With the rise of the Internet in the last 20 years, trained journalists are no longer the only source of information for the public. In fact, the public has become the source. Any Tom, Dick or Harry can contribute by way of social media to the massive amount of information circulating the web today, and although most of their tweets, pins and “likes” are harmless, some are not.
Pulitzer Prize winner Geneva Overholser, who has devoted the past 10 years to this phenomenon, has been invited by Civitas to speak about it on Tuesday, November 12. Her lecture is entitled “Responsible Public, Responsible Journalism,” and will address the inevitable changes the media has gone through and what conscious decisions we can make to better it.
Overholser was most recently the director of USC’s journalism school, a position from which she retired in the spring. Previously she worked for the Washington Post and was a New York Times editorial board member, as well as the editor of the Des Moines Register, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service under her direction. This extensive background in journalism gave her a firsthand look at the role of the public as media, she said.
“Journalism can become much better than it has ever been. It also has the potential to be far worse,” Overholser said.
Augustana developed a relationship with Overholser through journalism professor Janet Blank-Libra, who was in a book-writing process. Blank-Libra contacted Overholser to ask her opinion on journalism ethics, particularly the “relationship between compassion and journalism.”
The increasing connection between these two subjects sometimes leaves little room for the staple of objectivity. In Overhosler’s book “On Behalf of Journalism: A Manifesto for Change,” published in 2006, Overholser was already commenting on the uneasiness felt by the journalism community on this topic.
“The pace of change makes many anxious,” Overholser wrote, “and denunciations are lobbed from all sides – and from within.”
Blank-Libra agrees. She said she and Overholser share a “mutual interest in the different paths of inquiry” that are developing for journalists, Blank-Libra said.
“Geneva has always been willing to speak alternative truths. I like that about her,” Blank-Libra said.
These alternative truths are ones that Overholser feels particularly affect today’s student journalists. The traditionally “top down” industry has changed dramatically into what she calls a “Wild West situation” that is leading us into an age where everyone is a journalist.
“[Student journalists] will be key to shaping the emerging media environment,” Overholser said.
Freshman Matthew Schilling has experienced this with his participation in online political forums. He said these forums function not only as a source of new information, but also as a medium through which old information is passed. Whatever information gets passed along the most is what gets the most “traditional” media attention.
“When we see bright, insightful commentary, or powerful, important stories, we have just as much responsibility in sharing them,“ Schilling said.
Schilling encourages others to share what they find important.
“If we don’t bother to share what matters to us, we lose our ability to influence society as a whole,” Schilling said.
While this responsibility unsettles journalists both young and old whose livelihoods are threatened by the ease of internet-spread information, Overholser agrees with Schilling. She says the dramatic changes and the idea of citizen journalism is not necessarily a bad thing and should be approached with optimism.
“It’s easy to overlook the promise of the many possibilities that lie before us,” Overholser wrote. “Our focus here is on those possibilities.”
Overholser’s lecture will take place 7 p.m. Tuesday in the Kresge Recital Hall. It is free and open to the public.