An award-winning journalist shares his perspectives on “slow journalism” in modern journalism field

Kai Nguyen | Contributing Photographer

Award-winning journalist Don Belt talked importance of paying close attention to details in the fast-paced nature of modern day journalism in a talk at Syracuse University Thursday evening.

Don Belt takes the phrase “stop and smell the roses” and applies it to the fast-paced nature of modern day journalism.

Belt, an award winning journalist and longtime writer and editor for National Geographic, gave a lecture titled, “Slow Journalism: Integrating Digital into Traditional Storytelling” on Thursday evening in the Joyce Hergehan Auditorium at Syracuse University.

Belt discussed the importance of slow journalism and the integration of digital and traditional storytelling as well as the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Paul Salopek’s “Out of Eden” project. He said the project traces the steps of our ancestors as they migrated across the globe, and how it very much involves an immersive journalistic experience. The product of this extensive and participatory meta-story is to convey what has become of our world since we took possession of it.

“That time that I invest pays off, because it not only earns me the right to ask questions and to see people living their real lives but it also allows me to impart humanity and warmth to whatever I’m writing about,” Belt said.

This is essentially the concept of slow journalism. It is to return to the basics of journalism, Belt said. It’s not just getting the facts but reporting on the people and rendering a sense of place. The purpose is to share not only the factual elements but also the emotional experience of that coverage to the reader.

“In every Geographic story we ever worked on, the goal is to take the reader there and make them feel like they had that experience; we don’t just want to tell them about it,” Belt said. “Encyclopedias can do that! Wikipedia can do that!”

Belt said interactive storytelling renders tiny telling details by watching and noting the little things in between the big things.

“When your slowing down and living in a story for a period of time it changes your perspective,” Belt said. “In some ways you come back a different person than the one that went out, that certainly was true for me.”

In Iraq, Belt worked on a story about the Marsh Arabs seeking refuge due to bombings inflicted by Saddam Hussain. Belt asked a man for directions and over time, developed a rapport with him. The man had eventually showed him a drainage ditch he had diverted to create a little marsh in his backyard –– to remind him of home.

This glimpse into the man’s life ended up being an extremely important part of Belt’s story: it offered a pivotal perspective.

Talking to people and truly caring about relationships and the day to day details of a person’s life is the difference between simply relaying facts and sharing a personal experience, Belt said.

The “Out of Eden” project, Belt said, is a cumulative story about people all over the world. Paul Salopek is leading –on foot­– this decade long project to largely explore all the details. By literally walking the path that our ancestors had walked, Salopek investigates the lengths of technological innovation and cultural survival. In turn, Salopek is developing an expansive record of 21st century civilization through the use of photos, videos, audio clips and various written works, Belt said.

“Learning about the differences between slow and fast journalism and why it’s important is really interesting. It’s something I will definitely take with me,” said Sienna Lee, a sophomore studying magazine journalism who hopes to be a travel writer.

Belt continued to explain, there is no formula to what we write and how we go about writing it, so it is important to take some time to notice small, distinctive moments.

Slowing down to notice the nuances and nurture relationships is what improves reporting, since it is based on something real rather than superficial, Belt said.

“You earn the right to tell stories this way,” Belt said.


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