Add more seats around the public policy table, please

By Denny Wilkins

Journalists report on the world’s important issues primarily in two languages — those of politics and economics.

When a budding college journalist asks me what she should minor in or take as a second major, my reply is swift but bitter: “As much as it disgusts me, take every course you can in in political science and economics.”

“Why?” she asks.

“Because,” I reply, “if you can’t speak those two languages, then you’ll be clueless about what the major players driving the agendas are saying. You’ll be shut out of covering, let alone understanding, major issues.”

“Why does that disgust you?”

“Why should the world’s problems be examined from only two perspectives?” I counter. “That limits the range and types of potential solutions.” 

For example, the disciplines housed in the broad field of social sciences, which is where political science and economics find their home, differ in two fundamental ways. Each has a different set of assumptions that mark the boundaries of the disciplines; each asks different questions, which also marks the boundaries of the discipline.

Where boundaries exist, vision is limited. That’s why my advice that young journalists should study political science and economics frustrates me: It gets them into the conversation but it traps them into the same boundaries marked by the other participants in that conversation.

Imagine a climate scientist (a real one), a wildlife biologist with an artist’s perspective, an Inuit seal hunter, an economist, and a political scientist sitting at a table pondering the urgent questions posed by accelerating climate disruption. Would they produce richer, more insightful, more potentially successful avenues of human action as a basis for public policy? I don’t know. Journalists don’t know, either. So perhaps they should seek people from such disparate disciplines to interview.

It’s important, of course, for journalists to report fully and faithfully what is said (and done) by those politicians and economists customarily sitting at the table.

But it’s equally important for journalists to report what disciplines of art, science, and even religion are not at the table and therefore unable to be heard.

Who can speak and who can’t underlies so much of how public policy is crafted. Journalists are responsible for making that clear and identifying who’s in and who’s out.

Will different voices help craft better public policy and produce social sanity instead of turgid tribalism?

I don’t know.  But I look around, and I can’t imagine those different voices making our lives more miserable than our current mainstream diet of politicians and economists.

Dr. Denny Wilkins worked as a reporter and editor at a rural New England newspaper for two decades. He has taught journalism at St. Bonaventure University for nearly a quarter of a century.

Categories: Jandoli Institute, Media, Politics

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