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July 6, 2023, 1:55 p.m.
Reporting & Production

Wesley Lowery talks journalism education, objectivity, and learning by doing

Lowery took the helm of the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University as its executive editor this month.

Since 2008, the nonprofit Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University has offered aspiring investigative journalists the opportunity to hone their skills through a program that combines mentorship with on-the-ground reporting. Graduate and undergraduate students work on stories about government and corporate accountability in partnership with professional reporters and editors at outlets like The Washington Post and PBS Frontline.

On July 1, Wesley Lowery, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter who covers law enforcement and racial justice, took the helm of the Investigative Reporting Workshop as its executive editor. Lowery, whose latest book, American Whitelash: A Changing Nation and the Cost of Progress was published last month, will also teach journalism courses at American University’s School of Communication.

I spoke with Lowery about previously collaborating with IRW students, his vision for mentoring the next generation of investigative reporters, and lasting lessons from his own journalism education. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

SOPHIE CULPEPPER: What drew you to this position and teaching opportunity at the Investigative Reporting Workshop?

WESLEY LOWERY: I’ve worked with the Investigative Reporting Workshop for years [through] the partnership between the IRW and the Washington Post, in which student journalists work hand in hand with reporters to complete some of the more ambitious investigative and data projects that the Post publishes. So a number of the projects that I’ve worked on over the years, some of the most rewarding of my career, have been ones that involved IRW students.

Beyond that, I’ve just had really good experiences working with journalism students in general, because I think that for professionals, almost all of us, given where the industry is right now, are seeking resources — need a helping hand, need another set of eyes. And meanwhile, what a rising generation of journalists need is an opportunity to put in repetitions. And so working directly with student journalists provides an opportunity to do that: Let them work on real, high-stakes investigations, while also being a force multiplier, and getting more of the ideas off of my list and into the newspaper.

CULPEPPER: So you see it as a real win-win.

LOWERY: Of course. Not just for me and for the students, but I think also just for the industry itself, we all benefit from having better journalists and having more journalists who have been trained in investigative work, in data work, in critical thinking and story ideation. And one of the best ways to do that is to have professionals, full-time practitioners working directly with the rising set of people who want to be full-time practitioners, because we know so much of what we do is on-the-job training.

CULPEPPER: Absolutely. I’m definitely a believer in learning by doing in my own experience with journalism. So in your previous work with some of these students at the Washington Post, especially on the Murder with Impunity investigation and the real-time database tracking fatal shootings by American police officers, are there any moments or specific experiences working with some of these students that stand out to you in your memory?

LOWERY: There are definitely examples of times where we sent a student out searching for something, and they brought back more than we ever thought they could. But for me, honestly, the things I think about the most are working with students like Erin Logan, who is now in the Washington bureau of the LA Times, and a superstar in her own right. But she was an American student. And I remember sitting with her any number of times in the conference rooms at the Washington Post, and talking through the challenges of the work we were working on, but then also navigating college, and internships, and friends, and newsrooms, and just having an opportunity to be there for a rising young Black journalist — just to have a sounding board, right, that someone in the room had gone through the things they’ve gone through before, and to support them [and] encourage them. And so for me, the moments I remember the most are a lot less about even the specific articles and journalism that’s been done. And I’ve worked with students at CUNY, as well as at Berkeley, and so I’ve gotten to work with graduate students across the country. It’s so much more the moments I remember are moments that are about being able to help those students themselves become the journalists that they want to be.

CULPEPPER: Are there any ways that you’re thinking of expanding or changing the Investigative Reporting Workshop in your new role?

LOWERY: So I think one thing that’s important to remember about IRW is that it really is an innovative, before-its-time nonprofit news experiment to construct an independent nonprofit newsroom based at a university, where student journalists are paid to work and partner with professional journalists under the guidance of professional journalists and professional editors. Where it really is a training hospital model, which is something that’s relatively rare across our industry. And so my aim is to build on that model. I think that it is the best way to learn investigative journalism. And the hope is to expand that model, and do more. It’s less about major changes, and it’s more about trying to work with more students and do more journalism. And I think that means having an increasing number of partnerships with organizations covering communities that otherwise don’t always get quality, investigative coverage. I think it’s having partnerships with universities, both in D.C. and across the country, to partner our student journalists with their student journalists, and do journalism that maybe couldn’t be done with just one set of them, and trying to find a way to collaborate.

I think that in this moment, the future of journalism cannot embrace the capitalistic competition of our past where everything is ends justify the means, rat race against each other. There are too many people out there poisoning our information ecosystem [and] those of us who are committed to rigorous, contextualized, fair reporting should — when it makes sense — share resources, should partner, and should build community around our best practices to ensure that there’s more journalism out there that services our democracy, and less that obfuscates our reality.

CULPEPPER: Do you have any specific organizations, either in the D.C. area or nationally, already in mind that the IRW might partner with [beyond their current partners]?

