Healthy Journalism

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Community journalism and pond water

Once upon a time, my generous parents gave me a microscope for Christmas. With a single eyepiece, a lighted and adjustable stage, and a solid wooden case it was just what I wanted.

Even aspiring scientists under age 10 knew that pond water was one of the absolute best things to examine. Scooped in a recycled mayonnaise jar, my specimen looked dull and cloudy. But under the scope the water came to exuberant life: wiggling larvae, nymphs that zipped in and out of view, pulsing gelatinous eggs, algae with hooks that snared unsuspecting bits of life. Creatures eating and avoiding being eaten, births, deaths – what Zorba the Greek called “the whole catastrophe.”

I discovered a world in that drop of water.

In a few weeks, each JRMC 7355 student will begin digging into the life of a single Georgia county, seeking stories about human nature, economic and social conditions, and how institutions large and small affect how long (and how well) people live.

Being assigned to one county might seem too tight across the shoulders for ambitious young journalists who want to write big stories for national audiences.

Like a drop of pond water, however, every Georgia county teems with more life than most writers can capture in a career. In Praying for Sheetrock, Melissa Fay Greene uses the stories of two men in McIntosh County, GA, to bring the whole history of the Civil Rights struggle to vivid, sweaty, suspenseful, tear-inducing life.

Without leaving the county, Greene shows us more about race and politics in the U.S. than a shelf full of history books. This is nonfiction narrative at its best, fueled by superb community reporting, and it's an excellent read for winter break.

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