Nancy Mayfield

NANCY MAYFIELD

Observer Columnist

One of my first assignments as a young reporter in the late 1980s was covering the city government of East Chicago, Indiana.

It was a real trial by fire. Google “East Chicago, Indiana, and corruption,” and you’ll get the drift. 

Decades of federal investigations of mayors, city council members, and other officials for bribery, theft of public money, and corruption. Indictments and prison sentences. A councilman fleeing to Greece to avoid incarceration. It’s the stuff of a Netflix drama series.

Despite having studied journalism, I was unprepared to handle the bobbing and weaving I encountered trying to get even the simplest questions answered by government officials there. I was 22, and, while I wasn’t timid, I was intimidated by this well-oiled machine of master spinners who, in retrospect, saw me as an easy mark.

I came back to the newsroom one day and told my editor something to the effect of “Councilman such-and-such said he didn’t really think this was much of a story, and I didn’t want to push him.”

He gave me a piercingly stern look and said, “That’s not good enough. We owe our readers more than that, and I expect more from you.” And then he took the time to mentor me and show me how to systematically report such stories to their end.

Listen closely. Take careful notes. Verify. Get documentation for everything. Pursue public records. Be fair. Verify. Give all sides the opportunity to comment every time, even if it’s a repeated “no comment.” Keep digging until all the questions the public has the right to know are answered. Verify. Don’t stop because it is uncomfortable for you to ask questions or someone is trying to intimidate you. 

This systematic approach is why the traditional journalism practiced by newspapers is so important to a democracy. Unlike much of the unverified information bouncing around the internet, for journalists the starting point always was and still is that the public has the absolute right to the truth. 

Cable news entertainers notwithstanding, a strong belief in this ideal is why most journalists started down this career path in the first place. 

As I practiced following the same steps in pursuing a story — Every. Single. Time. — I stopped worrying about whether someone accused me of “being mean” or trying to sensationalize something. I learned to stay the course. Systematically report. Seek the truth.  

Is it always fun? No. Is it sometimes uncomfortable? Yes. But as I learned in covering East Chicago, you don’t want to go back to the newsroom and tell your editor you didn’t ask the hard questions. That you essentially failed your readers. 

I found myself thinking about these lessons a couple weeks ago when I finally had a chance to read Time magazine’s Person of the Year issue, which came out in December. The issue honored four journalists and a newspaper “for taking great risks in pursuit of greater truths, for the imperfect but essential quest for facts that are central to civil discourse, for speaking up and for speaking out. …” It was humbling to read about the honorees. 

One of them, slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, graduated from Indiana State University in 1983, the year before my husband, Trevis, and I started there. A critic of the Saudi government, he was assassinated in October after visiting the Saudi embassy in Turkey to obtain marriage documents. 

Next week is the inaugural Jamal Khashoggi Annual Address on Journalism and the Media at Indiana State University. Washington Post foreign affairs columnist David Ignatius will speak at what will be an annual tribute that seeks to examine current and critical issues related to journalism, the first amendment and freedom of the press. 

Khashoggi shared the Person of the Year honor with journalists Maria Ressa, who faces prosecution in the Philippines after being critical of President Rodrigo Duterte, and Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, both of whom are imprisoned in Myanmar for their reporting that exposed a mass execution by the country’s military. 

The newspaper honored by Time was the Annapolis, Maryland-based Capital Gazette, which lost five staff members last year after a local man upset with past reporting about his harassment of a woman opened fire at the newspaper’s office.

In the immediate aftermath, the staff rallied to put out a paper, and in the months since they have spoken out about the importance of journalists in cities and towns across the United States in keeping people informed about stories ranging from features to hard news. 

“Community journalists are the only ones who are going to go to your kid’s basketball game. They’re the only ones who are going to cover lifeguard training. … They’re the only ones who are going to cover your local elections and tell you exactly what’s going on,” noted Selene San Felice, a Capital Gazette features reporter, to Times writer Karl Vick. 

While the newspaper industry is challenging, especially in larger markets, it needs to survive long-term. It’s a community undertaking that includes journalists, sources, community leaders and advertisers. Without all of them playing a role, our country, our states, and our local communities would all be deprived of the information they need to self-govern. 

Since my early days reporting in East Chicago, I have written thousands of stories. Many of them were about happy events and achievements, the triumph of the human spirit, a peek into someone’s life, an explanation of an issue impacting the community, coverage of civic meetings. Others have dealt with controversy involving a government entity or a business.

Real journalism needs to survive and thrive, not for the sake of journalists, but for the sake of all of us.