Walking the Line: The Role of Public Scholars and Journalists in the Information Age

Journalist Panel

The proliferation of new media—including online publications, blogs, op-eds, and social media—has changed the information landscape for journalists and public scholars, the latter being those who share their research beyond academia to engage policymakers and influence public opinion. It also has created common ground and new opportunities for collaboration between journalists and public scholars working on issues involving trauma, mental health, and human rights. On September 16, IDN and The Carter Center’s Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Program hosted a panel of experts to discuss the opportunities and challenges new media pose for researching and reporting on difficult topics such as conflict, gender-based violence, and mental health.

New Media, New Opportunities

A common theme for both the journalists and public scholars on the panel was excitement about opportunities that new media provide for sharing information and collaboration. Lauren Wolfe spoke about her work with the Women Under Siege project, which brings together journalists, researchers, and practitioners to share their expertise on sexual violence in conflict zones. The project includes a crowd-sourced map of sexual violence in Syria, as well as analysis and opinion from Wolfe and experts in different fields. Social media allows the project to share victims’ and survivors’ stories, analysis, and opinion through its website and Twitter feed. According to Bill Lichtenstein, mental health journalism has benefited from improved access to information and experts, and from the growing number of outlets for in-depth coverage of mental health issues.

Panelists

Ioana Avadani, journalist and executive director of the Center for Independent Journalism in Romania

Sabrina Karim, Emory PhD candidate in political science

Bill Lichtenstein, journalist and member of the Advisory Board for the Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Program

Pamela Scully, professor in Emory’s departments of African Studies as well as Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies 

Lauren Wolfe, journalist and director of the Women Under Siege project of the Women’s Media Center 

Massive open online courses, known as MOOCs, also provide opportunities for collaboration. Pamela Scully co-taught a Coursera course titled Understanding Violence to help the general public better understand the causes and effects of violence in the US and globally. The course, which had more than 25,000 students, highlighted the work of experts from different fields—including Wolfe—and used a web-based platform with the potential to reach millions of learners. The ability to reach this many people is not new for many journalists, but it has helped researchers make the shift from scholarship to public scholarship by vastly increasing audiences from the discipline-specific experts reading academic journals to anyone with internet access and a desire to learn.

At What Cost?

This broader audience, however, has not come without costs. Scully and Wolfe both pointed to the fact that once a journalist or scholar publishes her work, it is impossible to control readers’ reactions. Both women discussed “internet trolls” and their threats of violence, character assassinations, and other forms of verbal abuse that often target female journalists and scholars as a way to silence their voices. 

The growth of information-sharing opportunities also has led to information overload. Lichtenstein explained that “there’s so much stuff being written and so much stuff out there that it’s kind of hard to be heard above the clutter.” Panelists expressed concerns that this clutter has led to an oversimplification of the information being shared because of the perceived need to grab readers’ attention quickly. They were especially concerned about the dangers of human rights and mental health advocacy groups succumbing to this pressure. Sabrina Karim identified how this pressure leads to a focus on “the worst numbers”—in terms of fatalities, rapes, and abuse—without adequate attention to context or, in some cases, accuracy.

“Just the Facts” versus Advocacy

Scholars and journalists working on issues related to human rights and human suffering are responsible for sharing information that is accurate. But do they need to go further to advocate for change? Is there a line between sharing information and advocacy? According to Lichtenstein, “there is a myth that facts are objective, and facts are the purest form of journalism.” He explained that when covering issues such as mental illness or sexual violence, journalists’ responsibility should be “telling the stories of people who are experiencing these issues, providing a window on their experience.” Karim agreed and added that, while conducting research in Monrovia this summer, she wrote several op-ed pieces on the Ebola crisis to inform the international community about what was happening on the ground. Though the pieces were not directly related to her research, Karim felt a responsibility to share accurate information on Ebola with a broader audience because there were few international reporters on the ground in Monrovia. As a result, many of the “facts” being shared by those reporting from outside the country were inaccurate.

For Wolfe, part of her responsibility as a journalist is translating the needs of trauma survivors into journalism. Scully believes “it’s really important as academics and researchers that we try to bring the people who really are doing the work on the ground and know what they are doing together with academics to think about new ways of moving forward.”

Panel moderator Ioana Avadani shared her perspective that research and reporting versus advocacy is not an “either/or” issue. Drawing on her experience fighting to increase the transparency and accountability of public officials in Romania and southern Europe, she explained:

We were taught in journalism that there are always two sides to every story. Yesterday we were invited during The Carter Center presentations to think in terms of many sides to a story. There are always more sides to a story than two. But what about when there is only one side to the story? When you mention rape, or violence, or all human rights issues, what steps do we take when we know what our point of view should be? 


Top: Research, Reporting, and Advocacy Panel on September 16. <l to r> Ioana Avadani, Lauren Wolfe, Pamela Scully, Sabrina Karim, and Bill Lichtenstein

Return to IDN News: Fall 2014 Article Index

IDN News