As a Middle-East correspondent in the early ‘80s, David Ignatius crossed the rugged mountains and sniper zones of Lebanon, passing from West to East Beirut and seeking news tips from willing militias. Despite his dangerous path, the young journalist had some assurance of his safety: Everybody wanted their stories heard.
Thanks in large part to technology, those days are gone, said Ignatius, associate editor and columnist for The Washington Post. “If I entered some of the no-go zones today, they’d kill me,” said the 40-year CIA reporter and author, whose 10th book, “The Quantum Spy,” is set to release in November.
Ignatius discussed ethics, dangers and changing aspects of journalism during a Sept. 12 panel hosted by the University of Colorado Denver Department of Communication. Part of the Daniels Fund Colloquia on Ethics in Communication, Ignatius was joined by Jennifer Mercieca, associate professor of communication at Texas A&M University, and journalist moderator Elaine Appleton Grant.
Adapting to change
“People don’t need us anymore,” Ignatius said, using James Foley’s kidnapping and 2014 beheading in Syria as an example. The U.S. journalist’s grisly death was videotaped and posted on the internet by his ISIS killers. “They can now communicate directly through social media and other tools,” Ignatius said.
Armed with Twitter and Facebook, presidential administrations’ reliance solely on reporters and formal press conferences for their messages is also waning, Mercieca said. During the Obama administration, in announcing a major speech on immigration policy, the president’s staff opted for Facebook over press releases. “They circumvented the media,” she said. “They just didn’t need them.”
Journalists must dig deeper and change their tactics in the social-media age, Mercieca said. A viable democracy depends on it, she said. Mercieca described the “Panama Papers,” when a journalist in Germany was leaked information linking public officials all over the world to financial corruption. Instead of breaking the potentially dangerous story itself, the newspaper created a database and enlisted the help of 400-plus colleagues around the globe, she said.
“I like this notion of teamwork and of putting the destruction of corruption ahead of individual newspaper prominence and also of keeping that information safe rather than just posting it,” she said, adding that it also provided the journalists personal safety in numbers.
Pulling the thread
Accurate, thoughtful reporting has always been a journalistic tenet, and is even more important in today’s environment of journalistic distrust and “fake news” allegations, said Ignatius, who worked under Post Publisher Katharine Graham and Editor Ben Bradlee of Watergate fame.
Ignatius described the fallout from a column he published shortly before President Trump’s inauguration revealing a meeting between then-national security adviser Michael Flynn and Russia ambassadors on the same day the Obama administration imposed sanctions on Russia. The scoop led to Flynn’s admission of lying and a cascade of firings and investigations still plaguing the Trump administration today.
“I tell that story because that is the way things happen in our world of journalism. You pull on one thread not really knowing where it’s going to lead, and sometimes it leads to something that’s really large and significant.” Journalists must think before pulling that tread, he said.
Graham, known for publishing parts of the Pentagon Papers on the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, was “worried deeply about national security,” Ignatius said. While she resisted severe government pressure and legal threats and published anyway, Graham was a firm believer that some government issues were best kept secret, Ignatius said.
People would be surprised by the number of “stories” the Post has decided against printing for various reasons, with what’s best for the country always carefully weighed, Ignatius said. Yet making those decisions is the nature of journalism, and Graham steadfastly maintained that power, he said.
“In my business, we have a huge stake in government,” Ignatius said. “We always must be sure we are behaving ethically. That has never been truer in my lifetime than it is right now.”
Curious but careful: Columnist shares what he seeks in journalists
With 48 journalists killed last year and 72 in 2015 (motive confirmed), according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, good judgment has never been more important in his profession, said David Ignatius of The Washington Post. Other characteristics he looks for in journalists:
- Followers of basic ethics, such as integrity, fairness, truthfulness and respect.
- Good listeners. “All the biggest stories in my life, I thought: How did I get that? I listened.”
- Curious. “I look for that intensity to find stuff out, to turn over the rock, to look around the next corner.”
- Communicators. “I look for people who have the ability to get people to talk.”
- Analyzers of information. “So many reporters get a lot of facts but don’t put them together well. They often don’t have good careers.”