Island in Greece last summer interviewing refugees as they came ashore from Turkey. Over the course of 10 days, I interviewed 35 to 40 refugees before settling on Majd Ibrahim from the city of Homs in central Syria,” he said.
Jake Silverstein, editor-in-chief of The New York Times Magazine, spoke of the uniqueness of the project, one he believes to be the longest story The New York Times has ever run. He also commended the educational component, produced by members of the Pulitzer Center staff and Elon University professor Glenn Scott, for contributing to the story’s broad impact.
“As journalists you have metrics, you have ways of understanding whether or not it’s being read. But you don’t have that many hard ways of understanding if people are actually learning anything from it. And the idea that this project is being painstakingly and very thoughtfully taught according to these lesson plans the Pulitzer Center has created is deeply satisfying to us,” Silverstein said.
Jenna Pirog, The New York Times Magazine’s virtual-reality editor, discussed the VR aspects of the project, specifically Ben Solomon’s work on “The Fight for Fallujah.”
“The most exciting thing about VR is becoming an autonomous viewer and choosing how you’re going to consume the story,” she said, acknowledging the importance in terms of understanding the true nature of war and giving viewers a sense of actual presence.
Pirog also presented the technical aspects of producing a high-quality VR experience saying, “I personally think that audio is far more important than visuals in VR.”
She encouraged any college student currently looking for an edge in the journalism market to look deeper into the importance of 360° audio as VR develops as a medium.
“If I were a student looking for some specialty, 360° audio is so fascinating and very much in demand right now,” she said.
Fareed Mostoufi, Pulitzer Center Senior Education Manager, introduced the multifaceted “Fractured Lands” educational outreach.
Mostoufi said that professors at the secondary and university levels were already using the article to teach units about the recent history of the Middle East and stressed the importance of “getting [students] to ask what the storyteller’s role is in telling this story.”
In response to a question regarding how he looks at the ethnic nationalism present in the Arab world going forward, Anderson told a story about his reporting:
“I remember having this kind of epiphany. I had been traveling around with this Jordanian man for four or five days in Jordan. He was very well educated, and very progressive. He had this genuine love of King Abdullah of Jordan, and anytime Abdullah was mentioned his eyes would light up. So I asked him, ‘Why do you love Abdullah so much?’ He said, ‘because he’s made Jordan the most Western country in the Arab world.’”
“So one night we got to talking,” Anderson continued, “and we got to talking about tribal divisions in the Arab world, and in this kind of abashed way he said, ‘I’m not at all proud of this, but if it ever came to a conflict between my family and my tribe against the king, of course I would choose my family.’”
“It was amazing to me that even in Jordan, the most westernized country in the Arab world, this was still the people's primary allegiance—even for a man who loved the king of Jordan. So when you have countries ripping apart like a Libya and Iraq this is what it naturally reverts to. Looking down the road, this is why I’m rather pessimistic. I just see a further fracturing. I just have a very hard time seeing these countries being put back together,” Anderson said.
The audience of nearly 230 people at Columbia included teachers and students from the New York City Lab School and the Science Leadership Academy of Philadelphia. Both are using the Pulitzer Center’s Lesson Builder to make “Fractured Lands” part of the curriculum this fall.
Jon Sawyer, Pulitzer Center executive director, noted that the collaboration on “Fractured Lands” was a direct result of the Center’s Catalyst Fund, a $1 million initiative aimed at fostering strategic relationships with major news outlets in support of multimedia reporting. The initiative began with support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Kendeda Fund, and individual donors to the Pulitzer Center.
“'Fractured Lands' represents our largest single grant for a reporting project,” Sawyer said. He emphasized that "Fractured Lands" is a testament to the Pulitzer Center’s mission of supporting public-good journalism and educational outreach, with the aim of reaching the largest possible audience on big issues that affect us all.