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James Evers, an inmate at the California Men’s Colony, shaves Joaquin Cruz, 60, a convicted killer with Alzheimer’s disease. Photo Credit: Todd Heisler/New York Times


On Saturday, the New York Times ran an excellent and timely multimedia piece about California prisoners with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia.

Dementia Behind Bars, produced by Nancy Donaldson, is accompanied by the article Life, With Dementia by science writer Pam Belluck.

Donaldson’s 7 minute video also focuses on the prisoners who are the primary caregivers (the state cannot afford professionals). The success of the multimedia piece is due to many factors:

– Great stills from Todd Heisler, giving the story space to breathe.
– The use of black and white, knitting video and still.
– Full description of the issue at hand; since 1995, in the U.S. the number of inmates aged 55 and older has almost quadrupled, to nearly 125,000. Longer sentencing as part of mass incarceration means these inflated numbers will remain for decades.
– Meaningful quotes.
– Dialogue between “patient” and caregiver.
– Interviews with caregivers.
– An overall focus on  the caregiver/patient relationships that confound stereotypes.

To hone the story, Belluck, Donaldson and Heisler made repeated visits to California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo, CA. “I visited the California prison twice last year … staying for about four days,” says photographer Heisler on the New York Times’ Lens blog.

The situation in California is, to a degree, desperate but unfortunately not unique. To train lifers to administer daily care is a cost effective solution to a problem the CDCr is unprepared for. Belluck explains the costs:

New York has taken the top-dollar route, establishing a separate unit for cognitively impaired inmates and using professional caregivers, at a cost of about $93,000 per bed annually, compared with $41,000 in the general prison population. Pennsylvania and other states are giving mental health workers special dementia training.

But some struggling prison systems, including those in Louisiana and California, are taking a less expensive but potentially riskier approach. They are training prisoners to handle many of the demented inmates’ daily needs.

I applaud Belluck, Donaldson and Heisler for their well-rounded piece of journalism that stays clear of sugar-coating the issue (they describe the horrific details of the mens’ original crimes).


Why am I making such a fuss over Heisler, Donaldson and Belluck’s work? Well partly because of Mike Davis’ latest blog post.

Mike Davis’ Does Story Telling Lose in Multimedia is a poorly-argued position on multimedia. Usually very helpful with his industry insider’s voice, Davis has not met his usual standards. Shame.

Davis’ logic is flawed. Let me quote (in bold) and question his three-point disappointment.

1. Thou shalt approach subject matter that mostly happened in the past.

Please show me something in journalism of any medium that has happened in the future. Or, if we are to yearn for the present, does Davis want only live-feeds of events on our TVs and computers?

2. Thou shalt point a video/audio producing machine at a person looking at said machine and ask them questions, as the primary story telling medium. (You may separate said audio from said video with papal dispensation.)

So we shouldn’t interview subjects? Maybe guess what they’re thinking? Do away with quotes? Or should subjects have wireless lapel mics attached when they’re not paying attention?

In good multimedia, the questions are not the content; the answers are. To incorporate them involves, yes, separating and editing audio.

3. Thou shalt make video of something in the present tense that may or may not have anything to do with that past event and then overlay that video cleverly with the interview audio to suggest a connection between the two, without being too misleading.

If there is a gross deception that occurs whereby the mix of audio and video manipulates a story, then this is not the fault of the format, but the poor skills of the creator. If Davis spots it then viewers will too.

On the idea of misleading the audience, maybe Davis is holding too much on to old rigid rules of journalism? The multimedia producers I have spoken to are very clear that while they are reporting a situation, they are doing so with a personal verve. Multimedia has more facets and more production than say a text article or photo-essay. It is layered and if used properly can tell stories VERY effectively.

Multimedia incorporates hard facts but also the producers’ own interpretations of the contexts for those facts. I would call this space between non-fiction and interpretation, storytelling. Good storytelling involves the teller; we rely on his/her skills to walk us through the story.

I can appreciate that Davis may have had a couple of painful experiences judging multimedia competitions but for him to lament the medium is too much of a generalisation and ironically, misleading itself.

As David Campbell noted, Davis offers no examples of poor multimedia. So let me offer some examples of good multimedia:

Intended Consequences by Jonathan Torgovnik/MediaStorm.
Trapped, by Jenn Ackermann.
Afrikaner Blood, by Elles van Gelder & photojournalist Ilvy Njiokiktjien

Alternatively you can trawl the archives of Interactive Narratives or MediaStorm. In the face of such an amount of excellent storytelling, Davis’ position is simply off-the-mark.


Geriatric Prisoners
Dying In Prison
“I don’t want to die in jail. Do you want tot die in jail?”


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