Liz Daube, Media Specialist at Flagler College reported to Historic City News that Pulitzer prize-winning reporter Susan Kelleher discussed levels of truth-telling with a room full of Flagler College students and guests during Communication Week.
The annual event held March 9-13 gathered media professionals from around the country to talk about relevant issues and challenges.
Kelleher’s presentation stressed the need for people employed in both journalism and public relations to seek truth and purpose in their work. Currently an investigative reporter at the Seattle Times, Kelleher earned her Pulitzer as the lead reporter for the Orange County Register’s “Fertility Fraud” series, which drew international attention and helped spawn criminal laws against egg theft.
“There aren’t enough people who are willing to challenge authority and take risks and ask uncomfortable questions,” said Tracey Eaton, the Flagler journalism professor and former Houston Chronicle editor who arranged Kelleher’s visit.
The best journalism goes beyond press releases and easy-to-find experts, Kelleher said – and it requires reporters who aren’t afraid to dig through public records and spend lots of time finding and talking to sources.
“The most amazing stories are the ones based on records,” she said. “E-mail, audits, police reports.”
She gave examples of assignments that turned into controversial articles because of additional effort and research. One started with a press release from a Seattle public works department that was supposedly addressing massive snow storms through plowing and sand dumping; it ended up as a story joking referred to as “saltpocalypse” after Kelleher asked why the city used sand, instead of salt, to deal with the piled-up snow.
The city’s answer? Salt was environmentally damaging. But when Kelleher interviewed experts around the country, their opinions were vastly different – and caused an angry uproar from citizens who read the article. Seattle’s salt policy changed almost overnight.
“If I wrote the press release story, who would I be serving?” Kelleher said. “I’d be serving the department of transportation and all the incompetent people who were making decisions there.”
Other articles Kelleher mentioned included basic campaign coverage that revealed a candidate’s hidden DUI charge, bankruptcy and relationship with a pornography actor. Kelleher said she always tries to see the good in people, but it’s important to make sure that sense of compassion doesn’t keep her from exposing deceit and injustice.
“Question everything,” she said. “Being liked? As a reporter, that is just not a good quality.”
Kelleher advised students to find worthy mentors and to avoid people whose ambition is self-centered rather than purposeful. She added that her approach to her career has always been a focus on immediate projects and opportunities, as opposed to long-term plans.
“I didn’t know I’d be where I am now when I was younger,” she said. “Life is just a beautiful, unfolding series of surprises.”