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UMass Journalism hosts panel on crossing the divide

(Katherine Mayo/Daily Collegian)

The University of Massachusetts collaborated with New England Public Radio, WGBH and The GroundTruth Project to host a community panel called “Crossing the Divide: The Pioneer Valley in Today’s America” Wednesday evening in the Old Chapel.

The panel was moderated by Charles Sennott, the founder and executive director of The GroundTruth Project which is a nonprofit news organization that focuses on training young journalists in the field of international media reporting.

Sennott started off the event by introducing The GroundTruth Project’s Crossing the Divide fellows: videographer Mahlia Posey, photojournalist Brittany Greeson, data journalist Eric Bosco, writer and reporter Gabriel Sanchez and audio reporter Rachel Cramer. The group will travel across the country to report on its deep social, political and economic divisions.

Sennott went on to interview Ray Suarez, a former journalist for Al Jazeera America and a visiting professor at Amherst College. He asked Suarez about the state of the political division in our country. Suarez responded by saying that we are at the peak of crisis.

He talked about the state of journalism in the 1950s when most Americans got their news from only three major networks. Shifting 60 years later, he said that journalism now has been catered toward “discrete audiences,” for those either on the left or the right of the political aisle.

Sennott also asked Suarez about the peril journalists face daily in their line of work, to which Suarez responded rhetorically by asking, “Whose benefit is it to kill a journalist?” Suarez said leaders kill or incite violence to journalists as a way for them to keep power.=

In terms of political leaders who attack the press, Suarez simply says he wants to tell a story without anybody saying, “yeah, but wait a minute.” In doing so, they create the beginning of the end of democracy.

When asked how journalism can recover from its current state, Suarez said he believes that technology can save journalism. He gave a hypothetical situation as an example. While someone can’t send a video they edited to a cable company and then ask if it can be published, they can do this on the internet. It allows access for every potential audience.

After the interview, Sennott introduced the six panelists: Republican candidate for Springfield city council Kency Gilet, student at Holyoke Community College Angelica Merino, teacher and blogger at Rational Urbanism Steve Shultis, Director of the Museum of Industrial Heritage; James Terapone and UMass professor Eve Weinbaum.

Each member of the panel spoke on a specific perspective on the division in America, relaying their own experiences to the crowd. As a former labor organizer, Weinbaum spoke on the internal division of labor workers across racial and economic lines.

Terapone spoke on the lack of media coverage of industrial workers. Merino, an undocumented immigrant from El Salvador, spoke on the importance of the Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals. Gilet, a first generation Haitian-American, talked about her plan to work together with both Democrats and Republicans in Springfield to see where common ground could be found.

At the end of the event, audience members could ask questions and give comments. One came from journalist Susan Wozniak, who spoke about the fact that in her 40 years of teaching, she has never come across a student who was taught about government in school. She then asked how we should teach youth to think critically.

At the end of the event there was a reception downstairs in the Old Chapel.

“I think this panel was good in starting conversations that desperately need to be had in newsrooms,” said GroundTruth fellow Mahlia Posey. “Like, what are we going to do with the journalism versus advertising model or with the rise of fake news? How are we going to promote literacy media in schools now?  I think it’s good to get the ball rolling because these are issues that we need to address sooner than later.”

According to GroundTruth fellow and UMass graduate Eric Bosco, there’s often a public misconception of journalists sitting in cubicles making up stories in their heads.

“We heard a lot of that in the audience and the concern of fake news and the state of the journalism industry and so I hope we can do some parsing of that,” Bosco said.

Alvin Buyinza can be reached at abuyinza@umass.edu.

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