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The next Woodward and Bernstein
may be in your journalism class now

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by Candace Perkins Bowen, MJE

Some say the next wave of great investigative journalists may be getting inspired now. Do you have a Pulitzer winner on YOUR staff? Are you teaching someone who could investigate the next Watergate break-in? What can you do to encourage him or her?

Sure, plenty of problems face today’s reporters: financial challenges for traditional newspapers, less-than-impressive wages, an attitude at the highest level of government that says media are the enemy, sometimes even threats of jail.

But Margaret Sullivan in the Fall 2017 Columbia Journalism Review had some good insight in her “Trump and the Watergate effect: Will young journalists still be inspired by today’s watchdog reporting?”

She remembers watching the Watergate hearings on tv as a child and realizing Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein made this all happen. “What these journalists did offered not only an important mission, but a gritty, roll-up-your-sleeves glamour. So, thanks to Watergate, Woodstein and Deep Throat, I was launched. And so were a generation of baby-boomer journalists—thousands of us. Some were in college in the mid ’70s. Others, like me, were in high school, or even younger.”

Will the reporters who are covering the Trump era — which, in some ways, is like the Nixon era with a special prosecutor, investigations into corruption and talk of possible impeachment — inspire today’s high school and college students to go into this career that can have a huge impact?

In today’s world of fake news, of chants to lock up journalists and of an attorney general who appears willing to prosecute those involved in leaks, is there still a calling?

Will the reporters who are covering the Trump era — which, in some ways, is like the Nixon era with a special prosecutor, investigations into corruption and talk of possible impeachment — inspire today’s high school and college students to go into this career that can have a huge impact?

How do we help recruit the best and the brightest to make a difference for us all?

First, we need to refute some of the arguments against a journalism career. Sure, some newspapers are struggling and cutting staff, but some are not, and, more important, newspapers are not the only venue even for investigative journalists.

The Pew Research Center reports, “In the U.S., roughly nine-in-ten adults (93 percent) get news online (either via mobile or desktop), and the online space has become a host for the digital homes of both legacy news outlets and new, ‘born on the web’ news outlets.”

Exposés don’t have to appear only in the New York Times. According to The Guardian, blogs have revealed everything from contaminated dog food to a reduced number of U.S. attorneys. Good journalists can be there, too.

Then we have to convince students what those following the Watergate era knew: They CAN make a difference. The watchdog role of the media is still vital in a democracy, and, without it, we’ve lost the foundation of our government.

What do today’s college students think?

Ben Orner, senior journalism major at Kent State University, said his high school interest in covering sports grew when he reached college. “I was able to make the connections between my news consumption, what I was learning in classes and how this could have an impact.”

He said he can see how journalism makes a difference. “Whether it’s big like Watergate or like corruption in the local city council,” he said he sees how journalists have make a difference.

“The ‘Trump Era’ inspires young journalists to hold their leaders accountable,” he said.

Kent State sophomore broadcast major Gretchen Lasso said she thinks the recent political climate has made her a more vocal journalist. She acknowledges when she arrived on campus she was not a very critical media consumer. “Now I’m better able to analyze news and decide if it’s credible.”

She said criticism of the media has made her “work harder to verify my own sources” and be a better journalist in the future.

Who knows if Ben and Gretchen will be future Woodwards and Bernsteins, but today’s media climate has served to challenge and inspire them. Could that happen to students in high school now?

Our democracy needs watchdogs who are willing to consider low pay and taunts from some crowds as the price to pay for a better democracy.

 

 

 

 

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