“Seeing Music”

December 4, 2009

By: Laura Franzini

The NPR and PRI program Here & Now, which airs on Boston’s WBUR 90.9 radio station, occasionally airs medical-related pieces, often as a way to educate the audience about a particular medical topic or recent breakthrough.

On November 27, Here & Now closed the day’s lineup with a feature called “Seeing Music.”

The segment focused on a rare neurological condition called synesthesia, which is defined as a sensation produced at a point other than or remote from the point of stimulation, e.g. the ability to see music as various colors.

As described by Dr. Richard Cytowic, author of “Synesthesia: A Union of the Senses” and “Wednesday is Indigo Blue: Discovering the Brain of Synesthesia” (coauthored by Dr. David Eagleman) this condition is an involuntary “joining” in which the real information of one sense is accompanied by a perception in another sense. The synesthete (one who has synesthesia) regards these perceptions as real, often outside the body, instead of as imagined in the mind’s eye.

The human brain functions like this: when something is sensed, a message is sent to the brain classifying the sense as olfaction (smell), gustation (taste), vision (sight), audition (sound), or tactition (touch). In a brain without synesthesia, the messages are separate and will arouse only one sense. In a brain with synesthesia, one message may arouse multiple senses.

Therefore, someone with this condition will often see colors while listening to music or eating food. Sean Day is one of those people. Robin Young, host of Here & Now, interviewed Day, along with Dr. Cytowic, about the condition and the experiences of a synesthete.

Day is the president of the American Synesthesia Association, which is a not-for-profit organization that was created in 1995 as a way to provide information to synesthetes and to further research into the area of synesthesia. Though once considered a rare condition, developments in technology, including fMRI scans and the Internet, have shown that synesthesia is not so uncommon.

fMRI scans have allowed scientists such as Dr. Cytowic to further explore the brains of synesthetes and how they work. One of the reasons synesthesia is so fascinating is that it directly goes against the evolutionary trend for increasing separation of function in different parts of the brain. While the majority of human beings perceive light, sound, taste, touch, and smell as separate from one another (chicken is not sky blue), in the brains of synesthetes, the senses are mixed together.

The Internet has allowed synesthetes to learn more about their abilities and to be in contact with one another.

Day has known that he is different from other people since the age of five. He says he remembers pulling out various records to play so that he could see the colors accompanying the music. He realized his unique ability when he noticed that no one else was talking about the colors.

Synesthesia is not without its setbacks, however. Just as certain tastes and sounds clash when perceived together, the additional sensations of synesthetes can make either good combinations or bad combinations. For example, Day tends not to enjoy listening to a French horn in an orchestra because he perceives the French horn as a color that does not compliment the music’s other colors. He describes the sensation as “disturbing.”

And because this condition is still fairly unknown to the general population, there have been cases of children who exhibit signs of synesthesia being punished or labeled as mentally handicapped because parents do not know how to handle their child’s unusual perceptions.

I first heard about synesthesia earlier this year when my Advanced Placement Psychology class was studying sensation and perception. As a fairly artistic person, this condition fascinated me. The ability to sense taste when you touch something or see colors when listening to a piece of music seems to be a natural enhancement (i.e. not produced by any sort of drug) of one’s perception of the world, and one that would be very interesting to experience, regardless of its few drawbacks.

Today, scientists are trying to figure out the gene for synesthesia. This research will hopefully lead to a broader understanding of the brain’s functioning, particularly in regards to sensation and perception.

Related links: The Synesthetic Experience, The Synesthesia Battery, YouTube – Synesthesia, American Synesthesia Association


By: Laura Franzini

What stuck out in the minds of many of those who listened to him speak was Marty Baron’s optimism concerning the “future of journalism.”

In a talk session with his publisher, P. Steven Ainsley, at Emerson College on Thursday, November 19, Boston Globe editor Martin “Marty” Baron gave a very different perspective on the usually dire outlook for the field of journalism.

“I’m optimistic because if you look at the media at large, it’s exploding,” Baron said in response to an audience member’s question. “The reality is that media is exploding and becoming much more entrepreneurial, much more creative.”

This view was a welcome notion for the vast majority of journalism students who sat in the audience; many have been dealing with both the societal and personal questions about why they decided to pursue journalism—in particular print journalism—in an advancing culture that seems to be leaving many news organizations in the dust.

Baron’s perspective seems to be the opposite of what many people have come to fear. He said, “The opportunities [for young people entering the journalism field] are actually expanding rather than contracting.” Such opportunities include journalists starting new ventures of their own, joining other new ventures, and having the opportunity to rise quickly through organizations.

Baron stressed the idea that people must overcome the notion of what’s happening at newspapers, magazines, and radio stations in order to fully see the ways in which the field of journalism is actually growing.

