Written by Jon Sawyer, founding director of the Pulitzer Center, and Rebecca Kaplan, education specialist and Mellon/American Council of Learned Societies Fellow at the Pulitzer Center.
In the fall of 2014, Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications rescinded a speaking invitation to Michel du Cille, a three-time Pulitzer-Prize-winning photographer for the Washington Post, because he had recently returned from covering the Ebola outbreak in Liberia and university officials felt that his presence might put Syracuse students at risk.
Never mind that du Cille had taken all the prescribed precautionary actions while in country, or that he had scrupulously followed the Centers for Disease Control monitoring protocol on his return and showed no signs of the disease. A journalism school that could have made this a teaching moment instead succumbed to misinformation and fear, fueling the public hysteria that good journalism ought to combat.
How to communicate effectively the complex facts of threats like Ebola is a major focus of this year’s Global Health Week at Washington University, with classroom discussions and public events led by two of the world’s most experienced journalists on the topic of infectious diseases.
California-based Jon Cohen is a staff writer for Science magazine who has covered the AIDS crisis for 30 years. His 2016 collaboration with Science, Buzzfeed and PBS NewsHour on ending AIDS won both a national Emmy and the top broadcast reporting prize of the National Academies of Science.
Carl Gierstorfer is a Berlin-based science journalist who has directed documentaries on the origins of AIDS and on Liberia’s struggle with Ebola. Both films have been shown across Europe and in the United States; “We Want You to Live—Liberia’s Fight Against Ebola,” his documentary on Ebola, won a Grimme, the German equivalent of an Emmy.
Cohen and Gierstorfer are both journalist grantees of the Pulitzer Center, a non-profit journalism center that was established in 2006 with the goal of shedding light, not heat, on the big issues that affect us all. It funds some 150 reporting projects across the globe each year, partnering with major media outlets and with a wide range of educational institutions including Washington University.
Global health has long been a prominent focus of the Pulitzer Center’s work, with dozens of projects each year on topics that range from water and sanitation to non-communicable diseases to the health consequences of pollution.
At a time when even the largest news organizations face severe financial constraints the Pulitzer Center’s first task is making sure these stories get told. It starts with funding—from individual philanthropists and foundations that understand the urgent necessity for assuring the editorial independence of the journalism on which we all depend. Journalists come to us with proposed reporting projects. We pick the best of the proposals and then work with the journalists, and with our media outlets, to assure the biggest possible audience. You’ll see Pulitzer Center work across the spectrum of old and new media, from The New York Times and Lancet to Vice, Buzzfeed and Medium.
We also make partnerships happen. Jon Cohen is known as one of print journalism’s top experts on AIDS, for example, but had never worked in television. We brokered the collaboration with PBS NewsHour that made Cohen the journalist expert for a broadcast team that together produced the six-part series “The End of AIDS?” covering signal breakthroughs and setbacks across the United States and three African countries. After broadcast we arranged speaking engagements for Cohen and other Pulitzer Center health journalists at the International AIDS Conference.
In Carl Gierstorfer’s case we worked with the Smithsonian Channel to help assure U.S. broadcast distribution of his documentary on the African origins of AIDS. We also arranged dozens of public presentations of his work on AIDS and Ebola, from the World Health Summit in Berlin to a conference at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health to the New York Academy of Medicine.
Novel tools of engagement are an essential part of the Pulitzer Center’s strategy. In the case of both AIDS and Ebola we have produced e-books, drawn from multiple Pulitzer Center reporting projects and freely available for download anywhere. Our Lesson Builder is an online curricular tool, also free, that gives middle school, high school and college educators access to compelling reporting that brings the issues we cover vividly to life. There over 100 lessons available just in the category of public health.
Educational engagement with the Pulitzer Center also means getting to know journalists up close and in person. While in St. Louis next week Cohen and Gierstorfer will be speaking at over 20 events in middle and secondary schools across the region. On Monday at 5 pm they’ll be at St. Louis Public Radio with our education team, leading a professional-development program for area teachers. On Tuesday at 7 pm they’ll lead a community forum at Nerinx Hall High School in Webster Groves.
One of the most exciting aspects of the Pulitzer Center’s consistent engagement with these issues is the way it has fostered and deepened our relationship with some of the smartest health specialists in the world. Our Campus Consortium roster now includes the global health programs at Boston University, McGill University, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg, the University of Iowa, and George Washington University Milken Institute of Public Health.
For the past five years we’ve presented journalist panels at the annual gathering of the Consortium of Universities for Global Health (CUGH), the association of 300 leading public health schools across the globe. It’s an opportunity for public health students to learn the communication tools of journalists—and for our journalists to pick the brains of specialists in the field.
Our role in Washington University’s Global Health Week this year is a prime example of the synergies and cross-fertilization at the heart of the Pulitzer Center’s model.
The university was a charter member of our Campus Consortium and has been the venue for dozens of Pulitzer Center presentations—from a talk by Pulitzer Prize winner and National Geographic Fellow Paul Salopek, at the outset of his landmark Out of Eden Walk around the Earth, to last year’s joint appearance at Graham Chapel by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former National Security Advisor Stephen J. Hadley.
The Global Health Week collaboration was the brainchild of Jae Lee, a 2015 Pulitzer Center student fellow and a national winner of Mark of Excellence awards for the best student in-depth reporting in the nation, who reported on disparities in the Ugandan health care system for Scientific American, PRI’s The World and Global Health Now. Lee is now a medical student at Washington University and a McDonnell Academy Scholar.
We’re grateful to Jae Lee, to Jon Cohen and Carl Gierstorfer, and to all our colleagues at Washington University, for giving us the opportunity to work together—for a healthier world, and for a journalism that commands respect.
Global Health Week is a Washington University Global Health Student Advisory Committee initiative and is sponsored by the Global Health Center at the Institute for Public Health and McDonnell International Scholars Academy.