Annual Report 2017-2018
From the Director
When Robertson Davies was pressured by his publisher to explain the title of his novel The Fifth Business, he invented a quote from the Danish actor, playwright, and theater historian Thomas Overskou:
Those roles which, being neither those of Hero nor Heroine, Confidante nor Villain, but which were nonetheless essential to bring about the Recognition or the dénouement were called the Fifth Business in drama and Opera companies organized according to the old style; the player who acted these parts was often referred to as Fifth Business.
Our era finds our politics—and our journalism—in crisis. Who tells the truth? Who decides who tells the truth? What is the future of democracy in a digital world? In the age of fractured media and niche publications, is there a “public”—and if there is, how do we understand and communicate with the public—especially about policy? And finally, what is the role of a research center at one of the world’s greatest universities during a time of technological and social upheaval?
It is this last question that brings to mind the Fifth Business. Our research center can be the connective tissue to help the leaders of media, politics, and policy make better decisions; to use knowledge (gleaned from our research) to shape the debate and understand which questions deserve the most attention; and finally, to cultivate and grow the next generation of leaders. Decades or even centuries from now when the story of our age is told, we may not be the heroines nor the villains—but our work is essential to bring about a better world.
This annual report showcases the work of our 31st year of teaching, research, and engagement with the broad topic of media, politics, technology, and public policy. My second year as director has been a time of rapid growth and excitement, and I hope that is reflected in this annual report. Through teaching and research, and our programs of visiting fellows, events, and outreach, the Center aims to make an impact on distinct areas of focus—each of which are integral to maintaining a healthy democracy.
Our areas of focus are not casually chosen, but the result of a great deal of research in and of themselves. They represent the realities of our time, and an effort to bridge the distinct worlds of research and practice. Our research must have its own rigor by the long-established procedures of the academy; but it must also have an impact on the practice of journalism, politics and public policy.
The quality of news has long been a focus of the Center, and this work has new urgency as the global epidemic of mis- and disinformation grows, fueled by new trends in technology. Directly combating the “information disorder” of the public sphere is the most urgent and important work we could be doing—but the need to find robust business models to sustain quality journalism is equally important. Ultimately, sustainable business models are an essential part of mitigating information pollution. Finally, racism and gender inequality continue to find a home in our institutions in small and big ways, shaping our worldviews. Taking a more explicit approach to addressing discrimination in our institutions is a moral imperative and opens up new possibilities on every front—from the ways we think about and approach our business models to the quality of the news being reported. There is a lot of work to be done—but it is exciting, compelling work, full of promise for the future.
Before you turn the page, please indulge one more note. The Center owes a debt of gratitude to Nancy Palmer. For 31 years she has been an essential part of the life of the Center, and her retirement this year is an opportunity to reflect on everything she has done to shape and build the Center over the last three decades. Thank you, Nancy.
I’d like to thank all of the students, scholars, reporters, donors, conference participants, speakers, advisory board members, fellows, faculty, and our great staff, who make the Shorenstein Center a collegial and vibrant community. And to the Shorenstein family and many donors I have gotten to know, a special thank you for your confidence and your support. I look forward to expanding the Shorenstein Center in many directions over the coming years, and will rely on all of you for advice and assistance.
Shorenstein Center Director