From ACP: Covering the Pentagon

Anna and Beth will share their notes from the Associated Collegiate Press convention throughout the weekend and into next week. 

Covering the Pentagon
Tohm Shanker of The New York Times

Shanker covered the Pentagon from 2001 to 2014, a period of challenges for both the country and the military serving it. In this time, 9/11 occurred and the U.S. declared war in Iraq. The military occupied Afghanistan a few years later. Shanker covered the Pentagon, but not just from the Pentagon. He embedded with troops in Iraq and visited military bases across the country to learn and understand his beat. Here are some of the highlights from his talk during the Associated Collegiate Press national convention:

Shanker started off on night cops at a small paper in Oklahoma out of college. That where he learned the “power of reputation for accuracy, honesty, integrity — that’s what gets you more sources.”

Lesson: Start building your reputation for accuracy, honesty and integrity now. You’re likely not going to start at the NYT, or even TDMN. See opportunity in small newspapers.

Covering the Pentagon for the New York Times is the same thing: “Once you get your press pass, you have access to the building — just like the cops beat.”

  • It’s an incredible place to develop sources, bump into people, etc.
  • “There are no shortcuts. You have to do it the old fashioned way. Get it first, but first get it right. Same as on Oklahoma police beat.”
  • To cover the Pentagon, if you are only sitting in the Pentagon, you are not doing your job. Go to where the people are.
  • People/sources are committed to serving the country and contribute to democracy.

Lesson: Be where people are. Be in their spaces (coffee shop, lunch room, hallways, drop by to say hi. Go on trips with them, go to their lectures, go to practices.). Respect their commitment to their work. They, like you, are doing their jobs for a reason. Find out their reasons. 

The Pentagon beat touches on everything: issues of gender, race, family, business, law and beyond.

  • The military dislikes being called “the military” the same as we dislike being called “the media.” We are not homogenous groups.

Lesson: Look beyond the surface at your beat. Those issues listed apply in the worlds of science and engineering, business, liberal arts, social work, student affairs, the president’s office, and so on. Go beyond the surface to the heart of what drives your beat. 

As your career matures and grows, so does each of your source’s.

  • Shanker shared that he embedded with a unit in Iraq and proved himself to a source: that he cared, that he could “carry his own backpack” and hang in when things got tough. Now that has grown into a professional relationship, and his friend is a 2-star general who works with him on stories.
  • “Time, perseverance, reputation is everything. People will read your stories, people will deal with you if you are accurate and fair and they will continue to deal with you. If they don’t, they aren’t a source you want.”
  • Shanker: The time to develop sources is not when hell is raining down from on high. Do it when it’s calm.

Lesson: I think Shanker said it great. 🙂

Shanker likened the relationship between military and media to “a dysfunctional marriage that stays together for the kids.”

  • They need media to tell its stories to keep taxpayers on its side, to tell the stories of all families that serve, to be the “public narrator.”
  • “There is no more grim decision than to go to war.” Journalists have a responsibility to talk about what the government is doing in your name, especially when someone is being killed in your name.

Other lessons:

  • You’re going to write stories that piss people off. Risk = reward. The bigger the risk, the greater the reward.
  • Be inquisitive. Learn and practice how to ask questions, how to listen for gaps in the answers, and how to follow up on those gaps.
  • We’re in a golden era for you – explosion of platforms online is opportunity for you.
  • Try to give back a little. We’re all serving the public.
  • On classified documents: Prove to me that it’s classified. “Public’s right to know is a fair balance against government’s right to classify.”
  • Who he reads: NYT, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, LA Times

Last words: This is our duty to democracy — covering what our government is doing in our name.

—BF

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