Reunions panels take on hot topics

Journalism is facing unprecedented challenges these days, as the very notion of what’s true is under debate and newspapers continue to downsize and shutter their operations. Alumni journalists came together to discuss what that means at the annual Reunions forum hosted by PAW and Princeton’s Program in Journalism. 

Moderator Nancy Cordes *99
Beverly Schaefer
The panel — called “Journalism in Turbulent Times” — was not the most cheerful of Reunions events, as evidenced by the wide range of challenges it covered: coping with lying politicians, finding new funding models to replace revenue that’s gone for good, educating a public that has trouble distinguishing between facts and fakes, and providing information to communities whose local papers no longer exist. 

There is a “real crisis of trust” between journalists and their audience, said Marc Fisher ’80, a senior editor at The Washington Post. One culprit, he said, is “the technological revolution and the nature of social-media companies, which are media companies that pretend not to be media companies.” These companies create and provide content as traditional media do, but they “don’t want the legal liability” — and the focus on fact-checking — that comes along with that, he suggested. 

Misinformation is rampant on Capitol Hill, said panel moderator Nancy Cordes *99, the chief congressional correspondent for CBS News. “There is a larger group of lawmakers and aides who for a variety of reasons feel there is less of a penalty for outright lying than there used to be,” she said. “It is not limited to one particular party. They’ve gotten messages that you may not be punished in the polls and at election time if you have a habit of lying.”

But the alumni acknowledged that journalists themselves have some responsibility for the trust gap between reporters and consumers of news — and they need to do more to shrink it. “Journalists need to be more transparent about how we do what we do,” said Michael Grabell ’03, a reporter at the nonprofit investigative news organization ProPublica. His organization posts its source material alongside many of its stories. 

Panelist Lou Jacobson ’92 is a senior correspondent at the nonprofit site PolitiFact, a fact-checking organization whose “Truth-O-Meter” ratings of politicians’ claims range from “true” to “pants on fire.” Jacobson said PolitiFact is expanding its partnerships with other news outlets and is working with student journalists at West Virginia University to bring its fact-checking to an underserved state. “We want to arm the voters with solid reported work so when they go into the voting booth, they know something has been vetted,” he said. 

Danielle Ivory ’05, an investigative reporter for The New York Times who has covered federal regulatory agencies for a decade, spoke about the challenges of obtaining information under the Trump administration. The presidential administration of Barack Obama also had issues with transparency, she said, but these days she encounters more delays in getting even basic information from the administration. One bright spot, though, has been federal employees’ willingness to talk off the record: “In this administration, it’s like 200 percent better for me in terms of getting people to talk to me because there are, it seems, more people seeing things they think are wrong.” 

Readers who closely followed the polling data in the 2016 election found themselves surprised by Donald Trump’s win. As we head into another presidential election, journalists need to better explain how polls work and what their limitations are, said David Byler ’14, a data analyst and political columnist at The Washington Post. Coverage should be informed by polling data, he said, but reporters shouldn’t rely on it excessively. “We don’t want to write every story about [Joe] Biden,” who has been leading polls of the Democratic contenders, Byler said.

In covering the 2020 election, “we in the media have to be very careful about getting really excited about people who we think are attractive or have a good chance,” said Tanzina Vega, host of the public-radio show “The Takeaway,” who has taught in Princeton’s journalism program. She cited the coverage of Beto O’Rourke’s campaign as an example: “The media created an amazing Beto, and then ripped [him] down two weeks after.”

The panel was one of two that focused on journalism: Sparks flew at an alumni-faculty forum on “Free Speech and Fake News,” as panelists and audience members differed on the definition of “fake news” and Trump’s record of truth-telling. Panelists also discussed the 17-count indictment filed against Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, for his role in disseminating sensitive government information. Brian Dickerson ’79, editorial page editor at the Detroit Free Press, said, “Imagine Daniel Ellsberg going to prison for leaking the Pentagon Papers. Imagine the editors of The New York Times and The Washington Post going to prison for publishing the Pentagon Papers. That’s what we’re talking about here.”

Other well-attended panels included discussions of sexual assault and the #MeToo movement, including one panel at which a speaker and audience members walked out in protest (see page 14); criminal justice; cybersecurity; and health-care policy, including a lecture by physician and former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist ’74. 

Many alumni attended a forum on another topic in the news recently: “China/U.S. Conflicts in Geopolitics and Trade,” where panelists expressed concerns about the course the United States is taking. “The Chinese study us. We don’t know them. And I think they will not just roll over and take what is being thrown at them,” said Ginny Kamsky ’74, who heads a strategic-consulting firm with offices in New York and Beijing.

“If this trade war does not lead to an eventual agreement, we should think about what that means,” said Cheng Li *92, director of the Brookings Institution’s John L. Thornton China Center. “It means that we will have two blocs, a China-led internet and a U.S.-led internet, and maybe a European-led internet. ... Also, there could eventually be two financial systems. Is that where we want the world to go? One world, two systems? It will eventually lead to a terrible, terrible situation.”


“We want to arm the voters with solid reported work so when they go into the voting booth, they know something has been vetted.” — Lou Jacobson ’92


Beverly Schaefer

“In this administration, it’s like 200 percent better for me in terms of getting people to talk to me because there are, it seems, more people seeing things they think are wrong.” — Danielle Ivory ’05


Beverly Schaefer

One culprit in the trust gap is “the technological revolution and the nature of social-media companies, which are media companies that pretend not to be media companies.” — Marc Fisher ’80


Beverly Schaefer

“Journalists need to be more transparent about how we do what we do.” — Michael Grabell ’03


Beverly Schaefer

“The media created an amazing Beto, and then ripped [him] down two weeks after.” — Tanzina Vega


Beverly Schaefer

Reporters can’t rely exclusively on polling: “We don’t want to write every story about [Joe] Biden.” — David Byler ’14