Award-winning journalist and Davenport College fellow Bruce Shapiro spoke with 10 students at the college master’s house Tuesday about his recent book, “Shaking the Foundations: 200 Years of Investigative Journalism in America.”
The book is a compilation of writings by two centuries worth of investigative reporters who sought to expose the truth about social and political problems in America. Shapiro has been gathering information for his book for the past 10 years, but he began working on it intensely in 2001.
“The book was partly my private response to Sept. 11 ,” Shapiro said. “I decided the present was an ugly place and that I would spend some time delving into the past.”
Shapiro explained the evolution of journalism in America as a continuous reinvention of itself in response to new social and political issues. He cited examples in his book of developments throughout history — such as the abolition of slavery and the rise of corporations — that forced journalists to create new techniques.
“Because these developments never existed before, journalists had no experience in writing about them and had to invent ways to expose the issues in a way that was credible, accurate, true and yet compelling,” he said.
Shapiro praised journalists such as Nellie Bly, Seymour Hersh and Rachel Carson for their innovative approaches to uncovering the truth in fields that had not previously been thoroughly investigated. He said one of the best things about compiling his book was getting to know the personalities and backgrounds of so many great journalists.
“The story of journalism is not only a story of derring-do but also a story of literary innovation,” Shapiro said. “What amazes me most is the idea that sometimes a single piece of investigative journalism has the power to radically change the way a society looks at itself.”
Shapiro held a question-and-answer session after his lecture in which he encouraged his audience to not only ask a question but engage in a discussion on each topic. He often asked students to offer an answer to their questions before giving his own opinion on the matter.
The questions came from self-professed prospective journalists who said they were interested in how to shape a credible story or create a high-quality publication. Shapiro said in his experience in high school, college and today as a contributing editor of The Nation weekly magazine, he has found it is important to build readers’ trust by providing a fair account of the story.
“I hope that a reporter who has covered a story in real depth has a strong opinion,” Shapiro said, “And how you shape that story reflects what it is really about, but you must create a story that anyone can read and feel they have to take seriously, no matter what side they are on.”
Shapiro likened good journalism to a scientific process in that journalists must come up with a hypothesis of what the story is about before collecting evidence that will either prove the hypothesis or challenge it. If the hypothesis is challenged, a good journalist will have the perspective to be able to rework it, he said.
Davenport Master Richard Schottenfeld said he enjoyed the speech, and recommended that students take advantage of the “great resource” Davenport has in Shapiro, who was the Davenport writing tutor from 1993 to 1995.
Law student Elizabeth Dewar LAW ’06 said Shapiro’s talk was “very inspiring.”
“All the historical examples he drew on to show how investigative journalism transforms to meet the needs of a time period gave me hope that journalism is really a resource in society that we can draw upon today to make it a better society,” she said.