Please tell us — in the form of an anecdote — about a time in your career when the power and purpose of journalism became clear to you? What happened and what did you learn?
With these questions, we collected journalism epiphanies (J-epiphanies) from the many professional journalists we interviewed on a reporting expedition to assess the status of newspapers across the United States.
This compilation of journalists’ epiphanies (which may also be viewed in HD videos at WhoNeedsNewspapers.org) is testimony to the values and quality of individuals who choose journalism as a career.
From reading these epiphanies, aspiring journalists can learn exactly what a journalism career may yield. The public may discover the professional values journalists embrace.
And we hope that these epiphanies will lift the spirits of professional journalists who work among colleagues such as those whose stories are told here.
DIGGING DEEP – Kathy Best, The Seattle Times
The pursuit of facts is often a revealing journey. Sometimes the popular wisdom — what “everybody knows” is true — is not. Other times, asking the next question can shatter a great “story.” That’s what Kathy Best, now a managing editor at The Seattle Times, learned when a big story “seemed too good to be true.”
When I was working at The Seattle Post- Intelligencer, there had been a series of stories that had been done by many papers — including The Wall Street Journal, all the papers in Seattle, most of the papers in the Northwest — about an alleged child sex ring in a little town called Wenatchee, Wash.
The stories were salacious, and they were really well read, and the whole idea behind it was that there was this ring of adults in Wenatchee, using religion and other things to prey on these young kids. And I was at The Seattle P.I. as the metro editor.
The editorial page editor — a woman named Joanne Byrd — kept saying to us: “This doesn’t make a lot of sense; there’s something not right about this.” And we assigned a couple of reporters, including a metro reporter, to go and start asking questions, because the story had died down and lots of people were in jail.
So they went back and started asking questions. They ended up finding out that what happened in Wenatchee didn’t add up; the stories weren’t true; people were in jail who should not have been in jail — who were innocent. Because of the reporting, more than 40 people who had been wrongly imprisoned were released. Judges looked at the evidence, and it resulted in many, many changes.
But the “a-ha” moment about that for me was the reaction in the newsroom when we decided to go take a fresh look.
My newsroom was one of the newsrooms that had gone over and done all the: “Wow! Sex ring stories!” And I had a lot of people, even on the metro staff, who said, “You’re betraying us, you know. You don’t believe in what we did. You’re going to make us look stupid.”
And that was the moment that I realized, first of all, as the metro editor, you can’t make your newsroom happy all the time. But, as a journalist, that was the moment when I realized it’s not enough to report the first time; it really takes courage to go back and do it again, especially if what it’s going to show is: You didn’t do it right the first time.
That was a pretty critical time, and it’s a lesson that stayed with me. You always, always have to keep asking yourself: “Are you sure you got it right? Are you sure?”
CHALLENGING AUTHORITY – Tom Arviso Jr., The Navajo Times
Confronting authority can be a lonely enterprise that occurs off the pages of a newspaper. Newspaper publishers discover how tenuous a news story can feel when it conflicts with the aims of important local institutions or powerful elected officials. Tom Arviso Jr., publisher of the Navajo Times in Window Rock, Ariz., had such an experience when his newspaper lifted the lid on the escapades of a powerful tribal leader.
When our president, Albert Hale, came into office, things started to unravel about some extramarital affair going on in his office and some dealings with the credit card — misuse of a credit card and all these expenses that were being spent on trips to Paris and all these places where the Navajo people were funding the trips for him. And we really weren’t benefiting from it, you know — at least nothing that we could see. So we reported on those things.
It was a time where our role as a newspaper, our role with the native press was questioned by our government. They said, “Why are you writing all these things about our leader when in fact it’s not true?”
We said, “We’re writing about stuff that’s based on fact. Look at the financial records. Look at the pictures we have.” We had factual information to back this up, but it came to a point where we were really questioning about our role.
We had a story that we were going to break about the extramarital affair and the credit card … and that afternoon I got called into our president’s office. We had a man-to-man talk. No tape recorders. We had an agreement that we wouldn’t talk about what we discussed. That was with Mr. Hale.
I left there from his office thinking: What am I going to do? Cause Albert was a good friend of mine too. We used to play basketball long ago, and I got to know him, and the lady that he was involved with was a former classmate of mine. So they were friends, people I knew. But I also knew the office that they held and the public trust that people put into what they were doing.
So I came back, and … I thought: What are we going to do? Are we going to break this story? Or am I going to hold off on it until I get more information?
I came to realize we had enough to break the story. So we did. It came out the next morning — huge story. And everything took off from there. After that, eventually he had to step down from office. He had to resign from office or he was going to face prosecution thereafter. Again — we survived. We survived.
But it really made me realize the power that we had and our purpose.
And I wish it could’ve been something better, I wish it could have been something different. … From a personal standpoint it was stressful. I went through a lot of, “Why am I doing this? Why me?” kind of thing.
I came to realize: Hey, there’s a reason why I am here. There’s a reason why I’m in this position. There’s a reason why I’ve got to make this decision. So, I stuck with it. We ran the story, and things just took care of themselves. Truth always prevails.
PRACTICING JOURNALISM – Kevin Riley, Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Professional journalists observe events, conduct interviews, collect facts and decide what information needs to be communicated. Some clear, teachable, ethical and technical standards have been established for communicating facts, but reporting is also a qualitative, rational, learned enter-prise. Guided by a veteran editor, Kevin Riley, now the editor of the Atlanta Journal- Constitution, started learning the nuances of reporting early on the streets of Dayton, Ohio.
My career was a little bit unusual because I didn’t spend a lot of time as a reporter. I started as a copy editor and did a lot of things on the editing side. I kept wanting to be a reporter, and I kept getting told I was more valuable doing something else.
For a brief period I got to be a police reporter, which [was] really always my dream. My father was a police officer, and that’s really what I always wanted to do. And just a couple weeks into it, I covered my first homicide.
It was a great experience for me because I went and talked to the police lieutenant who gave me the details. I was very comfortable in that situation. I’d been around cops my whole life, and what the guy had to say — how he described this victim, how she got herself in this spot — all made sense in the stereotypes I was used to.
I came back to the office and wrote up my story. And my editor said, “Well, you need to go talk to the victim’s family.”
And I’m like: “Why? I mean this is like your standard homicide. I mean, cops said this. Why?”
He said, “You need to go out there and talk to them.”
So I drove out there. It was in kind of a rough neighborhood; I was a little bit lost. I was very intimidated, and I kept circling the block. I had made a decision to go back and tell my boss no one was home.
At that moment, a woman came walking out of the house and waved me down. It turned out to be the victim’s mom. She thought that I must be a cop or a building supervisor. I told her no, that I was from the paper. And she talked to me for a few minutes.
What it taught me was: You read a lot of stories or you may write a lot of stories or you may hear a lot of stories about people being killed. But you should never forget: It’s someone’s daughter, someone’s mom.
It’s always stayed with me.
ABOUT THE PROJECT
Sara Brown and Paul Steinle traveled 31,000 miles over a period of 13 months (June 15, 2010 – July 15, 2011) to visit 50 newspapers — one in each state. Their mission was to document the status of local newspapers in the Age of the Internet. Brown is a former human resource professional, management trainer, columnist and educator in the newspaper business. Steinle is a journalist, journalism educator and former news media manager. Their reports are posted at WhoNeedsNewspapers.org.
A bonus of their national report is an edited collection of 91 journalists’ epiphanies: “The Power and Purpose of Journalism,” a 230-page paperback, available at lulu.com. The book is comprised of anecdotes about career moments when the power and purpose of journalism became clear to these professional reporters, editors and publishers.