Telling the whole story: Symposium aims to close gap between journalism, humanities

The Internet and social media make journalism faster and less expensive than ever to create, share and consume. However, the benefits of digital journalism come with costs: serious audiences are inundated with content, audience attention is increasingly fragmented, and journalists are under increased pressure to produce shorter forms of journalism that are closely linked to the immediate needs of specific communities and consumers.

How to restore, rebuild and re-energize connections between journalism and the humanities is the focus of a symposium from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., Feb. 17, in Social Sciences, room 109, Tempe campus, presented by ASU’s Institute for Humanities Research (IHR).

Today’s journalistic culture is one where news stories are shorter, delivered faster and are more focused on of-the-moment reporting of “news” rather than longer analytical pieces that help readers place events in context. These trends are likely to continue, further isolating journalism from sources of deeper reflection, and increasingly turning journalism into an instrument of the Internet and its consumers.

Under the pressure of the immediacy delivered by instant global communications and increasingly specialized forms of information, journalism can easily lose contact with deeper sources of understanding of current events, including history, literature, philosophy and other fields within the humanities.

“Journalism and the humanities should be natural allies,” says Gregg Pascal Zachary, a professor of practice at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications, who will moderate the first session of the symposium. “However, we have to first recognize what’s been lost to journalism and the humanities when the two are estranged, and we need to respond to the challenge of drawing the two closer together in new ways.”

The rise of “robot journalists” – computers programmed to generate standard reports on sports, business and politics, for instance – highlights the promise and the peril of further instrumentalizing journalism, yet at the same time raises the urgent question of how best to incorporate emerging forms of journalism with the enduring wisdom and context of history, literature and philosophy.

The ease with which photos and videos can be captured and shared by reporters and “citizen journalists” raises fresh opportunities for how traditional tools from the humanities can help decode the raw content provided.

The spread of “robot journalism” will inevitably force human journalists into new approaches, and “a re-engagement with the humanities is one of the most appealing options,” Zachary says.

To explore these and other questions, the IHR has assembled two panels of scholars and practitioners from ASU’s Cronkite School, the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes, the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication, and the School of Life Sciences. The first panel will focus on the generative side of journalism and the humanities: what gets created, by whom and how. Stephen Pyne, a leading historian of fire, will examine the importance of journalism to the writing of history. Craig Allen, a trained historian and a television journalist, will discuss the value of history to journalism, the trend towards historical ignorance and the challenge of grounding journalism in historical context.

The panel also will focus on the craft of storytelling. Lee Gutkind, a leader in creative non-fiction, will explain how some journalists have maintained close relationships with literature and narrative storytelling. Journalism, meanwhile, is sometimes called the “first draft of history,” because reporters can capture a good deal of the significance of signal events and trends.

For writers of short stories and novels, reporting current events can be a beneficial way to learn about the world and to improve their craft. Important novelists also were working journalists of great skill, such as Stephen Crane, author of "The Red Badge of Courage;" Nobel Prize winner Ernest Hemingway; and Steig Larsson, author of the best-selling "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" trilogy.

Closing the gulf between journalism and the humanities promises to be beneficial for both sides, which is the focus of the second panel. Three Cronkite School professors, Leslie-Jean Thornton, Sharon Bramlett-Solomon and Dennis Russell, will examine what’s lost to consumers of journalism because of its current estrangement from the humanities.

“For consumers of journalism, the humanities provides a robust set of tools and mental attitudes to help construct and decode the worlds and worldviews presented, consciously and unconsciously, by journalists,” says Sally Kitch, director of the Institute for Humanities Research.