RetroReport is Building a Living Library of Modern News Events

tags: PBS, television, RetroReport

Kyla Sommers is the editor-in-cheif of the History News Network. 


RETRO REPORT on PBS, a new one-hour magazine format series hosted by journalist Celeste Headlee and artist Masud Olufani and featuring New Yorker humorist Andy Borowitz, airs on Monday and Tuesdays this October (check local listings) on PBS, pbs.org and the PBS App. Presented by Georgia Public Broadcasting and produced by Retro Report, a non-profit organization whose mission is to arm the public with a complete picture of today’s most important stories, the series offers viewers a fresh perspective on current headlines, revealing their unknown — and often surprising — connections to the past. The series continues Mondays and Tuesday nights, 9:00-10:00 p.m. ET through Tuesday, October 29. 


Kyra Darnton is the executive producer of Retro Report. She came to Retro Report from CBS News, 60 Minutes, where she produced stories covering everything from the Mexican drug war to counterfeit prescription drugs to the cover up in the death of US Ranger Pat Tillman. Her investigative reporting and storytelling has won multiple awards, including, most recently, a 2012 Peabody Award for a piece exposing fraud in cancer clinical trials. Kyra has worked in broadcast journalism for 20 years.


HNN editor Kyla Sommers interviewed Kyra over the phone about the unique aspects of television and the value of history in the news today. The interview has been edited for clarity.


KS: What inspired you to create the show? 


KD: RetroReport is a six year old nonprofit news organization whose mission is to bring context to the current news and headlines. We help people understand that we’ve been here before and that there are lessons from history that can be applied today. So that’s been our philosophy since we launched. We mostly focused on short form videos because we really felt that they were the perfect length to be digestable but also substantive enough. One or two minute social video media didn’t feel like it would in-depth enough.


We spend six months, sometimes more, reporting and we have a staff of about 22 people who dig into original documents when they’re available—maybe not your kind of historical docuemnts because it’s mostly modern news events. We try to track down all the people who were first-hand witnesses and interview as many as much as we can and then craft them into a compelling narrative. We have a staff of reporters and then also documentary style film editors that help us tell the story using original archival footage, interview footage, and other things that we’ll gather using a contemporary lens.


We’ve been doing this for six years but the idea around the PBS show was really could we come up with a magazine style format where we have 4 different topics and each one covers something that is relevant to today but looks back through the lens of history to help you understand things better. One example is understanding our addiction to social media by looking at the work of B.F. Skinner and variable reward theory. The show gives you enough context to understand the nature of addiction as you’re refreshing your Twitter feed. So we’re picking simple stories and simple narratives and the twists and turns to different topics and putting it together into a show. Each episode features four different topics and then there’s a short humorous end piece which humorist Andy Borowitz writes and narrates. Andy's segment is similar in that it’s over archival footage and discusses things that happened in the past. It’s like a funny version of RetroReport. 


KS: So is each episode centered on a theme or is it disparate topics? 


KD: It’s different toipcs. It coud be a story on immigration, a story on sexual harassment, a story on artificial intelligence, and recycling. We are trying to find themes that are relevant to today and then find a narrative that connects the past to the present. We thought a lot about the mix and tried to make sure that the topics feel like they go together and are complementary but you also don’t want to have four really depressing stories. You’re trying to mix it so they’re not all going to be tragic history because it’d be really painful. 


KS: How did you select the topics when you were initially planning? Were there certain things that were especially important for you to cover or was it most important to appeal to a broad audience with a mix of sociological, technological, and political topics? 


KD: I was focused on thinking about what is most relevant to today because that’s what I think makes the show different. We really try to be clear about how something in the past is still impacting us and relevant today. There were a variety of topics we wanted to do but we tried to pick the things that people are thinking about and care about and that feel relevant to our lives.


I always tell the story that when we first started we were obsessed with Mad Cow Dieses because it had happened and had a huge impact in the past and we were all so worried about what would happen. The story was about the passage of time but we couldn’t come up with what made it relevant. When you’re spending this much time and energy looking back at soemthing I thnk we really want to be clear and sure that we could forward our understanding of something for today. Which as an aside is what I love about what you do too—it’s ingratined in your work –which is helping people understand and gain perspective from historians who study and cover the past which I think is essential. 


KS: Thank you! I know that the show focuses on history—using a lot of history—but it’s also very interdisciplinary. I’m curious how you interact with different disiplines and the different ways  that different scholars approach topics to weave it together into one story or narrative. 


