Journalist and author Mark Bowden discussed the state of American journalism for the 20th annual Edward R. Hallowell Literary Lecture on April 24. He also visited English and journalism students and spoke at an Upper School assembly.
Bowden has spent more than 40 years reporting, including for The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Atlantic, and Vanity Fair. He has also written 13 nonfiction books. During the lecture, he spoke about the power of journalism, discussed the current mass media culture, and shared his advice on how to be an informed citizen.
“One of the things I’ve always loved about journalism is that it throws me into completely different worlds and situations, constantly,” he said. “The job of reporting is to find out what you don’t know.”
Bowden is best known for his book, Black Hawk Down, which later became a movie. But the story, which began as a series of articles in The Philadelphia Inquirer, has humble beginnings.
“I’m just a guy who works in an office in my basement, and I decided that I wanted to write a story about the Battle of Mogadishu,” he said. “That battle, which is universally referred to as the Black Hawk Down episode … would now be on any list of the most significant American military engagements in the past 20 years.”
“This is not because of me, but because of the tremendous power that writers and journalists have to focus attention on specific things that otherwise might be overlooked,” Bowden said. “This is the great advantage of having a multiplicity of platforms, lots of newspapers and magazines and networks, because ideally you’re getting a lot of creative, intelligent journalists who are deciding what’s important, what’s interesting, and what we need to know as a society.”
Unfortunately, Bowden said, the technology of delivering news has run ahead of the profession of reporting, “which has had some very alarming and damaging consequences.”
“None of what is out there on the Internet or on social media – or very little of it – is regulated or edited for fairness or accuracy,” he said. Bowden gave audience members advice to navigate in this world of mass media.
“When you read a story, and I emphasize the word read, pay attention to where it came from. Ask yourself: Is there actual reporting that went on in this story? Did somebody get up from behind their desk? I think to be a good citizen today, you have to do something more than read headlines on your cell phone or believe what floats up on your Facebook feed, or the headlines that you hear on TV and radio. You have to invest a little bit of yourself in order to be adequately informed, and you have to do so with a critical eye.
“Don’t pretend to know more than you do. Assume, instead, that you know too little. In my experience, it’s rare that finding out something new doesn’t change your whole understanding about what happened.”
Photo credit: John Olson