Today I had one of those lovely JSK moments, where by the privilege of being here at Stanford, I can interact with and hear from the particularly talented and wise people who care about and create good, thoughtful journalism.
Today’s moment was the opportunity to hear Pat Stith talk.
Stith is a Pulitzer Prize winning newspaper reporter who has been in the business for decades. And the man knows how to tell a good story.
The News & Observer (Raleigh, NC), for the work of Melanie Sill, Pat Stith and Joby Warrick
For an example of an industry whose fortunes have been helped along by political influence, it would be hard to beat…
Stith has been a part of more than 300 distinct investigative stories. He spent an hour sharing advice and stories with a room full of journalism students who will soon be heading out into the world to find their own stories.
Here are some of my favorite pieces of advice:
- “Aim small, miss small” [quoting The Patriot] meaning if you aim for no errors, the errors that you inevitably make will be small and not material. Stith was known for checking with a pen or pencil, literally every word in a story. “Start with the first word. ‘The.’ Is it spelled right? Okay, next word.”
- You can tell a story that is factual but not true. Our job is not to just get it right, but to get to the truth of the matter.
- Balance is not good journalism. Our goal is to be fair and accurate. If balance requires treating a horrible liar with the same weight as one of the 12 Disciples then it is a disservice to what we do.
- Be fair, be accurate and don’t make something into what it’s not. Understatement is useful. Audiences are smart and they can figure things out but if you’re always leaning into the wind, you will lose their trust. If an interview or fact or piece of information “ruins” a story, you shouldn’t be writing that story.
- Don’t publish things that aren’t true. He told the story of being asked, for the sake of balance, to interview a subject who went on and on but ultimately said nothing that was true. He didn’t use anything that the person said in the story. Didn’t even mention him. When asked to explain why he didn’t use the interview, Stith said that including him would have required adding even more grafs in order to debunk and correct the inaccurate information from that person.
- On editing: you should correct people that you care about.
- Manners and courtesy matter. You can say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and still ask ‘did you steal that money?’
- If you want to be selective about the people you are getting access to, get access to the people at the bottom of the totem pole. They know everything.
- This is not the career for people wanting to be popular. If you want to be popular, open an ice cream store. This is about being fair and accurate and making our communities better.
- Do your homework and know what you’re talking about. You are smart, but you will inevitably talk to and interview people who are smarter than you. “It’s fun to prepare yourself to do battle with people that are smarter than you. But you can beat them if you work hard enough and know what you’re talking about.”
It was only 60 minutes, but it was a wonderful reminder of the heart and effort that many journalists put into this job.
If you want to read more about Stith, there’s a chapter dedicated to his work in the book Democracy’s Detectives.
He’s also started a blog where he’s telling his own stories.
The Final Edition
My goal is to tell the kind of stories you would tell, or you'd like to hear, sitting around a glowing campfire or driving through a rainy night to some distant place…
Heather Bryant is currently a JSK Fellow at Stanford working to help newsrooms build effective and meaningful editorial collaborations.