University News

Pulitzer Prize winner discusses future of journalism

News Editor
Tuesday, February 14, 2012

“You’re going to feel hopeless,” Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter David Rohde ’90 told a room of almost 50 students and community members last night. “You’re going to feel there’s no future in journalism. Breaks will come.”

Rohde, adjunct professor of English, shared his experiences pursuing a career as a journalist and seeking “ground truth” — on-the-scene news reporting — in a lecture in the Brown/RISD Hillel’s Winnick Chapel. The talk was the third in a lecture series hosted by the Nonfiction Writing Program.

One of the founding editors of the College Hill Independent, Rohde said he was inspired to pursue journalism because of a nonfiction writing course he took his senior year. But the road to reporting was not easy. After graduating, Rohde pursued a “series of unpaid internships” at newspapers and TV stations. As a secretary at ABC News, Rohde picked up dry-cleaning and helped his boss’ seventh grade son write a book report. 

Rohde then decided to teach English in Lithuania. A coup broke out in the Soviet Union that year, and Rohde spent his time stringing for the Associated Press and the New York Times. Upon returning, he covered local news at the Philadelphia Inquirer and later moved to the Christian Science Monitor, where a position eventually opened up in foreign correspondence.

He jumped at the chance. 

Two Pulitzers, one kidnapping  and two books later, he left the Times  — where he worked as a night reporter and then as South Asia bureau chief — after 15 years to become a columnist at Reuters. And this spring, he took up a teaching position at Brown.

Rohde, who won one Pulitzer at the Monitor and one at the Times, recounted his experience working on stories  for which finding “ground truth” proved invaluable. In Bosnia, he saw the importance of ground truth in a “very visceral way,” he said, and when he was later held hostage by Taliban members for seven months, he used the experience to “understand the Taliban.” 

“The more familiar you are with the place, the more you speak the language, the more you understand where people are coming from, the more people will trust you,” he said. In the modern world, Internet-based research is helpful to reporters, but “basic reporting” remains invaluable, he added.

Rohde, who is now a foreign affairs columnist at Reuters, cited an example where he traveled to Raleigh to research a column about universities promoting development in surrounding communities. When he arrived, Rohde discovered the center he was writing about — the Raleigh High Tech Incubator — was situated in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods and was teaching residents employment skills.

He took a tour of the area, talked to locals and overheard conversations between administrators at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He discovered a different story than the one he came for. In his reporting, he heard about the struggling local middle class and about dissent within the university, where one faculty member referred to its chancellor as a kind of “Darth Vader.”

“What was supposed to be a staged interview (with the UNC chancellor) sort of fell apart because I was there, because I was able to meet people,” Rohde said.

Though journalism is changing, Rohde said, “The key thing is going out and meeting people.” He encouraged students to be “reporters, not curators” and to write, edit and rewrite.

Rohde shared one of his own old college papers — one where his professor had written “rewrite.” Rohde had spelled “wit” with an “h” in the middle and included a statement that had caused his professor to write, “this adds nothing.”

“He urged us to keep at it, to keep writing our papers,” Rohde said.

During the question-and-answer session, Rohde spoke about the value of fact-based reporting, especially with the proliferation of online news sources and politically charged cable news. As people turn to more biased outlets, he said, ground truth and talking to people become more valuable than ever.

“Once you get out there and meet people, you break through those barriers,” he said. Rohde offered the example of a pastor he met when covering a story in New Orleans who asked him why the Times had not covered claims that President Barack Obama was Muslim. Rohde stayed the night with the man. By the time he left, he had convinced the pastor that Obama was a Christian — because, he argued, if Obama were a Muslim, then-Senator Hillary Clinton would have addressed that in the primaries.

One audience member asked what advice he had for aspiring journalists. Rohde said adapting to the changing media climate is key. 

“You’ll find your way,” he said. “I don’t think human storytelling will ever go away.”

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