Distinguished Panel Highlights SPJ Conference in D.C.

Four representatives from the School of Communications attended the Society of Professional Journalists conference in Washington, D.C., last weekend. Associate professor Anthony Hatcher, the advisor to Elon’s SPJ chapter, Coordinator of Student Media Colin Donohue and students Olivia Hubert-Allen and Bethany Swanson, both student leaders at The Pendulum student newspaper, attended.

The highlight of the conference was a session titled "Watergate: Thirty-five Years Later" that featured a distinguished panel that included former Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee, former Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, former Watergate investigation committee member Scott Armstrong, author Alicia Shepard and former CBS reporter Daniel Shorr. The discussion was moderated by Bob Schieffer of CBS News.

The panel talked about the coverage and pursuit of the Watergate story, initiated first by Woodward and Bernstein.

Both Woodward and Bernstein said that they couldn't forecast where the story would take them. It all started with an odd break-in at the Watergate hotel and neither thought that one incident would ultimately lead to the demise of the Nixon presidency.

"We had no idea," Bernstein said. "It’s all about where the reporting takes you. We had good sources, and we understood where each step was taking us."

They both praised Bradlee for his continued guidance and hard line about verifying all information.

"Ben was best not when he ran things in the paper, but when he kept things out," Woodward said.

Woodward and Bernstein may not have known how far their story would reach, but they did know what they were doing was important. They lamented at the time, though, that their work wasn’t reaching a large audience.

They both credited CBS News with bringing the story to the forefront of national discourse. Shepard said only 40 percent of the nation knew about Watergate when the stories were running exclusively in newspapers. That percentage catapulted when CBS began to cover it.

"A large part of being a CBS Watergate correspondent," Shorr said, "was repeating what the Washington Post was reporting. CBS contributed by turning a newspaper story into a national story."

But could a story akin in magnitude to Watergate be presented as effectively today? Both Woodward and Bernstein said they weren’t sure if today’s 24-hour, need-it-yesterday media climate would allow reporters to do real investigative reporting anymore. Woodward said today media members work too quickly to produce the news, but "good reporting is the opposite. You have to be slow and patient."

"Reporters (today)," Bernstein said, "tend to be lousy listeners. If you let people talk and you listen responsibly, your story’s going to go somewhere you never expected."

But Bernstein cautioned the audience that it was "impossible to compare two different eras" of reporting.

Still, the Watergate story has left a lasting impression. What the investigation may have done unintentionally was breed a large dose of cynicism into the public consciousness.

"Watergate told us there could be conspiracy in government," Shorr said. "(Americans today) grow up in a time where they do no assume that what they’re told is true."

To read more about the SPJ Conference, check out Olivia’s blog and Bethany’s blog.


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