Podcast about journalism career paths, mentoring, how to prepare to cover dangerous conflicts overseas, and other topics with “the broccoli of media-focused podcasts.” Michael O’Connell is an excellent interviewer (i.e. good listener) who teaches podcasting. Check him out on Twitter @bossoftalking and at his website: It’s All Journalism.
I covered John McCain when he was a new senator and I was a new Washington reporter. He was without pretense, easy to talk with, and always free with his opinions. Reporters loved him because he was deeply plugged into military affairs (and later other issues) and was never shy about sharing his knowledge.
The host of the podcast “In the Arena” is the smart and fun Luke Knittig, the senior director of communications at the McCain Institute. A combat veteran, Luke served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and as the military spokesman for international forces in Afghanistan.
Luke and I talked about my book, Finding the News: Adventures of a Young Reporter, about journalism ethics, and challenges for people starting a career in news today.
Note: The interview was recorded prior to the Coronavirus pandemic.
The words “Kent State” mean only one thing to many Americans who were adults during the Vietnam War: the place where National Guard soldiers opened fire and killed four student protesters.
The killing of the four students and the wounding of nine others on May 4, 1970 at a rural Ohio campus occurred amid anti-war protests around the country. It was a time when young people were angry with their parents, the government, the universities, and the news media. Older people were baffled and outraged by the protests, which seemed anti-American, the work of “outside agitators,” or the folly of an indulged and spoiled generation.
The divide was not just young versus old, but also liberals versus conservatives, hippies versus squares, business versus labor, men versus women, and blacks versus whites.
An important difference from today was that the news media appeared – to people on the outside – to be free of those social conflicts. What we now call the “mainstream media” was the only news media. There was no internet, Twitter, Facebook, or 24-hour cable news channels catering to the left or right. The national news media organizations were less dominant, and most people got their news from very competitive local television stations and especially local newspapers.
Society’s tensions existed inside those newsrooms, of course, which mostly were run by older white men who had lived through the depression and World War II. They were defenders of the establishment, but they believed they had a vital mission to inform the country accurately and fairly, even when bad things happened.
The Akron Beacon Journal was the local newspaper 20 minutes from Kent State University, and the sometimes violent protests on campus – called rioting by the headline writers – were covered regularly. The weekend before the shooting, students had burned down the campus ROTC building and fought with firefighters trying to put out the blaze. The paper that landed on doorsteps that Sunday was a fat 271 pages, with 28 pages of classified ads, and a circulation of 174,000.
The young man in charge of the newsroom was the managing editor, Robert Giles. His boss was traveling in Israel with local business leaders, and Giles was left in control. He would lead the paper’s coverage of the shootings, the long investigations that followed, and the court cases that lasted for years. The paper’s coverage won a Pulitzer Prize and is a model of how to cover breaking news and the difficult search for truth, meaning, and justice.
The insightful and very readable story of how the paper covered Kent State is told in a new book by Giles called When Truth Mattered: The Kent State Shootings 50 Years Later. The book is focused on that one day in May, but really it is the product of the author’s lifelong career as a distinguished journalist and an example of how a single story can illustrate the core values of real news.
The book’s focus is on the reporters, photographers, and editors at the paper. Although the author was at the center of the coverage, he keeps himself in the background, writing the book the way he directed the coverage that day: firmly and competently in control, but without calling attention to himself. The few times Giles reveals his feelings are to take the blame for some mistake or to regret that reporters didn’t get the credit they deserved.
The paper’s work was not necessarily appreciated at the time by its readers. The editors received hundreds of letters, most of them angry and accusing the paper of taking sides in favor of the students and against the National Guard and the governor.
“There were two prominent and distinct views,” Giles writes. “Our commitment to be fair and balanced, and to give voice to the truth, came face to face with special interests: President Nixon, the governor of Ohio, university officials, National Guard officers, student radicals and angry townsfolk.”
The book concludes by imagining how a story like this would be covered today, at a time when print newspapers are in decline and the internet allows anyone to capture and share information.
Today the Akron paper, like most local papers, has a small fraction of the staff it had in 1970, and it no longer has a virtual monopoly on news coverage (or advertising) in the area. That solid, reliable institutional voice is missed.
On the other hand, many people witnessing a violent clash today would record the protest on their phones, possibly avoiding some of the confusion and uncertainty – even 50 years later – about what happened at Kent State, such as who started shooting and why.