LOWERY: It’s worth noting the IRW has an amazing set of partners as is — we’ll continue to work with the Post, which is probably very predictable, given my relationships there over the years and the work I do with them. But there are plenty of other great places the IRW has worked with and will continue to work with, [such as] Public Health Watch. I would love to try to find some work to do with the Marshall Project where I have a contributing editor title.

It’s very important to me, as a citizen of the District of Columbia, to be supporting local journalism here. And so I’m already beginning to think about and talk to organizations like the Washington Informer, which is the historic Black paper in Southeast about what it might look like to partner on some investigative journalism that services a community in the nation’s capital that very often is missing from media coverage. And so that’s a big part of it. But the reality is, as I call my friends and places that I’ve worked, and places I want to work with, the sense is, like, is there good journalism that can be done by adding some students to the work? And if so, I want to be a convener and a facilitator to make as much of that happen as possible. And that might be publications, that might be individual journalists. It’s [asking] “how do we use these resources to do more journalism?”

CULPEPPER: For a relatively long time, but especially in the last couple of years, you’ve kind of written about the importance of understanding so-called objectivity’s fundamental flaws as a journalistic guiding principle — in particular, I remember your widely read 2020 New York Times opinion piece arguing for kind of overhauling it with moral clarity. So I’m curious, how will this view inform your approach to teaching journalism, and investigative journalism specifically?

LOWERY: Sure. So I would say there are a few things. We want our journalism to reflect objective reality. But in order to do that, we have to be able to do newsgathering that can actually collect all of the facts and all the perspectives, which we cannot do if our newsrooms are monolithic, and do not include people who have access to that information and to those experiences. And so unfortunately, over the years, two things have happened. Objectivity has been wielded as something that is about the individual journalist and their bias, not about the process by which we do journalism. And secondarily, we’ve allowed objectivity to become a stand-in term that is actually a reference to status quo, institutional perspectives — that things that are deemed objective are things that your boss agrees with personally, while things that are not are things that they do not agree with personally. Well, we can see how that would counteract our ability to cover objective reality by employing the people who need to be employed to collect that information. Right? If everyone who deviates or is different than the dominant culture within mainstream journalism is considered non-objective, then we’ll never have the people we need to go collect the information we need to reflect objective reality. In the Times op-ed, I didn’t say to replace objectivity with moral clarity. But I talked about the need for clarity.

More recently in the Columbia Journalism Review, I wrote a piece where I outlined six deliberate methods that I think [have] to guide our journalism.

First, I think we have to be devoted to rigor, which means we have to do more journalism, call more people, ask more questions. We publish too many things that have too many unanswered questions in them, and that have not gone through enough journalistic scrutiny.

You have to have a commitment to fairness, which means, I think, that we have to give everyone a hearing. That does not mean we have to broadcast everything they say. But I think we have to actually seek out their perspectives.

I think we have to value context. Our job is not just to accurately record facts, but it’s to provide those facts in a form that’s coherent and meaningful.

I think we have to practice transparency. It’s not that we do not have conflicts, that we do not have biases — in fact, we do. And so I think that in cases where there is a potential conflict or perspective that informs our work, I think we disclose that and don’t hide it from our readers. I think we also don’t hide from our readers things that we do not know. I think we directly write when there are unanswered questions or things we’re incapable of finding out, and not deploy a voice of God, when in fact, we know that we’re not a deity.

I think we explore nuance. I think we lean into gray areas. And we don’t take things as black and white when they are more complex than that. But then I think we also have to seek clarity: When the weight of the objective evidence is clear, we don’t pull our punches. We don’t use euphemisms to obfuscate what we actually mean. And we are willing to tell truth, even when that truth offends our readers.

I think that those are the six things that have to guide our journalists. And I think those are the six methods and values that have guided a lot of the best journalism in the country. I think that so often, when we talk about objectivity, what we’re really talking about is our desire to appear objective, to be marketed as objective to our reader. But that is very often in direct conflict with our ability to actually tell the objective truth.

CULPEPPER: Do you think that the next generation of reporters, including students at the IRW, already share your perspective on these six methods of guiding journalism and your described view of objectivity as truth seeking to a great extent — perhaps more than older journalists?

LOWERY: Certainly. I don’t think that the rising generation has much of a choice. It is a generation of people who woke up and saw the world around them, and set out to try to change it for the better. I think a lot of the young journalists who are entering journalism schools, not unlike other moments of expansions of journalism education, are coming to our schools because they want to uphold the tradition of us having a robust public square that’s informed by shared understandings of reality — because they want and believe that good journalism can change the world for the better. And most of them aren’t caught in these kinds of word games that I think a lot of establishment journalism likes to get caught in. Fundamentally, much of the debate about “objectivity” spawns from a bunch of journalistic institutions and journalistic gatekeepers pretending not to understand what young people are saying and then attacking a straw man. And the reality is the young people I work with every day just want to do great journalism.

