What is Umwelt?

Beth Topinka, a NJ-based science teacher, posted a link today to a site called Umwelt. The video was lovely; it was the word umwelt which conjured memories for me. Once understood, the word umwelt etched an impact to the point that I have used the concept to help students understand why and how current events get reported.

Essentially, the German word means how one experiences a situation from where one stands. Here’s one explanation. https://www.edge.org/response-detail/11498 Wikipedia has an even denser explanation.

My 8th grade art and social studies teachers teamed to teach us the meaning of umwelt through what would now be called project-based learning. We chose two pictures of equal size and mounted those photos on two separate pieces of thin cardboard. Then we cut both pictures into equal-sized vertical strips. Now here is where my memory gets a bit fuzzy. Somehow, we pieced the work together in a corrugated manner so picture A was on one plane, and picture B on the other.

Here’s my rudimentary Google Drawing. (I’m still the digital immigrant!)

corrugated lines
Picture A and B were mounted in this corrugated fashion.

The outcome was this. When one stood to the left of the art piece, one only saw picture A. When one stood to the right of the piece; only picture B appeared. Looking straight on, one saw a third picture which was the result of A and B coming together. It was a powerful lesson in how three people could look at the same image and see three different pictures.

How does this apply to journalism?

As an aside, as a graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill, I landed a job in radio news. After graduating, I moved on to work in Washington, DC as a writer and editor for various news organizations including ABC News, WDVM (now WUSA) and WJLA. I worked in both radio and television news.

While out covering stories, it became abundantly clear that a group of reporters could cover the same event, but the stories often diverged. Call it the umwelt of reporting. Crowd sizes would differ; interviews of participants would differ; still photos and video photos differed. Much depended on where one was standing, who one was talking to, or what kind of background information was being gathered back in the newsroom.

My love-to-tell umwelt story from my editor days involved the National Zoo pandas. Panda births are common now because zoos have learned much about mating. Back in the early 80s, putting a male and female panda together in the same yard was a newsworthy, springtime event! Such was a notice from the zoo; the pandas would get together for play. My camera crew was late in arriving. The other news organizations had gathered, marking their territory with cameras tripods. My crew had no where to go.

So there was my two-person crew (camera and sound) untethered and trying to get video for the 5:00 news. And the news gods blessed them. The pandas did their romantic performance and my crew got it all. The other crews couldn’t move. Our news director was elated; the viewers, not so much. I fielded lots of calls from outraged Washingtonians about viewing nature live and in action on Action News! But the point being, our news story was wildly (pun intended) different from the others even though everyone was at the same location.

Another example. The video of the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan belongs exclusively to ABC News. While every other camera person ran for cover, ABC News cameraman Hank Brown, a Vietnam War veteran, stayed standing and recording. Any news outlet using that video must credit ABC News. Same event, different reporting.

To highlight the idea of umwelt when I teach journalism, I assign students a major news story to examine by looking at the reporting from large news outlets. These newspapers cover major metropolitan areas: NY Times, Washington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, Chicago Tribune, LA Times, Atlanta Journal Constitution, Miami Herald. Then, there are the US news networks: ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, Fox. And there exists an array of foreign outlets: BBC News, Al Jazeera, The Guardian of London, etc. (And, if you have bilingual students, wow, let them go examine foreign language outlets. Local papers are fine; the students might discover those papers run stories from either larger outlets, or the Associated-Press.) Then, we compare and contrast the coverage.

The Covid-19 pandemic provides a great teachable moment for this exercise. Pick one day; have the students look at the reporting of news outlets and have them answer questions.

Newspapers: What was the story on the front page above the fold (the biggest story of the day)? Was it written by one reporter? A team of reporters? Were team members in different locations?

Television: What story led the newscast? Who reported the story? The anchor? A reporter? Does the reporter have a high profile? Were two sides of the story reported with soundbites?

Did broadcast news organizations use the same soundbite, or did they differ? Depending on what the students are looking at, sound bites (an aural quote) might vary; or television sound bites and print quotes could align. Did students find a slant to stories? If so, ask for their evidence? Who do they think the stories are aimed at? Foreign born students will often talk about how coverage of the US plays a prominent role in the newspapers they are familiar with, but their countries are often ignored in US coverage.

The discoveries lead to rich and illuminating conversations. The exercise supports critical reading and thinking skills. Students can begin to see the interconnections of the global community, as well as cultural differences. The exercise hopefully makes students better news consumers and better citizens.

Thank-you Beth Topinka for providing my writing question for the day. Such a fun trip for me down memory lane!

3 thoughts on “What is Umwelt?

  1. You’re welcome, Sue! Having never heard the term “umwelt” before yesterday, I’m overwhelmed with that concept’s possibilities for students of all ages, in many different arenas. While I absolutely adore teaching grades 2-5 STEAM Labs, I would love the chance to have conversations with high-school journalism students about current event coverage.


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