I teach now and then at my undergraduate alma mater, Auburn University, which is only an hour up the interstate from our office in Montgomery, Ala. I usually teach when the journalism faculty finds itself one instructor short of the number of courses on the semester schedule, and they give me a quick call to fill the gap. I teach either Reporting or Feature Writing to mostly juniors, which is good because I know my students by then have committed somewhat to the journalism or communications field as a career. The Reporting and Feature Writing classes are kind of your over-the-hump courses. I tell my students on the first day, if you don’t do well in this course, it’s too late to do anything else, and if you do well in this course, it’s too late to do anything else.
I like both courses, but I probably favor Reporting more. This stems from my journalism education in the era of Bernstein and Woodward. My instructors, who were all hard-nosed newspapermen, didn’t give a flip about liberal and conservative. They cared about accuracy, whether it concerned a scandal in a presidential re-election campaign or the fact that new parking meters were going up on Main Street. One of my proudest moments as a student was when my professor asked me to name the three most important things in reporting. “Accuracy, accuracy, accuracy,” I replied. He gave me a nod of approval that I can still see today.
Unfortunately “accuracy” in reporting, and good reporters for that matter, seems to have gone out with the trash. Today it’s all about giving an opinion based on rumors and political agenda. It’s very difficult to read or watch something and come away feeling you’ve heard an unbiased report. Somewhere along the way it became okay to report unsubstantiated facts.
Oh well, I continue to stick to my guns, believing that good reporting will return to us. I tell the students that to succeed in reporting you first have to be able to uncover facts and verify them to the point that you are so absolutely sure they are facts that you’re willing to write an article presenting those facts and put your name on top of it—an article that will forevermore be in print.
I presented a problem to them. I told them that they were reporters and their editor had told them that before their article could be published, they had to get a verification of a fact from one more source, an executive named Pat Walsh, who was in the know. “What is your next step?” I asked them. One student said, “Find out his phone number and call him on the phone.” Not answering I said. Another student said, “E-mail him.” Still not answering I said. Another student said, “See if he’s on facebook and contact him that way.” Not on facebook I said. A long pause ensued, until a young man at the front of the class, very outgoing and proud, offered, “I would find out where he lives, go there and knock on his door.” “And if there’s no answer?” I asked. “I would wait there until he came home.” “You have all the makings of a great reporter,” I told the young man. “But what makes you think the source is a he?”