CULPEPPER: Are there any new techniques or digital presentations for investigations and data-driven reporting that you find especially inspiring or exciting? Or, are there any ways that you would want to innovate, or formats you would want to innovate with in guiding students through new kinds of data projects or digital projects?

LOWERY: I don’t have anything specific. Certainly, one focus of mine will be the idea of creating data where it doesn’t otherwise exist, which is obviously something that I’ve done a lot in my projects — I’ve also done a lot of work around public records, in my various past lives. And so, again, I think the challenge of our generation of investigative journalists is not to reinvent new tools — although there are some new tools — but rather to apply those tools, and that toolbox, to projects that previously might not have gotten that level of rigor and attention.

How do we use investigative techniques to tell stories that otherwise wouldn’t have been told? By using the same tools, only on a different project, or towards a different goal. And so I think that’s a big part of it. But beyond that, though, the reality is, how do we empower a rising generation of journalists to use the tools that we have mastered on the stories that come into their minds and into their notebooks? And so…you know, I might be the one driving the car, but I don’t intend to be the one holding the map, necessarily.

CULPEPPER: What lessons and professors, if any, stuck with you from your own journalism education during undergraduate at Ohio University? What, if anything, do you think was missing? And what of these things do you think you may carry with you into your own teaching?

LOWERY: I think for me, I got the most out of my relationships with professors who were practitioners, whether that be Tom Suddes, who is a longtime political columnist in Ohio, and was still, at the time, actively working and writing — he may still be — or Molly Yanity, who had been working in sports journalism; or Edgar Simpson, who had been the editor of the paper in Ohio not long before he joined the faculty. So, people who really had hands-on experience, and who could help me, as an aspiring journalist, navigate live balls, who I could work on journalism with. To me, I think that was what was most vital, most important. I think it’s important for us to to be a place where there is debate and discussion of our ethics and our history and our policies. I think what’s also true is that we all know that we learn journalism best by doing it. And so how do we incubate laboratories for people to learn so that when they enter our field professionally, from day one, they are better journalists?

CULPEPPER: Was there anything in your journalism education that stuck with you specific to investigative or data reporting?

LOWERY: I did a lot of FOIA work — even back then, in college, I did a fair amount of public records work, with being a public university. Not all of it was traditionally kind of investigative, but a lot of it was enterprise. This thought of, how do we be thoughtful? How do we choose our ideas and choose our targets and not cover “what happened today?” How do we contextualize it? How do we push it forward? If it was worth writing about on Tuesday, it’s probably still worth writing about on Thursday or Friday or the following Tuesday. And so I think that that’s a big part of it as well, trying to create space for students to follow a story through the various depths of reporting, not just that first level.

CULPEPPER: Beyond the six deliberate methods for guiding journalism that you mentioned from your Columbia Journalism Review article, is there anything else you would say about the most important elements of journalism education in 2023, especially for investigative reporting?

LOWERY: I think that, first and foremost, as journalism educators, we have to broaden the funnel of who actually makes it into our newsrooms and into our industry. Because it is the people who make it in who ultimately decide what journalism is done, and what journalism is not done. And so I really have thought about all the friends and the people I’ve known over the years who would have made for great journalists if they had been given the ability to do the journalism that they had aspired to do — that so often, with the emptying out of our local newsrooms, and the crisis within local journalism; with the obsession of ratings on television and traffic on the internet; that so many, not just entry-level journalists, but even journalists five, 10, 15 years into their career, are locked out of access to the time, the resources, the editing, and the ambitions to the type of journalism that they dreamed of doing.

I think it’s our job, to the extent that we can, to provide a space and a ground for our young aspiring journalists to learn to do the type of journalism they want to do, and that they came into this field to do. And so for me, my thought is with each student, it’s like, “What’s the story on your list you’ve always dreamed of doing? Let’s figure out a way to do it.” Or, “What’s the thing you want to learn?” So that when you get that idea, you know how to do it, and you know that you can do it.

CULPEPPER: To close us out, what advice do you have for young journalists, and is there anything else you’d like to bring up that we haven’t talked about?

LOWERY: I always tell young journalists — and I think it’s fitting now that I’m going to start leading kind of a training ground, right? — I really do believe that we learn this by doing. Every part of being a good journalist, from being able to notice the things that other people can’t see, to coming up with story ideas, to researching and reading, to reporting and interviewing and then to writing, all of those are things that we get better at the more we do them. And so, for someone who wants to be a journalist, I think the best thing to do is to start doing journalism.

Correction: A previous version of this article included an incorrectly transcribed word. “Attacking a straw man” was incorrectly transcribed as “attacking Trump.”

Photo of Wesley Lowery used courtesy of American University.

Sophie Culpepper is a staff writer at Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (sophie@niemanlab.org) or Twitter DM (@s_peppered).
POSTED     July 6, 2023, 1:55 p.m.
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