Who is the journalist?

Printer-friendly versionSend by email

Whether reporting on it or causing it, journalists have always been associated with controversy. They’ve brought down presidents, kings, and dictators, while themselves being accused of unethical, criminal, even traitorous, behavior. Think Julian Assange, think Woodward and Bernstein, think—Benjamin Harris. He published America’s first newspaper in 1690, promising to cure “that Spirit of Lying, which prevails amongst us,” and was promptly shut down and jailed by British colonial authorities.

Now, with the Internet and other technologies radically altering the rules for who should—and does—report  our news, a new Northwestern University Library exhibit considers: “Who Is The Journalist? The Past, Present, and Future of News.” Using books and rare materials from the Library’s collections as well as artifacts on loan from many working journalists and his own collection, curator Loren Ghiglione, a professor at Northwestern’s Medill School, explores an intriguing array of journalistic identities and incarnations.

“There’s never been any one definition of who a journalist is,” Ghiglione says. “It tends to be a whole cast of contradictory characters in one: communicator and critic of propaganda, reporter and rumormonger, educator and entertainer.” His exhibit includes both real and fictional examples, since both, he says, have shared a power to instruct, inspire, and innovate.

Comic strip character Brenda Starr, for instance, debuted as a tough (but ever-stylish) woman reporter in 1940, and served as a role model to a whole generation of girls before real women were anything more than anomalies in newsrooms. Childhood fans included prize-winning Chicago journalists Lois Wille, Georgie Annie Geyer, and Mary Schmich, who took over writing the strip when its creator, Dale Messick, retired in 1985—and who loaned a fabulously costumed Brenda Starr doll to the exhibit. 

Geyer broke barriers as a foreign correspondent, defying gender bias to score countless exclusive interviews with controversial and elusive figures in Latin America and the Middle East including Muammar Gaddafi , Saddam Hussein, Yasser Arafat, and Fidel Castro. The stories she sent back to the Chicago Daily News about Castro in the mid-1960s were such a source of pride that the paper ran ads crowing, “Our Man in Havana is a Girl.”

Geyer is one of eight Medill alumni who personally contributed artifacts to the exhibit. The list also includes: Pulitzer Prize winner Hank Klibanoff; People founding editor Richard Stolley; international correspondent (and now Chicago Council on Global Affairs fellow) Richard Longworth; sports journalists Christine Brennan (USA Today, NPR, ABC, and CNN) and Michael Wilbon (formerly with the Washington Post and now with ESPN). The exhibit also features material on loan from David Protess and the Medill Innocence Project, and the family of Chester Gould, a Northwestern alumnus who created the comic strip detective Dick Tracy.

The reporter’s evolving identity in a world of websites, bloggers, and tweeters is explored by a series of video clips, assembled by Medill adjunct lecturer and Northwestern Web content producer Matt Paolelli and hosted by computer-generated avatars developed by Kris Hammond, director of Northwestern’s Medill/McCormick Center for Innovation in Technology, Media and Journalism. “There is a sci-fi, dystopian vision of journalism’s future that says robots will replace the human journalist,” Ghiglione says. “I think it’s more likely that the range of storytelling tools will grow and expand the pool of who or what, potentially, can be a journalist. The golden age of journalism may well be ahead, not behind us.”

Who Is The Journalist? runs April 7 through September 2, 2011, at the Northwestern University Library, 1970 Campus Drive in Evanston. Free and open to the public 8:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily (please check here for special hours). For more information call (847) 467-5918.