The only thing you have to fear….

Erica Perel, advisor to the Daily Tar Heel, read this post and asked me to talk to DTH staffers about courage under fire. The DTH has taken some flak from virtually every constituency for its coverage of crime and sexual assaults on campus. I was happy to. It took me a long time to understand how important it is to stand tall in the face of criticism. And I mean that you stand tall both when you’re right and when you’re wrong. I wanted to talk to young journalists about the importance of why we do what we do and the courage it takes.

Here is what I prepared and generally, but not exactly, followed:***

Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel wrote that the purpose of journalism is to provide people with the information they need to be free & self-governing. Its first principles are critical:

Its first obligation is to the truth. Its first loyalty is to citizens, and that you be an independent monitor of power.

You must hold those principles in your heart. You have a sacred trust, passed on through the generations, to uphold these principles. No one else will do this. No one else. Without you, democracy is damned.

It takes guts to do what you do. People don’t appreciate it. Journalism is among the least respected but most important jobs a community has. You write about everything–from the glories of your community to its warts. And while many don’t want to read about the warts, the sunshine you provide starts the path to healing.

I always tell people that journalists have no friends. We do, of course, but when it comes to our craft, we don’t show friendship. And every constituency — the administration, city officials, politicians, students, advertisers — will try to flatter you, to shame you, to push you around to get what they want. Anticipate it, listen to them and then do what’s right because, remember: Your first obligation is to the truth.

How do you get there?

Every lesson about life that your mother taught you applies. Respect others. Have a sense of fair play. Balance what you know and what you think. Don’t assume and don’t judge. Listen. And if your mama says she loves you, check it out.

When you’re facing questions, gather your smart friends around. Are you being fair? Are you being thorough? Are you accurate? Are you being transparent? Talk it through. If you’re satisfied you’re right, say so. If you decide you’ve done something wrong, say so. In both cases, explain yourself to readers without arrogance or defensiveness.

In the end, stand tall in your decisions. People ultimately respect you for your independence, your backbone and your ability to speak truth to power.

If you haven’t watched “All the President’s Men” lately, go watch it. It’s a story of a newspaper doing its job against all the will of the president of the United States. It’ll remind you how important what you do it. There is one scene in the movie in which the Post made an error in its reporting and the White House came down on them like a ton of bricks. Ben Bradlee, the editor of the Post, is being pressured by other media to respond to the White House’s criticism. His response: “We stand by our story.” (Here it is the book.)


That’s when I stopped to take questions. And, as always, the best stuff came in the questions. They asked several. We talked about winning back constituencies that didn’t like the way you covered a story. My answer: Respect them, listen to them and offer them a place in the paper and website to state their position, but that, ultimately, if you believe you’re doing the right thing, you don’t change what you’re doing to appease them. You may never win them back, and that’s OK.

We talked about not over-reacting to what people were saying in other publications. That you can’t worry about what you can’t control.

We talked about readers’ short memories. That controversy does pass.

We talked about the ability to ask people in power tough questions. My answer: It’s fine to be nervous; I was always nervous as a reporter. But ultimately, you come to realize that all that will happen is that the person you’re talking to gets mad at you. Or you get tossed from a meeting. Then you write about it. It’s OK.

We talked about other thing, including how many times I didn’t take my own advice. (Too many, I’m afraid.)

I came away thinking that journalism is in good hands.

***I know good and well that my rendition of my own performance can vary wildly from what others saw and heard. I hope that if any of the folks there reads this and finds something worth adding, they do so.

2 thoughts on “The only thing you have to fear….

  1. Who needs friends, when we’ve got folks like you?
    Thanks again for coming. This tracks pretty well with my recollections of your talk.

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