The Science of Words and Truths: Sheri Fink Visits Cleveland High School

By Erin Langner, WITS Program Associate

While it is easy think of the arts and sciences as separate entities, some of the most interesting conversations I have experienced during my years living in Seattle—a place very much defined by both—are those that bring the two together. Yesterday afternoon, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author Sheri Fink spoke in Cleveland High School’s auditorium about precisely such an intersection point, making insightful connections among over one hundred students who stayed after school to hear her speak.

As a STEM school (one focused on curriculum rooted science, technology, engineering and math), Cleveland students were primed to interrogate Dr. Fink’s methodologies. They probed her with a number questions about the information gathering techniques she used to write her investigation of the events that happened at Memorial Hospital in the days following Hurricane Katrina, Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital.

Herself residing very much at the intersection between the arts and sciences, as both a writer and former relief worker in disaster and conflict zones, Dr. Fink explained, “Journalism is a lot like the scientific process. We all want to prove our own theories about the things we are researching, but all of the facts and evidence must be in order before we can do that.” Similar to scientific experiments, replication is essential to building a solid piece of journalism. A margin of error must also be considered. Evidence in as many forms as possible—videos, photographs interviews, diaries, transcripts—is essential.

Likening the research process to a vacuum cleaner, Fink advised students to collect all of the information they could, using all of their senses, before deciding what represents the most salient details—those that that will “portray in words what the situation was actually like.” Dr. Fink’s own words and experiences clearly resonated with many of the aspiring young journalists and scientists in the audience: a mass swarmed around her for photographs and autographs after her talk, one even primed with her camera and notebook at the ready to capture those salient details.

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