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Journalists use numbers to define trends and measure problems. We use them to find and quantify the truth.
In Philadelphia, for instance, the numbers tell us far more than we care to know about our city. They tell us that more than one in four Philadelphians lives in poverty. They tell us that nearly one in five Philadelphians is a high school dropout, and that our city’s unemployment rate is three percentage points higher than the national average.
The numbers, quite frankly, paint a picture of a city that is in perpetual need of help. But numbers have no soul. They don’t breathe, or love, or ache. They simply exist, as the unfeeling and unremorseful bearers of bad news.
In a city where numbers too often precede disaster, I don’t believe that numbers can themselves be the entire story.
Stories, at their core, are about people. They’re about living beings that think and feel. That’s why numbers only lead us to the cusp of truth, but people are the ones who carry us over the threshold.
I am proud of all we did at AxisPhilly using data. We found that more than 90 percent of the children in the 23 school buildings that were shuttered last year were impoverished. We learned that more than 90- percent of them were minorities. But when we went into the neighborhoods and interacted with the people through our Schoolhouse Watch initiative, we saw that devastation had neither an income level nor a color. It did, however, have a face.
Over the past year and a half, I’ve relearned the lessons I gleaned from my decade as an author. I’ve learned that character is not defined by what happens in the light, but rather by what happens in the darkness. I’ve learned that personal interactions matter. I’ve learned that stories—real stories—are defined by relationships.
I explored the triangular relationship between poverty, blight and crime in a series called Abandoned, which traced the struggles of a blighted North Philadelphia neighborhood called Sharswood. In that series, which centered on senior citizens who stayed behind when crime and social change gutted their neighborhood, I used data to frame the narrative, but the people were the story.
As journalism moves forward, and data is pushed to the fore, I hope we remember the lessons we learned while producing award-winning content at AxisPhilly. I hope we remember that data can frame the narrative, but stories are about people.
Yes, we must use data as a reference point, but numbers aren’t forced out of neighborhoods by gentrification. People are. Data doesn’t cry when a school is closed. Children do. Statistics don’t mourn when the homicide rate increases. Mothers do.
People are the reason we write stories, and while the move toward technology is a positive step toward quantifying and illustrating those stories, we must remember that data is simply the paint. It is never the entire picture.
At AxisPhilly, I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to write about people. I filmed the tearful story of a college student who watched his friend die in a shooting, and nearly died, as well. I went into communities across the city and talked face-to-face with those whose schools were closing. I told the stories of seniors who were hurt when their communities were gentrified.
I am proud to have been part of the work of AxisPhilly. We examined numbers, extrapolated data, and wrote about the people they affected.
We saw the passion and the pain of the people behind the numbers. We saw the faces that defined the truth of poverty and unemployment. We saw the activists trying to make a difference in the lives of high school dropouts. We saw the scars on neighborhoods held prisoner by crime.
I tried to help heal those scars through the stories I told, and made every effort to bring justice to communities whose voices had been silenced. I tried to document the truth behind the numbers.
As I leave AxisPhilly to embrace my next opportunity, I want to thank each person whose story I told. I want to thank each reader who embraced those truths. I want to thank each commenter who joined the debate. I want to thank my colleagues for their great work.
I am better for having interacted with each one of you.