Nieman Fellow Lolly Bowean talks at The Future of News: Journalism in a Post-Truth Era

Chicago Tribune reporter and current Nieman Fellow Lolly Bowean talks at The Future of News: Journalism in a Post-Truth Era.

The focus of this week’s “The Future of News: Journalism in a Post-Truth Era” at Harvard was, understandably, the (pretty terrifying) landscape for journalists dealing with the new Trump administration and its fondness for “alternative facts.”

A lot of journalism heavy hitters, including Lydia Polgreen, Bill Kristol, Brian Stelter and the Nieman Foundation’s Ann Marie Lipinski, looked at the big picture, offering their insightful analysis of how to move forward and actually make the most of this unprecedented moment.

“It’s those moments that help remind me that as journalists, we have the power to empower.”

But it was one of the quieter moments, one that looked at the small picture, that moved me the most (and the audience too, judging by their roar of approval afterward). It came from Lolly Bowean, a Chicago Tribune reporter and current Nieman Fellow.

She told of a story she had written about a woman named LoQuator Dinkins, who runs a food pantry on the South Side of Chicago. Dinkins didn’t have much, but she was making a difference with the people of her community. After the story ran, Bowean went back to the food pantry to check on Dinkins and witnessed a chaotic scene: an outpouring of love and donations from readers who felt moved to come to the South Side to help.

“It’s those moments that help remind me that as journalists, we have the power to empower,” Bowean said.

You can watch the video of the whole talk here, or read the transcript here, but I thought I’d include some excerpts that focus on the power of intimate storytelling:

On overcoming cynicism:

You know, practicing journalism is difficult, and readers don’t even know how many times we face obstacles, or how hard we have to hustle and get our jobs done. There are times when we get doors slammed in our face — literally, like you heard. There are times when public officials send us boxes of paperwork, because they don’t think that we’re going to read through every single page until we can find that news gem. There are other times when we are deliberately sent to the wrong address, so that people will think we won’t find just what we’re looking for. When you’re faced with those kind of daily obstacles, it’s really easy to become cynical. You can feel despondent; you may even feel a little powerless as a journalist. But then there are other fantastic and fabulous moments being a journalist.

On seeing the results of her story about one woman who was making a difference:

When I walked up to LoQuator, she was chatting with a man who had driven several hours from a wealthy posh suburb to make a donation large enough that would cover that $3,500 electric bill. She told that man he had been sent to her by God. He said: “I don’t believe in God. I believe in good people.” The scene that I saw that day was so compelling and so inspiring and moving to me, it reminded me of the power of journalism.

On focusing on communities that often aren’t well-served by the media:

Now, I need to tell you that when I was growing up, I didn’t see reporters in my neighborhood unless there was something tragic or something violent that happened. So, in my own work, I’ve tried to make sure that I pay attention to communities and neighborhoods and try to highlight people like LoQuator Dinkins, who are doing the best that they can with the resources that they have. You see, when I’m when I write about someone like LoQuator Dinkins, a regular, ordinary, everyday person who is finding the best in themselves, I’m reminded of how great we are as people.

On finding the extraordinary in ordinary people:

Now, we all know that the best journalism highlights historic inequalities and systemic inequities. We know that the best journalism pushes back against the power structure, and that it can hold public officials accountable, that it separates the truth from the alternative facts. But I’m here to remind you today that great journalism can also find ordinary, regular people and find the extraordinary in what they do. And by doing that, we inspire our audience and our readers to dig down deep and find their own generosity, and find their own passions in their own ways that they can change and contribute to this world.

On a path to overcoming divisions:

I truly believe that when we learn about those stories and when we share those stories, that is the path to bridging the division and helping us find true solidarity.

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