Sunday, January 17, 2010

What Haiti and Journalism Have To Teach Us

The morning after the earthquake in Haiti, I ask several of my classes to tell me what they knew about that nation. Some were unaware an earthquake had occurred there. Others knew of the country, but little else. And a number of them knew quite a lot about the political structure, geography, history, and current crisis situation on the island.

America is a country mired in narcissism. We see world events only as they impact us. This is a result of our myopic world view and our obsession with the cult of celebrity. We are much more interested in Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, Tiger Woods and his harem, and the gun-toting antics of Gilbert Arenas than what happens in Africa, the Caribbean, or at the Copenhagen Climate Summit.

We must see ourselves as a global community: not individual countries with individual agendas, but as a whole fabric of humanity. In that pastel-colored rubble under a blindingly blue sky, our futures are as much at stake as the Haitian people. A crisis in their country puts our entire world in jeopardy. Haitians are already fleeing into the Dominican Republic in hopes of somehow getting off the island. There is nothing left in the capitol. This will increase the burden on America and neighboring nations as we use our resources to aid earthquake victims. It is in our best interests to help the people of Haiti. We could easily be in the same dire straits with our own fault-crossed landscape.

This is why journalism is so important, especially in the classroom. I want my students to read and respond to the world and current events, even when no disaster has occurred. The poorest nation in our hemisphere, possibly in the world? Why does it take an earthquake for us to care? In addition to the nations in the news all the time like Afghanistan and Iraq, what do my students know about Bosnia, or current Russian politics, or China?

People need journalism. The art of factual reporting makes for an enlightened society, which is why newspapers and journalism have always been important to our world. To be effective, though, journalism must rise above the cult of celebrity, the easy, sometimes politically-engineered report. We must be willing to read with depth and analysis. As newspapers and networks dummy down their writing and broadcasting, we should be demanding reporting with insight and intelligence, and we need the patience to examine the details to form our opinions.

When I first started teaching, I was given a sophomore English class with the imperative to teach grammar and writing skills. There was a grammar textbook loaded with all of the rules of the language and copious exercises. I could have walked into the room, assigned several exercises in subject-verb agreement and had the whole period to sit at my desk while the students slaved away. Teaching grammar in a vacuum, without any connection to writing, is a recipe for disaster. I asked the department chair if there were any books—novels, plays, poetry—that the students had to read for the class. No. Just do grammar, every day, every period.

I noticed on my way into campus a coin box of newspapers on the corner. I stopped, fed quarters into the slots, and purchased five copies of the daily newspaper. I distributed them a section at a time to the students until every kid had a part of the newspaper. Then I assigned them to find a story that interested them and write about it in their journals. The kids were not used to reading the newspaper every day. Once they were into it, the class was dead quiet as everyone read the newspaper. Then the writing began. When it came time to discuss some of the things people had written, I had to make time to do the day’s grammar lesson. The informal journal writing became organized essays. When I read the students’ work, I would make note of common grammar errors and other problems, type them up on a sheet of paper and distribute them to the students. First they would look up the error in their grammar textbook, then they would fix it and rewrite the problem.

At the end of the year, the department chair asked me how much of the grammar textbook I had covered. I really hit only the mistakes the students made on their papers. She was disappointed with this, but the kids not only practiced writing daily and covered the common mistakes people make in writing, they also knew about their world. The real triumph? Everyone read the newspaper, and became addicted to reading it every morning.

Journalism can teach us many things. That is why I feel so passionate about reading, listening and watching the news. But to be effective, journalism must be of the highest quality. With papers and television news cutting staff and resources, how can the end product continue to be a quality source of information? The decline of journalism means the end of awareness, of knowledge, of understanding. We must not allow this to happen.

The reporting from Haiti has been heartfelt, gut-wrenching, and a clear call for action, but such stories are not just relegated to times of crisis. Much is happening in this world, and we need to know about it. If journalism fails to report, or worse, we are not exposed to good writing and reporting, we will be a culture of darkness. In some ways, we are already there.

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