By Samantha Subin
Marty Baron, the executive editor of The Washington Post, urged every reporter to think of themselves as an investigative journalist during a discussion with students and faculty at this university Thursday night.
“If someone comes across wrongdoing, the reporter should have the instincts to pursue that,” Baron said to an audience of over 100 attendees in Hoff Theater.
During the discussion, which was hosted by the Philip Merrill College of Journalism, the Diamondback and the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism, Baron discussed how investigative journalism has changed in the current political climate. The discussion was led by Ryan Romano, the editor in chief of the Diamondback and Roxanne Ready, a graduate student.
Baron, who worked as the editor of The Boston Globe during the infamous Spotlight investigation that uncovered sexual abuse in the Catholic diocese, stressed the importance of conducting thorough investigations.
“I always worry about the questions that we didn’t ask,” Baron said. He added that with the 24-hour news cycle there are “greater risks” and it can be “difficult” to verify many facts before publication.
Since the Spotlight investigation in 2002, investigative resources have also changed. Many newspapers, Baron said, will report on “what’s known at the time,” a trend The Washington Post has adapted to.
About a year and a half ago, Baron said the newspaper incorporated a rapid response team that “work collaboratively with any department that needs investigative resources.” Every section, Baron said, should have investigative journalists available. Doing so is one way to prevent lawsuits and protect journalists from “looking sloppy.”
Since President Donald Trump’s ascension to office in 2017, the media has faced extensive criticism and many mainstream news sources have been regarded as “fake news” by Trump and other right-wing supporters. In the past week, Cesar Sayoc, a vocal Trump supporter, allegedly sent explosive pipe bombs to CNN headquarters and vocal Democrats like actor Robert De Niro.
Many questions during Thursday’s discussion addressed these recent attacks on journalists, including the death of Jamal Khashoggi, a reporter for The Washington Post who was reportedly killed and dismembered inside the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. Audience questions addressed the shifting role of journalism in the era of fake news and disinformation.
“I don’t like the term fake news,” Baron said. “I call it stories that are false and conspiracy theories that have no basis in fact.”
Fake news, Baron said is a term used by the president to “disqualify” and discredit news sources. Reporting objectively and transparently, he said will “hold up over time.”
“Our primary responsibility is to publish the facts, to do our research.” Baron said. ”Do it well, do it honestly, do it honorably, do it accurately and fairly.”
Romano brought up an important downfall of investigative journalism in the current political era and the Trump presidency.
“How do we as journalists keep pushing and keep striving to do this work if it seems like it might not affect any change?” Romano asked. But Baron said it’s not the job of a journalist to “think about the consequences,” it’s their role to be curious.
“We have to be activists for the truth, not activists for the cost,” Baron said.
Like many budding journalists in the audience, Michela Dwyer has an affinity for revealing the truth. Dwyer, a sophomore studying psychology at American University, agreed with Baron’s sentiment.
“Thinking that you know everything there is to know can be very harmful,” Dwyer said.
But other students, like Charlotte Crook, a freshman journalism major, initially used Thursday’s discussion as an opportunity to meet the real-life Spotlight superstar.
“The way he was able to remain objective the entire time surprised me,” Crook said.
With the opening of the new Howard Center for Investigative Journalism in 2019, Baron urged students to investigate nonprofits or religious institutions, sectors of society that he said, “need more investigative journalism.” And as politics changes, Baron said that journalists need to continue to be “good listeners” and “constant learners.”
“We just need to keep doing our work,” Baron said. “It will be validated.”