Today “experts” would appear on cable news within minutes claiming that the shooting was the fault of Democrats or Republicans, or that the supposed video was enhanced or fake or out of context. People on social media would make up details about the shooting, and share speculation and conspiracy theories. Readers might throw up their hands and say it’s all too confusing, and anyway you can’t really know the truth.
When Truth Mattered is a powerful argument for trying to get the facts right, even when there is chaos, violence, and confusion, and even when people dispute the facts and disagree about their significance. The paper didn’t get everything right the first time, and editors kept sending the reporters out to correct the record or explore new angles. The book shows how quality journalism was done 50 years ago, and holds up a high but achievable standard for how it should be done today.
Peter Copeland, a former foreign correspondent and Washington bureau chief, is the author of Finding the News: Adventures of a Young Reporter.
I love this interview about journalism values with Maria Carrillo and Lane DeGregory, two journalists who have done it all better than most. Maria brings a wise editor’s perspective (and a beautiful speaking voice for podcasts), and Lane is a caring, empathetic writer who gets people to talk, which is why she’s won a Pulitzer Prize and two (so far) Ernie Pyle Awards for feature writing. Lane and I get choked up during the interview, a couple of softies who have covered hard things.
Forty years ago this week, on a cold day in Chicago, I ran toward a roaring, deadly fire that tore through an apartment building, covering my first big news story and starting a journalism career that would take me around the world.
As a 22-year-old just out of college, I was overwhelmed by the heat of the crackling fire, the bitter smell of smoke, and the screams of little children when they were dropped from the burning building’s upper floors into the waiting arms of rescuers on the snowy ground.
An experienced colleague from the office coached me over the phone about the information I needed from the fire, and how to get it. My first question as a professional reporter – it makes me cringe to remember – was to a weathered, older firefighter I thought was the chief, but who turned out to be the chaplain.
With help from patient editors, I eventually put together the basic facts, even interviewing a young house painter who had caught a baby dropped from a high window. A few hours later, I heard the story – my story – come across the air from an all-news radio station, and I was thrilled. I knew then that journalism was my calling.
In my new book, Finding the News: Adventures of a Young Reporter, I show how it felt to cover wars, coups, earthquakes, elections, and revolutions from 30 countries, and how I came to run the Washington bureau of a venerable news company. Forty years and thousands of stories after that first fire in Chicago, much has changed about covering the news, except for the most important thing.
Obviously, the technology has changed from manual typewriters, pay phones and printed newspapers. The speed and volume of news have increased beyond what seemed possible when I started in 1980. It was during my lifetime that the TV networks shocked everybody when they doubled the length of the nightly national news—from a mere fifteen minutes a day to thirty minutes. Few imagined TV news around the clock, or entire networks presenting current events, or that a “public service” like news would be so profitable.
The tone of television news changed, too, from traditional broadcasters playing it straight to more “personality” and then outright opinion, partisanship, and shouting matches.
The reporters covering the news changed, too. Enrollment at journalism schools flipped from mostly male students to mostly female. A few (but not enough) women, African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans became leaders in mostly white, male, straight newsrooms. The modest demographic changes were part of a healthy redefinition of which stories should be covered, how they could be told, and who should tell them.
Then the internet blew up everything. The power of a few people (including me) to set the news agenda was shattered. The old editors no longer could decide who was a journalist, what was a story, or what was fair commentary. Politicians and businesses could speak directly to news consumers without going through journalists as gatekeepers. Citizens could talk back to the media and to each other. Enabled and emboldened by anonymity online, the tone of political discourse grew more vicious.
The information network was always “on,” meaning there was no more news cycle with deadlines and built-in pauses, just round-the-clock, unfiltered information. The faster pace and increased competition reduced the time to check facts and frame stories, and the news of the moment could be triggered by a random, ten-second video from somebody’s cell phone.
More information did not always mean more wisdom. My generation was taught not to believe everything we read. My children had to be skeptical of unlimited sources of information. Even photos and videos—once the definition of unfiltered truth—could be misleading or lies.
It was as if a tornado had hit the Library of Congress, knocking the covers off books and scattering the pages. There was more stuff but less sense.
An unintended consequence of the new technologies was the collapse of the business model that supported traditional news organizations, especially local newspapers. The loss of revenue threatens newspapers and local television stations and all but the largest online news organizations.
