“Story in the Public Square” explains its mission as the study and celebration of public storytelling in American politics and culture. This might very well have been the brainchild of Joseph Pulitzer himself, who viewed journalism as a kind of campfire around which people gathered to exchange stories. The partnership between the Providence Journal and the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy at Salve Regina University has resulted in conferences, lectures, awards and original scholarship on the impact of stories on public policy. January 2017 marked “Story in the Public Square’s” debut on RI PBS and SiriusXM radio with a show hosted by Jim Ludes, executive director of the Pell Center, and G. Wayne Miller, Providence Journal reporter.
On the day I visited the RI PBS studio, I watched as the hosts ready themselves to tape an interview with Dan Fagin, author of Toms River: A Study of Science and Salvation, winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction. The shelves behind the oval table where the three men take their seats are filled with bygone journalistic technologies–a manual typewriter, a narrow microphone, a small black and white television, old lights and cameras. Before them, three modern cameras slide back and forth. Elizabeth Francis, executive director of the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities, and I sit at the edge of the studio as the soundman counts us down. “Five, four, three…”
Dan Fagin, professor of Journalism at New York University, looks the part of a seasoned journalist. Unpretentious and direct, Fagin has a lot to say about both the challenges facing contemporary journalism and the importance of scientific reporting. He had been the environmental writer at Newsday for many years before taking a full time position at NYU where he now heads the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. Science reporting shares elements with best journalistic practices: both rely on verifiable evidence and are committed to building a thoughtful and accurate context in which to place that evidence. Both keep the needs of the reader at the center of their enterprises. But science reporting is unique in its underlying logic. It relies on science for its method of weighing evidence and establishing truth. And, Fagin adds, for its narrative format. After all, the genre of science is mystery. Good science (and science reporting) starts with a question to answer, a puzzle to solve, a case to investigate, facts to establish and contextualize, and a hypothesis to prove.
The hosts press Fagin to address the ways the internet has affected the way journalists work. The web is a true paradigm shift, Fagin asserts, affecting every aspect of journalism in ways not unlike how the arrival of moveable type in the early printing press in the fifteenth century changed the way we read, thought, imagined, and worked. We today, 30-plus years into the digital age, are still in the midst of sorting through the wreckage of the old and the promise of the new. Yet while the digital revolution has transformed the production, circulation and business models of traditional journalism, and while it certainly requires new practices and new models for economic viability, not all is doom and gloom, Fagin argues. As with all revolutions, the potential for journalistic innovation and experimentation has also exponentially expanded. News outlets struggle to adapt to this new knowledge environment, but there are innovators and experimental spaces.
As Fagin tells his students, adaptability is the primary skill of our age. Journalists now must make their work “platform agnostic” and in this way enhance their ability to reach interested readers in all available and emerging formats. And, he notes, news readership is high. Lively comment sections demonstrate engaged readership, as does the steady stream of emails Fagin receives from readers about the impact of his work on their lives. Journalists are competing for our attention in the information marketplace, which raises questions about its civic responsibility and reliability. For Fagin, that is why journalistic standards are more important than ever. Journalists offer something that other voices do not: evidence, verification, context and a narrative that has been carefully geared to the reader as a citizen in a participatory democracy. Presenting information readers need to be effective citizens is what sets journalism apart and makes it so critical to the health of our society.
Does the public care? the hosts want to know. Has fake news destroyed readers’ confidence in news? What about readers for whom no amount of facts will change their views, as in the case of climate change or childhood vaccinations? Fagin’s answer shifts the terms of the questions. He tries to avoid what he characterizes as unproductive worry about the State of Journalism Today and instead to keep his focus on readers. The measure of his success is not convincing someone of the truth of his thesis. He measures himself by a far more elusive yet ultimately more traditional measure: has he depicted reality as closely and as accurately as he possibly can? Has he presented information in ways that do not trigger the ideological closing of readers’ minds? Has he told his story in a compelling enough way to hold readers’ attention? In this way, Fagin stands in a long lineage of journalists who have dedicated their careers to the proposition that compelling storytelling yoked to verifiable scientific evidence, presented by knowledgeable experts, will help establish meaningful, accurate and actionable patterns that can shape informed policy.
The cameras stop taping and the room exhales. Fagin laughs modestly as he reaches into his pocket for his smart phone. The work never stops. The hosts ask him a few more questions and they are back at it. The conversation has been too good to walk away from.
Watch the full episode here:
Jane Gerhard is a historian and writer living in the Elmwood neighborhood of Providence. She earned a PhD in American Studies from Brown University in 1996 and never left. She is the author of two books, the co-author of an American women’s history textbook and is currently at work on on her next book, The Monkey King of Madison. More information can be found at janegerhard.com.
Jane is blogging for the Council as part of the Pulitzer Prize-inspired commemorative series, What is the 21st Century Essay? to help us explore the changing nature of journalism and the humanities in the digital age with a focus on environmental issues because of their urgency and relevance to our health, communities, and economy.