In 23 education events over four days—including a class of 15 journalism students at Grand Center Arts Academy, an all-school assembly of more than 400 at Gateway Science Academy, intimate lunches and class discussions with public health students at Washington University in St. Louis, and a public panel discussion at the university’s majestic Graham Chapel—the Pulitzer Center brought two of its strongest science journalists to St. Louis last week.
Jon Cohen, a longtime writer for Science whose HIV/AIDS project with PBS NewsHour won an Emmy last fall, and Carl Gierstorfer, a documentary filmmaker whose Ebola video won the German Grimme prize in 2017, explored their approaches to one of the more daunting challenges in journalism: using complex science to tell an engaging, human story.
The world’s attention briefly turned to West Africa in the fall of 2014, when 400 new cases of Ebola were being diagnosed each week in Liberia alone. But much of the reporting was sensational, serving more to alarm than inform, and as the outbreak came under control it faded from the headlines as quickly as it had appeared. “We Want You to Live,” Carl Gierstorfer’s powerful documentary of a community in crisis, probes deeply into the social toll of Ebola.
A Liberian health volunteer, Stanley, has defied a quarantine order and brought his sick son back to his village. Stanley’s family succumbs to the virus as do many others in the village. How will they cope with this devastating mistake?
“In a conventional war, you know who your opponent is,” Gierstorfer tells students at Crossroads College Prep. “But Ebola makes enemies of our closest family members.” The highly contagious disease is easily transmitted through human contact, and close-knit Liberians will touch each other, especially when ill. Ebola can infect families through the simple, natural act of caring for one another.
“How would you respond?” Gierstorfer asks students at Parkway West High School. No easy answers come. The students speculate that Americans would likely retreat from each other in the event of an outbreak, sequestering themselves in their homes, looking to the legal system to address grievances.
Jon Cohen focused his presentations on HIV/AIDS, explaining to students how the virus terrified millions in the early 1980s, when too many of our leaders refused to provide adequate funding for treatment and prevention. After a furious grass-roots movement forced lawmakers to confront the problem, we have learned much about how to prevent and manage HIV infections, yet fear and prejudice have allowed it to persist globally—including among vulnerable populations in the U.S.
“Viruses do not have morals,” Cohen tells students at Lindbergh High School. “Viruses do not punish people.”
Class discussions were propelled by a pair of lesson plans created by the Pulitzer Center’s education specialist, Rebecca Kaplan. Kaplan, who has a doctorate in the history of health sciences and experience as a curriculum designer at the undergraduate level, wrote an in-depth lesson, as well as a shorter lesson designed to be completed in less than a class period.
The lessons support English Language Arts standards for high school history and social studies. They invite students to read and watch selections from the journalists’ reporting, role-play in an interactive warm-up exercise that familiarizes them with some ways a virus can be spread, dig into the articles and videos to analyze their content, and reflect on other outbreaks that can happen closer to home. (These and hundreds more free lessons are available on our Lesson Builder platform.)
The tour, one of our most successful to date, supported Wash U’s global health week, a series of activities organized by the university’s Global Health Student Advisory Committee and designed to educate and engage the community on a broad range of health care issues. The Graham Chapel assembly capped off a week of meetings with professors and public health graduate students and undergrads across its Danforth and Medical campuses, supported by the McDonnell International Scholars Academy, the Global Health Center, Arts & Sciences, Brown School of Social Work, School of Medicine, Law School, School of Engineering and Applied Science, Olin Business School, and Sam Fox School.
Cohen and Gierstorfer met with faculty and students from across the university to discuss HIV/AIDS, Ebola, and how to communicate complex health issues to the public. They talked about creating compelling narratives, the importance of visual storytelling, and how to share stories and images from the field while maintaining the dignity and rights of people involved with a study or research project. Those in attendance said they planned to use this advice as they moved forward with their own research and presentations.
The two journalists discussed their projects, and the state of journalism today, in a joint interview with St. Louis Public Radio that aired Wednesday Feb. 28. Gierstorfer said that he welcomed opportunities like the school and university engagements in St. Louis, to give people an opportunity to comprehend what it's like to live through a trauma such as the Ebola outbreak.
"I would like to take the audience to Liberia, the time of the outbreak, and maybe challenge certain assumptions people have," he said. "Sometimes the situation is very different if you spend a lot of time in one place, investigating a particular topic. Unfortunately in these times, if you're a journalist, it's not that easy anymore because everything has to be quick, everything has to fit into a certain category. That's why I'm so grateful that the Pulitzer Center is supporting us in this work. I want to give back a little bit because I feel very privileged that I go to these places and listen to the people and have enough time to be on the ground."
Cohen closed out the interview with his own reflection on the challenges journalism faces today.
"Journalism is withering, all over the place," he said. "We see our colleagues losing their jobs, we see newspapers folding and radio and tv stations having trouble. The Pulitzer Center is odd because it actually funds journalism. It doesn't have another agenda. In this day and age we don't simply need philanthropists purchasing large media organizations to tell us what to think. It helps to have just on-the-ground journalists who do their work as independently as possible. But it's expensive.
"So the Pulitzer family, which came from this city, deserves a tremendous clap on the back—for funding journalism without any other agenda. Let people just go out, report what they see, and try to tell the truth with facts and with accuracy, in a time and a place where we are being accused of being 'an enemy of the people.' We're not. We're here to do a really important job and it is a great honor and privilege to be able to do it with this help."