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Pulitzer Center Update November 29, 2018

Troubled Times: Why We Need to Support In-Depth Journalism

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Image courtesy of Crain's News Pro.
Image courtesy of Crain's NewsPro.

This editorial originally appeared in Crain's NewsPro

The good news is that Donald Trump has not been able to persuade anyone beyond his devoted base that the press is "the enemy of the people." According to a Poynter poll published in August, a healthy 76 percent of Americans say they trust their local television news and 73 percent say the same about their local newspapers — a significant uptick since Poynter's last survey in November 2017.

But the reality TV presidency has accelerated a disheartening trend across the American media landscape in which "the news" is increasingly becoming a form of entertainment or spectacle rather than a source of trusted information that connects citizens to the society in which we live.

This past summer provided ample opportunity to sample both the highs and the lows of American journalism. The hyperventilation over "Omarosa" is a prime example of the worst tendency, a cheesy book promotion gussied up as news story. From the taped snippets of her conversations with Trump and his chief of staff, John Kelly, we learned what exactly?

At the other end of the quality spectrum is the Aug. 5 issue of The New York Times Magazine, which was devoted to a single 30,000-word story by Nathaniel Rich that investigated the critical period in the 1980s when it might have been possible to halt the progress of climate change. It is a deeply disturbing story. It is also a fact-based, relentlessly researched and skillfully presented piece of journalism that has drawn wide comment, both pro and con.

The writer and critic Naomi Klein strongly disagrees with Rich's conclusions as to who is to blame for the looming climate disaster, but she fully understands where Rich and The Times are coming from:

"The novella-length piece represents the kind of media commitment that the climate crisis has long deserved but almost never received. We have all heard the various excuses for why the small matter of despoiling our only home just doesn't cut it as an urgent news story," Klein wrote in The Intercept.

"None of the excuses can mask the dereliction of duty. It has always been possible for major media outlets to decide, all on their own, that planetary destabilization is a huge news story, very likely the most consequential of our time. … which is why it was so exciting to see The Times throw the full force of its editorial machine behind Rich's opus — teasing it with a promotional video, kicking it off with a live event at the Times Center, and accompanying educational materials."

At the Pulitzer Center, we, too, were excited to see The Times throw the full force of its editorial machine into this project — and not just because we supported the project with a major grant. We also welcomed Klein's disagreement with some of the story's main arguments. It's important to have that debate.

As a nonpro›fit journalism organization, our mission  — in the words of Joseph Pulitzer III — is to "illuminate dark places and, with a deep sense of responsibility, interpret these troubled times." For us, the dark places are the many unreported or under-reported stories around the globe. These include stories about the environment and dozens of other topics ranging from land rights in the developing world to nuclear security issues. We "illuminate" them by providing grants — more than 120 so far this year — to journalists and news outlets that take a serious interest in these topics but lack the funds to cover them properly.

Our only quibble with Klein's otherwise thoughtful argument is her suggestion that news organizations have "always had the capacity to harness the skills of their reporters and photographers" to the climate story. In fact, news organizations, large and small, have not had this capacity for some time.

Reporting on climate tends to be time consuming and expensive. Rich spent 18 months reporting his story, interviewing more than 100 people. Photographer George Steinmetz spent 84 days traveling to eight countries and Antarctica for the images that accompanied the story. Even for a news organization as large and well-staffed as The Times, that's a heavy lift. For almost everyone else, it's a financial impossibility.

That's why for the last decade the Pulitzer Center has been raising funds (hard work) and giving grants to dozens of news organizations and individual journalists to cover issues related to climate. These range from an award-winning series on ocean acidi›cation in the Seattle Times to climate journalist Dan Grossman's growing roster of innovative projects on global warming for The New Yorker, Science magazine and other outlets.

In recent weeks the Pulitzer Center has helped important climate change stories reach not only The New York Times and its global audience, but also publications such as Vox, Undark and PRI's The World. Several more projects are currently in the works.

These stories will not be as entertaining as the Omarosa soap opera, and they cost a lot more to produce. But the true difference is these stories actually matter.

Tom Hundley is a senior editor at the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Before joining the Pulitzer Center, he was a newspaper journalist for 36 years, including nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune. During that time, he served as the paper's bureau chief in Jerusalem, Warsaw, Rome and London.