KD Well, it’s for a general audience. I think depending on the topic our reporters will speak to as many people as possible while they’re reporting but it’s often not very in depth in the scholarship in the way that I historian might. We foucus much more on revisiting the events that happened and trying to understand what they mean. 


There’s often a level of media criticsm in our stories, either overtly or under the surface. When you go back and revisit a news event, you find that often the story was originally reported in a kind of frenzy. Science and the media don’t always understand an event the same way and that difference can take a while to play out.


So, one of my favoreite examples of this is nuclear winter. It was a theory that the impact of a nuclear war would have these huge climatic effects and that really became part of the dialogue during the Cold War. What happened next is really interesting to me and I won’t give it away but we look back at the science and ask, what does the passage of time tell us about these theories? Sometimes obviously you have historians or scientists with different news and we try as best we can to explain both sides. The passage of time can really help us understand an event in a much more clear way than the frenzy of the immediate news.


The hardest part of these stories is actually trying to distill history in a couple of sentences or a couple of moments. We have a very robust fact-checking process and we’ll sometimes spend five hours debating how to phrase one line because we know that what we’re doing is taking this huge body of research and summarizing it. But, again, because it’s for a general audience it’s often making helping to make the connection between present and past. 


KS: I always tell my students that sometimes writing a paragraph can be one of the hardest thigns to do. You think writing a 25 page paper would be harder but condesning a 25 page paper into a paragraph is a very tricky type of writing. 


KD: You totally get it, that’s exactly right. And that is the problem of telelvision too-- it's a medium that really distills things in a short form. But I think television is the way so many people interact with the world so it’s really important. And there’s also the power of seeing, using this archival footage to see things that you remember or misremember or that you never experienced and to get to see them now. I think that’s part of the value too. We think of these stories as building a living library of modern news events. I should mention that we update them as things change over time. The ultimate goal of the project is to have this really robust digital living library of modern news events for future historians to use and interact with. 


KS: Wow. That’s powerful. You’ve touched on this a bit, but for myself editing the History News Network and for a lot of other historians, we’re so focused on the written word and there’s often pretty unlimited space for how long a book can be. It’s definitely not the hard cut-off of an episode of telelvision. With television, did that alter the topics that you selected and change the preparation process? 


KD: It doesn’t at all because it takes what we were already doing: distilling these really complicated topics and helping people connect to them. I hope it goes without saying, but if not I’ll say it: I don’t think a ten minute video can replace an amazing work of scholarship or even often a long in-depth journal article or historical paper. But what I do think is that it can help people really connect to history and get why it’s important. It can actually be a sort of gateway drug to learn more about these topics. So if you don’t know anyting about the Cold War and you hear about it during a story on nuclear winter in connection to climate change and geoengineering today, I think it expands your perception and your world view and makes you want to learn more. I think what we’re often doing is introducing the fundamental notion and then the hope is that people will seek out more content and scholarship on these toipcs. 


KS: Absolutely. You discussed reviewing old news footage and realizing how the coverage of topics has changed over time and that there's often an initial journalistic frenzy. After putting together a season of this show, what is the biggest lessons you’ve taken away for journalistic best practices in reporting on new events and it holding up over time? 


KD: It’s such a good question and it’s such an important question. There are so many lessons but the biggest one is to embrace the passage of time and not be so quick to feel like you have to know what everything means right away. I think there is so much in the reporting process and how we get our news today that is broken. People see a headline on Twitter and think they understand an issue and that’s really a problem. I think it's important to bake the context in and helping your readers or viewers understand not just what the latest headline is but also the context for how we got here and the bigger historical picture. It helps you understand where we are and also can provide a level of calm in this frenzied age. You just realize that we’ve been here before in many ways and I think it’s more important than ever to really understand that. 


KS: That's so true. These past few weeks especially, it feels like if you go away from Twitter for a few hours and then come back, it feels like everything has shifted and it takes 30 minutes to catch up. 


KD: I think that way of expecting people to interact with the news, to constantly be reading everything and know everything, I thnk it causes people to turn off and be less informed and less engaged. So I hope that the value of brining context through these hopefully compelling stories is to get people to think a little differently about the world. I hope we get them to think, what is the history and how did we get here? What am I missing, how can I step back and take a breath? I think that’s one of the most important things that we could do. And in general I think historians are doing a great job—historians on Twitter even are helping people add context to where we are. I think that’s more important now than it has been previously.


KS; Well, thank you so much and I look forward to watching RetroReport which airs Mondays and Tuesdays at 9 ET on PBS.  


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