Behind all of these changes, however, the journalism mission has not changed. The basic challenge still is to make sense of reality and to share that reality with others. Getting the facts right and telling the stories quickly, accurately, and fairly, remain the goals. Journalism has never been that complicated; it’s just difficult to do well.
News consumers do not think we are doing the job well enough, however, and complaints about bias are a product of declining trust. Reporters never have been especially popular, and even when I started, polls on trustworthiness ranked us below doctors, police officers, and other professionals. The distrust has grown, and today’s readers have more ways of voicing their complaints. While we consider ourselves part of the solution to the nation’s problems, many readers and viewers see us as part of the problem.
To earn trust, our driving principles should be the same as when I started: speed, accuracy, and fairness. Journalists must be fast because competition makes us better. Accuracy is the minimal requirement for real news. But even if we are fast and accurate, only fairness will earn the long-term confidence of the people who count on us.
There was no golden age of news in the past, however. In many ways, journalism is more professional than ever. When American newspapers were young, they were filled with lies, rumors, fake news, and political manipulation.
It is true that when I started, reporters knew more than they put in the paper, and today people are quick to publish or share more than they really know. Again, this is about values—fairness and accuracy—and not about the internet or the nature of social media. Technology is not to blame when we cheat on our values, but it can be an enabler.
We know the right values—speed, accuracy, and fairness—and we know the difference between real news and fake news. Rapidly improving technology allows us to report and distribute real news instantly from anywhere to everyone. Journalists need to embrace the newest technologies, recommit to our highest values, and develop business models that will pay for quality news coverage.
If we play it right, the combination of new digital tools and universal connectivity—powered by old-school news values—could make this the beginning of a real golden age of journalism.
(Peter Copeland was a foreign correspondent and Washington bureau chief for the E.W. Scripps Company. He is the author of five books, including Finding the News: Adventures of a Young Reporter, from which this column is adapted.)
There is much discussion in political and media circles about why The New York Times endorsed two Democratic candidates for president, but the real question is why a news organization feels it is necessary or wise to choose a candidate at all.
So why is it a problem that The New York Times picked Amy Klobuchar and/or Elizabeth Warren over Donald Trump? The main reason is that readers already distrust reporters and accuse them of bias, mostly of a liberal persuasion but also for or against individual candidates. If a news organization endorses a particular candidate, should readers take that into account when considering every news story about the race?
Yes, The New York Times has done a good job – better than ever – of explaining how a candidate is chosen, and how it is not “the institution” that is endorsing a candidate but the “Editorial Board.” I’m afraid, however, that this distinction is lost on readers and voters.
As a longtime reporter and editor, I felt the impact of these endorsements first-hand. When I was a reporter, I often was confronted by people who accused me of taking sides because my news organization had taken sides. It’s not me, I tried to argue, it’s a separate branch of the company that pays my salary. The defense sounded lame, even to me.
The impact was most profound when I was a foreign correspondent in Mexico. I tried to be fair in my reporting, but my company’s editorial stance was so critical of the Mexican government that it limited my access to Mexican officials and caused some of them to be openly hostile to me, which made it harder to do my job.
Then, when I became an editor for the Scripps Howard newspaper group, I was one of the people deciding every four years who our papers should endorse for president. All the editors of Scripps Howard met to discuss the candidates, and a favorite was chosen. Then each paper had to endorse the favorite without dissent, in order to increase the weight of the company endorsement.
The problem was that one corporate endorsement for president had to make sense for papers in conservative Texas and liberal Colorado. The choice had to work for men and women, blacks and whites, rich and poor, young and old, rural and urban, immigrants, and people who were straight or otherwise.
Here are the two main reasons not to endorse. First, choosing “the best” person for president depends on where you sit, which is why the vote of every citizen matters. News organizations should show us the facts about each candidate and let us decide who to choose. Second, when a paper endorses a candidate, it casts doubt on the impartiality of the news coverage. Reporters don’t need another reason to be mistrusted.
The New York Times explained why for the first time in its history that it endorsed two Democrats – Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren – instead of one. The reason, the paper argued, is that choosing the best candidate is a fight “that should be played out in the public arena and in the privacy of the voting booth.”
(Peter Copeland has been a journalist for 40 years. His most recent book, Finding the News: Adventures of a Young Reporter, is about real-world journalism ethics.)