Globe publisher Steven Ainsley agreed with Baron in the evidence of positive effects that the growth of the Internet in particular has had on the world of news. “More people are reading newspapers than ever before,” Ainsley said. He added that he believes that people are becoming more discriminating when it comes to the source of their news, especially related to the rise of bloggers. “People are beginning to question the veracity of what they’re reading,” he said.

In terms of their own newspaper, both Ainsley and Baron have witnessed first-hand both the negative and positive consequences that the rise of the interactive media has had on print publications. Over the past year, the Globe has experienced enormous pay cuts, staff reductions, and threats by its owner, the New York Times Company, closing or selling the paper.

This tension has made union negotiations vital as well as put a strain on the Globe’s allocation of resources, particularly internationally. But though these difficulties have made the past year a “tumultuous” one for the Globe, both Baron and Ainsley clearly recognize the good that has arisen as well.

“More people are reading newspapers than ever before,” Ainsley said. “Far more people are reading the Globe today than ever have in the past.” “The Globe is not just a newspaper anymore,” Baron added, citing the implementation of video, documentaries, and audio into their news presentation. “The capacity to be able to tell stories in new ways is an exciting notion.”

And the opportunities that these capacities will provide to aspiring journalists in the future is a comforting notion to both journalism students and their professors. “Maybe I should start telling my students that,” said Mark Leccese, a journalism professor at Emerson, in reflection of the perspective Baron gave concerning growing journalistic opportunities. For Baron and Ainsley already, this notion has given them hope in some of the most difficult times of their careers.

Ainsley is set to retire as publisher of the Boston Globe at the end of this year. No official explanation has been given.

Audio of the talk can be found here.

Local News Coverage

November 25, 2009

By: Laura Franzini

This post marks week 3 of a three-part series on the coverage of the Boston-based WBUR program Here & Now during the month of October 2009. As the previous post in the series focused on Here & Now’s national news coverage during October, this week I will discuss the program’s coverage of local news and events.

In analyzing Here & Now’s local news coverage, one can see that the only thread that ties the stories together is the fact that they discuss an event that happened in Boston or they feature a local expert being interviewed about a topic.

This broadness means that stories can range a home genetic test developed by a Boston University professor to a new documentary about a local woman who died from AIDS.

Most of the time, these local stories are saved for the second half of the broadcast—especially if they also fall under the “arts” category. This scheduling means that, according to the structure of the program (as I described in a previous post), that Here & Now covers most local stories as secondary features, giving the headline spot to more widespread international and national news the feature spot.

Nashua Telegraph staff photo by Don Himsel

However, there was one exception to this pattern, when four small town New Hampshire teenagers were arrested for allegedly killing a woman and brutally injuring her daughter while they slept. On October 7, Here & Now led its news coverage with this story, which included an interview with the editor of the Nashua Telegraph, a newspaper that is published in a city nearby to where the attacks occurred.

This story was the only coverage of a local event that was presented as “breaking news.” The other local stories illustrated the newsworthy aspects of prominence, proximity, meaning, and human-interest, rather than the importance and timeliness aspects that a homicide embodies.

Because of these weightier newsworthy aspects, Here & Now made the right choice in placing the attacks in Mont Vernon, NH, as the headline story. While many of the other local stories covered the lighter side of news (such as the arts or “Halloween science”), this story was much more serious and therefore capable of grabbing an audience’s attention—exactly what a headline in any news publication or broadcast should do.

National News Coverage

November 14, 2009

By: Laura Franzini

This post marks week 2 of a three-part series on the coverage of the WBUR program Here & Now during the month of October 2009. As last week’s post focused on Here & Now’s international news coverage during the month, this week I will discuss the program’s coverage of national news and events. Next week will be dedicated to analyzing Here & Now’s local news coverage.

One word to describe Here & Now’s national news coverage during the month of October: balanced.

Now, by “balanced,” I mean that Here & Now’s coverage is able to compete with larger news organizations by providing a variety of news stories that cater to a variety of listeners. Instead of focusing on one particular aspect of national news (big headlining events, news that directly impacts listeners, or simply unusual stories), Here & Now spreads its coverage to envelop each of these categories fairly equally. The program thereby covers a wide variety of news, which many similar news programs do not have the budget or resources to do.

In my analysis of the program’s October national reporting, I assigned each individual story to one of three categories: headline politics, advice for the people, and other. Stories in the “headline politics” category cover the day’s big-name events and happenings that many other news organizations would have likely covered as well. Stories in the “advice for the people” category tend to cover less-timely events and to serve listeners by showing how the topic can affect them and what they can do about it. Finally, stories in the “other” category generally cover the unusual, human interest-type topics.

My analysis found that there were 8 stories under the “headline politics” title, 6 stories in the “advice for the people” category, and 5 in the “other” group.

