National Geographic writer and editor discusses the importance of 'slow journalism'

For National Magazine Award winner Don Belt, good storytelling is as easy as taking a walk.

Award-winning National Geographic contributor Don Belt instructs his students at the University of Richmond to walk outside and make a map of what they see. They take photos. They ignore the age-old saying “don’t talk to strangers.” This is what Belt calls “taking a walk,” and it is what he encouraged Syracuse students to do at a lecture in the Hergenhan Auditorium this Thursday in a lecture titled “Slow Journalism: Integrating Digital into Traditional Storytelling.”

“We want the reader to feel what we feel.”
- Don Belt

Belt focused his discussion on the National Geographic journalist Paul Salopek’s monumental 21,000 mile trek around the world, called the “Out of Eden” walk, which began in 2013 in Ethiopia. His goal was to create a global record of human life in the 21st century through photographs, video, audio and, most importantly, his stories.

“As Paul’s walking, you’re able to follow along,” Belt said. “When his journey comes to an end, it will be a historical event. He’s walking through the current events that we’re reading about in the newspaper.”

But even though Salopek’s journey is monumental, it’s the little things that make it so special, Belt said. Perhaps the most fascinating is Salopek’s story on the simple, colorful plastic sandals worn by many Ethiopians.

“How best to glimpse an individual’s core values at the start of the 21st century? Look down at their feet — not into their eyes,” Salopek writes in Chapter One of the series.

“He’s walking and going slow, and he’s seeing these things and it turns out to be a story,” Belt said.

Belt has done his fair share of slow journalism. As a writer for National Geographic, Belt traveled the world, spending days and even months in places like Pakistan and Syria, collecting stories of the people around him. His piece “Parting the Waters,” an in-depth look at the role of the Jordan River in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, appeared in the April 2010 issue of National Geographic and won a National Magazine Award.

“We want the reader to feel what we feel,” Belt said. “Especially travel writers or feature writers — we want to take the reader there.”

In his discussion, Belt praised the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting for their efforts in funding reporting endeavors and education initiatives. Ann Peters, the Director of Development and Outreach for the Pulitzer Center, was present in the audience.

Today, in partnership with the Pultizer Center, Belt shares his passion for slow journalism and raises awareness of Salopek’s project with students and educators across the country. For Belt, slow journalism is storytelling at its best.

“It allows you the time and space to live it,” Belt said. “ It’s based on something real. You earn the right to tell stories this way.”

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