Inside The 4th Estate at Haystack Book Fest

Journalism is increasingly difficult, dangerous, unsupported, and ignored; it changes nothing in the present and may leave no impression on the future. But we do it anyway, said Elizabeth Becker and George Packer, because what is the alternative?

Becker (a leading conflict journalist for The New York Times and The Washington Post, and Senior Foreign Editor at NPR) and Packer (staff writer at The Atlantic and winner of the 2013 National Book Award for "The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America") spoke at the Haystack Book Festival discussion "Inspired by the Legacy of Anne Garrels: A Conversation about Covering Conflict," at the Norfolk Library on Saturday, Sept. 30.

The talk was billed as a reflection on what they've learned about telling intimate human stories from within war zones (abroad) and polarized cultural conflict (at home), but it turned, perhaps inevitably, into a discussion of the "sense of the growing irrelevance" of journalism itself.

"We've all wondered—why in the world are we doing this?" said Becker. "Because it doesn't seem to make a difference."

It is not a new frustration, especially in conflict reporting. Becker described interviewing a young female war correspondent whose work had taken her to a hospital following an attack: "She felt horrible, recording while a little baby died," said Becker, helpless to change the reality unfolding in front of her. "But that's what we have to go through."

"You go into it thinking 'I, by showing the world the horror of war, or the reality of war," said Packer, "[by showing] what it means for a school child or for a teacher or a combatant, a soldier, I will humanize it, and therefore, I will end it, or help end it, or at least show why this war's happening and perhaps even convince someone of some political idea.'

"In my experience, it doesn't happen that way," he said. "You are not making life better for anyone. I think you have to admit that."

Over recent decades, journalism has also grown increasingly dangerous as journalists become targets—not just abroad, said Packer, but in the U.S. as well. Several years ago, 64% of journalists killed while reporting died in combat zones, said Becker; now, 64% of journalists killed while reporting are killed in non-combat zones. Another growing percentage are kidnapped or imprisoned as both combatants and nations seek to use journalists as bargaining chips.

Meanwhile, the internet and social media seem to have rendered journalism—particularly complex, in-depth stories—increasingly unread, particularly as potential readers get more and more information primarily from social media and aggregators. The simple, uncomplicated truth of phone reportage is easier for people to digest and recall in a world of 24/7 unedited information. (Packer noted that from checking the analytics of articles after they've been published on The Atlantic website, he has learned that an average page time of 47 seconds must be considered a major success.)

The end result is that journalists struggle to find outlets that will publish and pay them for their stories. (Becker: "I'm very impressed by the younger generation of journalists […] They're so creative, publishing in places I've never heard of" [meaning that their articles usually earn only a handful of readers and a modest courtesy fee.] Packer: "The corporate model has come to the end of its usefulness. It is impossible to make hard reporting pay.”)

The growing pressures on journalists—financial, physical, mental, and emotional—said Becker, "ultimately hurts the level of our coverage."

There was a long discussion about whether or not 50% of the country really believes that journalists make their livings by actively and deliberately fabricating stories for political ends. (Packer: The days of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward bringing down a corrupt administration are over, said Packer. "There was enough consensus […] That doesn't happen anymore.”)

There was a really, really long discussion about President Donald Trump, which (finally) concluded over the question of whether or not journalists talk about him too much.

"The war reporters I most admire are not nearly as interested in the explosions as the people caught up in them," said Packer, pointing to the work of Anne Garrels, NPR's late conflict journalist and resident of Norfolk, whose work focused on the civilians, not the generals.

"I think [narrative journalism] can be helpful—to get below the surface" and tell stories that get at the human experience beyond the statements of practiced "mouthpieces," said Packer.

"We are witnesses, and that is a step-down—or at least away—from changing the world. We get disillusioned, especially younger journalists," said Packer, and have to let go of the idea "that by exposing injustice to exposing suffering, we will really change, maybe change policy, at least change people's lives. I think you have to settle into a less grandiose picture of what you're doing, which is witnessing" human experience, not changing it.

Can narrative journalism be part of the solution to all the problems that are challenging it today?

"I hope so," said Packer, "because it's what I do."

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