Monday, December 16, 2013

Review: Distant Witness by Andy Carvin

"Distant Witness" by Andy Carvin (2013)
[cover image courtesy of CUNY Journalism Press]

Distant Witness: A book about Twitter, revolutions, and the Twitter revolution

I never thought reading tweets, retweets and hashtags could be so compelling.

Andy Carvin has done a wonderful job looking at Twitter as a new platform of information and interaction, and told that story using both his own narrative and the voice of the medium itself.

The result is a document both of an amazingly important time in international geopolitics (the Arab Spring that saw citizen-led rebellions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain) and a tool that allows the voices of the people involved to resonate around the world.

During the time of the uprisings, Carvin was a masterful curator, filtering the noise and bringing credible first-hand voices into the conversation around the news.

He has proven equally skilled at looking back and recognizing the unprecedented nature of a revolution lived by those on the ground but witnessed by the rest of the world in a way that had never been done before.

"Distant Witness" chronicles news - the Egyptian uprising in Tahrir Square, the Libyan rebellion through to the eventual capture and killing of Moammar Ghadafi, and also the unique ways that news lived and evolved on Twitter. The extended sections about the "Gay Girl in Damascus" hoax, the effort to identify supposed Israeli weapons in Libya and the story of the high schooler who advised rebels with field manuals collected and translated into Arabic.

You won't find these stories anywhere else.

I am sure Andy Carvin would admit that his book is just the beginning of a larger conversation, but it's an amazingly useful one with lessons that journalists should be aware of as non-traditional voices continue to find new ways to be heard in documenting history. "Distant Witness" is most of all about those voices, and Carvin does a great job at letting them speak.

Read this book. It will make you a better journalist and a better citizen of the world.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Review: The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

"The Power of Habit" by Charles Duhigg (2012)
[cover image courtesy of Random House]

The Power of Habit: Self-help journalism

Self-improvement disguised as journalism is a very hit-or-miss genre, but with a reporter like Charles Duhigg (2013 Pulitzer at the NYT) writing it, you're in good hands.

'The Power of Habit' is all about understanding how the brain works, and what the latest research says about how patterns of behavior are formed.

But you also get a look into the latest psychology and practice of behavior modification to learn that it is indeed possible to reprogram your brain to break bad habits and develop good ones to achieve whatever it is you want to change about how you live your life, if anything.

It's very well-written, with substantive case studies and plenty of interviews, context and background to attack the issue from a number of angles, which is very satisfying.

The discussion about how responsible a person is for the subconscious habits at work in their brains (murderer vs. gambler) is particularly interesting and an issue that we are already seeing come up in the news as crafty lawyers try to argue that their clients didn't have control over the things they may have done.

You will learn a lot from this book, and you may even be able to improve your life as a direct result. That's a pretty strong takeway from this one.

Oh and speaking of takeaways, here is the book's 4-step formula for changing a bad habit:

1. Identify the habit loop - trigger, behavior, reward - that you see at work in your life.

2. Identify the specific cue - Pay attention to when you get the craving and you will probably find that what triggers this sequence of events is one of five common cues: a specific time, a specific place, an emotional state, the presence/behavior of certain other people, or what you were doing immediately before you had the craving.

3. Experiment with rewards - For a week, test different rewards and gather some data. You may think that donut is what you crave, but it may turn out that it's the getting-up-from-your-desk-to-take-a-walk that you crave. So just try going for a walk instead of getting the donut next time. Some of the other rewards will satisfy the craving, some will not. The one that does is the one you want to preserve in your new behavior.

4. Have a plan - When you are undertaking the difficult task of rewiring a bad habit in your brain, have a plan for how you are going to deal with the trigger, and some obstacles you are likely to encounter. If you have a plan, you're less likely to fall off the wagon and give in to the craving.

There is a ton more insight in the book, such as the factors that influence the success of a new habit and the theory of small victories, but the main takeaway - that habits can be changed if one goes about it the right way - is a meaningful lesson that can apply to all sorts of situations we encounter in our own behavior.