The slightly larger focus on “headline politics” makes sense as those stories are considered to be the most important national events in terms of timeliness and other newsworthy factors. In order for Here & Now to be a viable news source for listeners, the program must compete with other journalistic organizations.

One way that the program competes with other organizations, besides necessarily offering the top news stories of the day, is by giving something back to the listeners. That gift is one of advice. For example, on October 15, host Robin Young interviewed June Thomas, editor of Slate magazine about America’s lack of dental care policies, especially in the midst of national health care debates. In addition to discussing the changes dental practices have experienced over the years, the interview offered listeners advice about what they can do to ensure their own dental health.

To get an extra leg-up on larger news programs, Here & Now includes a variety of human interest (unusual) stories in its national news lineup. These stories are rarely covered by other news organizations—though they are always tied to a recent event in some way—and tend to grab listeners by their unique content, e.g. previewing a new documentary about CNN camerawoman Margaret Moth, who was wounded in Sarajevo in 1992 and was recently diagnosed with terminal cancer.

By reporting stories in a balanced way, Here & Now is able to offer listeners a service that they cannot get elsewhere. This advantage helps to build and establish an audience—one of the primary goals of any news organization. By applying this style of reporting to national news, Here & Now is able to gain listeners anywhere it is broadcast.

International News Coverage

November 6, 2009

By: Laura Franzini

For the next three weeks, I will be analyzing Here & Now’s news coverage for the month of October 2009. Each week will focus on a different aspect of the show’s news coverage:

  • Week of November 1: analysis of international news coverage
  • Week of November 8: analysis of national news coverage
  • Week of November 15: analysis of local news coverage

The purpose of this analysis will hopefully give readers a clearer understanding of the program’s beat and style of reporting.

During October, each day’s program almost always began with the featured international news story, indicating Here & Now’s belief in the importance of international news. Most of the show’s international coverage concerned events in the Middle East, particularly events occurring in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

As is the style of the program, in order to discuss these events, host Robin Young interviewed an expert who was either close to the action or knew a lot about the issues that led to the event.

For example, the program’s coverage of the Battle of Wanat in Afghanistan, in which 9 United States soldiers were killed, was done on a personal level—Robin interviewed retired Colonel David Brostrom, the father of one of the young soldiers killed in battle, First Lieutenant Jonathan Brostrom. Being a former military man himself, Brostrom had adequate experience and knowledge to discuss the topic, as well as a very deep investment in the situation.

However, though Here & Now deems international news to be important, throughout the month the program kept its international focus almost exclusively limited to events that concerned U.S. Foreign Affairs—events directly involving Americans and/or the American government. Instead of even mentioning the major earthquake in Indonesia on October 1, the death toll for which was up to 531 by mid-morning, Here & Now covered the results of a meeting between American and Swiss officials concerning Iran’s nuclear plans that had happened the previous day. The earthquake was also not mentioned the following day, though it made top headlines at CNN.com; the BBC’s website; and even on WBUR, the Boston NPR station that airs Here & Now.

Though perhaps omitting coverage of the earthquake is surprising, I have a theory as to how and why Here & Now chooses to cover the news that it does….

For one, Here & Now presents information through interviews. And though it stays up-to-date on its coverage of current events, it would not have been practical for the program to discuss the earthquake the day it happened, simply because of the difficulty in finding an expert to interview within a few hours of the event’s occurrence and having to reschedule the interviews already scheduled for that day’s program..

Second, Here & Now describes itself as “bringing you the news that breaks after Morning Edition, and before All Things Considered,” two other NPR news programs aired daily before and after Here & Now, respectively. This description indicates that it would cover different topics than the preceding and following programs. And since Morning Edition focuses heavily on foreign, non-U.S. news, Here & Now would consequently focus very little on this area of news.

(An annual study done by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism found that, in 2008, NPR’s Morning Edition focused 20% of its coverage on foreign [non-U.S.] news topics. Assuming that this trend continued into 2009, I reasoned that, if Morning Edition has already covered the previous day’s foreign news, Here & Now would be free to cover U.S.-related foreign news, which makes up only 9% of Morning Edition’s coverage.)

That is not to say that Here & Now completely leaves out all important events if they do not directly concern the United States. Several times in October, the program covered non-U.S.-related topics:

  • the bombing of the United Nations’ food complex in Pakistan (Monday, October 5)
  • the trial in Italy to determine whether Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s immunity from prosecution was constitutional (Tuesday, October 6)
  • the bombing of the Indian embassy in Afghanistan (Thursday, October 8)
  • the president of Pakistan’s statement that his government will not cease efforts to stop the Taliban (Thursday, October 15)
  • Afghan president Hamid Karzai agreeing to a runoff election (Tuesday, October 20)

However, the majority of Here & Now’s international news coverage focused on foreign news involving the U.S., indicating that its goal in covering international news is to bring information directly pertaining to America to the American people.