Democracy and a Free, Fair Press

The history and reputation of “the media” took center stage in Middlesex’s All-School Read (ASR) assignment this year with the selection of a unique, nonfiction graphic novel: The Influencing Machine. With text by journalist Brooke Gladstone and illustrations by cartoonist Josh Neufeld, the work details not only longstanding challenges in journalism, such as bias and objectivity, but also newer complications of the digital age, in which a deluge of information can be instantly disseminated. In the effort to analyze and discuss the book’s conclusions, the community was fortunate to hear from two articulate guest speakers: journalist Charles Sennott and editor Lauren Williams ’04.

Opening the conversation on the evening of September 22, Mr. Sennott spoke about what he is doing in “the battle to save the soul of journalism.” An award-winning foreign correspondent, author, editor, and entrepreneur – as well as a new Middlesex parent – Mr. Sennott has parlayed his experience into founding a nonprofit media organization, The GroundTruth Project, which is dedicated to training the next generation of international journalists for the digital age, teaching everything from active listening to safety skills.

In his own career, Mr. Sennott has often been reminded that the seemingly local event he was covering, such as the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, was actually an international story, prompting him to assert, “Local news is where it’s at, and there’s not enough of it.” The GroundTruth aims to address this through one of its ventures, “Crossing the Divide,” in which a team of journalists is reporting stories during a trip across America. “I think one failure of journalism is not listening to the middle of the country,” he observed, suggesting that this likely contributed to today’s sense of political division.

Mr. Sennott covered a range of topics in answering students’ numerous questions, from how the Internet has forced journalism to change its delivery and financial models to the political polarization of some media outlets to the varying influence of social media. Asked what vision keeps him working in journalism, he replied, “I really believe in truth that we can come to through pursuing facts. Those truths are the heart of what we call a free press, and a free press is the cornerstone of democracy.”

The next morning, the School welcomed back Lauren Williams ’04, now an award-winning features editor of Essence magazine – and a 2018 Fellow at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. Awarded annually to 24 American and international journalists, this yearlong fellowship will allow Lauren to study historic contributions of Black women to American society, with a focus on how they have shaped culture and trends.

“In media,” Lauren began, “A common thread for me is representation and the importance of representation. The stories I seek to tell are about people who have no voice, to help people represent themselves accurately and wholly.”

Recounting her own journey from the Prep 9 Program in Brooklyn, New York, to Middlesex and then to Georgetown University, Lauren described herself as a “magazine fiend” who aspired to become an editor-in-chief. After a college internship at Good Housekeeping and jobs with Harper’s Bazaar and Redbook, she became an assistant editor at Marie Claire, where she honed her storytelling skills and produced serious stories. Moving on to More magazine, Lauren left there on realizing that her ideas and concerns were not being represented.

Happily, she landed at Essence, the only national magazine for Black women in America.

“It changed my life to see people who looked like me who are serious about their work,” she said. Whether assigning and editing in-depth features concerning politics, public health, or social justice, working on the annual Essence Festival, or being interviewed on CNN, Lauren has appreciated the mentorship of her editor and the opportunities that have affirmed her choice of career. “Journalism is the conscience of a society,” she stated, when asked about the future of her field. “We hold people accountable and should be steadfast to the truth.”