Freelance reporters stress social responsibility in news industry

Sean Lavery

Four freelance journalists from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting shared their perspectives on the future of journalism as an important and endangered tool of activism in a speech Monday night.

Nathalie Applewhite, managing director for the center, opened the discussion by saying that particularly in a struggling media environment, journalists should use their reporting as a way to influence discussion of typically under-reported stories.

“I grew up with the idea of the media having a responsibility to the public,” Applewhite said. “Many more outlets are now moving more towards entertainment, which due to financial restraints is practical. However, I believe the news is what you need to know, not necessarily what you want to know.”

Bill Wheeler, a freelancer who has reported in the Middle East and more recently in Haiti following the January earthquake, agreed that the mainstream media fails at discussing a problem before it escalates to a crisis. In terms of Haiti, he said he has struggled to find “reporting that speaks to the complexity of issues” like long-term infrastructure problems.

The problem of under-reporting important issues was a sentiment shared among the members of the panel, all of whom said it was a reason they got involved in nonprofit journalism. Emmy-nominated reporter Lisa Biagotti said she uses her stories to explore an area of culture and society to root out the source of under-reporting.

“The idea is to look at a problem through a broader lens than you would see with a headline,” she said.

Biagotti’s coverage of homophobia and HIV rates in Jamaica has attracted attention to a growing epidemic. She emphasized that a crucial component of educating others is to look past the sensationalist reporting and “really understand the root cause of a statistic.”

When members of the Pulitzer Center visit high schools, Applewhite said she consistently hears that the most important aspect of news is that it’s “entertaining first and informative second.”

“It’s really up to young people educating others on the importance of news and the quality of reporting they should demand,” she said.

The panel also offered advice about what foreign correspondence entails. Wheeler said reporters should focus on what is happening in developing cultures and shedding light on those problems. The speakers said the center hopes to increase demand for quality reporting of under-reported stories by showcasing the potential the media has to influence a solution to major crisis situations.

“It’s really about taking an important topic and boiling it down to a narrative swagger,” Wheeler said.

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