Why I am a journalist: a 2019 commencement address

By Paula Reed Ward

The author graduated from Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s journalism program in 1996. On April 15, she and a team of Pittsburgh Post-Gazette staffers won the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting for their coverage of the shooting deaths of 11 people and the wounding of seven others on Oct. 27 at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill. On May 10 she delivered the following commencement address to the Journalism & Public Relations Department Class of 2019 at IUP’s Waller Hall.

 

INDIANA — I knew that I wanted to be a newspaper reporter in the sixth grade when I discovered I didn’t have the stomach to be a veterinarian – but realized I could someday write stories about dogs. From that point on, much of my academic and extracurricular activities revolved around accomplishing that goal.

I wrote for my middle-school and high-school newspapers. And when I got to IUP, I worked at The Penn and began stringing for the Tribune-Review, which I now refer to as the “Evil Empire,” and for the Post-Gazette, which I now refer to as “my employer.”

At IUP, I majored in journalism with minors in Spanish and political science, with a grand vision of becoming a foreign correspondent — I wanted to cover war and unrest around the world.

 

Paula Reed Ward and retired IUP journalism professor Bob Russell, Crimson Cafe, Oct. 14, 2016. Photo by David Loomis.

As I worked toward my dream, I spent countless afternoons at IUP, hoofing up the four flights in Davis Hall, to pop my head into the tight, oddly shaped office that for years was home to Bob Russell, my all-time favorite professor. It was crammed full with scribbled notes and piles of papers I’d have to move if I wanted to sit down, and we would talk for hours — about journalism and career goals and life and life goals.

He showed me, too, how to be a good reporter — to not take any BS from anyone, to always be fair and to own up to any mistakes I might make along the way.

Oh, and he warned me that I’d need to “get a thicker skin,” which still hasn’t happened.

 

DURING THE SUMMER after my junior year, I did an internship at the Harrisburg Patriot. I covered my first homicide there, which was awful and interesting at the same time, and then accompanied their courts reporter to my first trial — an aggravated assault — with a machete! I was hooked and knew then that I would turn my sights to a lifetime spent covering criminal justice.

At each stop in my journalism career, I have been blessed to have instructors, colleagues, or editors – and sometimes all three at the same time – who have helped guide me in my profession.

I absolutely love what I do – from conceiving the story idea, to gathering the information to writing the story. Each step in the process for me is fun and exciting. I love delving into people’s lives and learning what makes them tick. What I do as a journalist represents a mishmash of disciplines  – psychology, English, the law, investigations.

Writing a story is being able to capture a moment in time, a significant period in history, a personal emotion, a life-changing event. And doing it on deadline? With not five minutes to spare? Is absolutely exhilarating.

I remember when I worked in Savannah, I was only 23 or 24, and I was working as the night cops reporter. I heard a call go out over the police scanner that there had been a fatal shooting. It was less than an hour before deadline. I drove frantically to the scene, talked to the investigators, relatives of the victim, as well as bystanders on the street, rushed back to the newsroom and wrote a 15-inch story in 10 minutes. And it was a good story. I remember thinking to myself, enjoying the adrenaline rush that reporters get, that I have the best job there is.

It is 22 years since I started this work. And I still feel exactly the same way.

 

IN THINKING ABOUT MY SPEECH to you, I didn’t want to bore you with advice about life or finding employment.

Instead, I thought I would share with you some of the stories I’ve covered that have stuck with me, and the meaning that came from them — whether for me, the reader, or both.

When I was a very young reporter, at my first job in Pottsville, I covered courts. But the editors also knew that I loved animals. So stories having to do with anything furry or feathered quickly became my topic area.

I pitched a story about the euthanasia rate at a local shelter. To tell it, I focused on a pit bull mix named Brutus. He had been in the shelter for several months and had a really gross skin rash. It was too expensive to treat, and the shelter was going to put him down.

I interviewed the employees about what his last day would be like, and then I wrote a story about it – about how they would bring him two McDonald’s cheeseburgers for breakfast, and then play ball with him all morning to wear him out, before giving him the injections to put him to sleep. Then they’d stick him in a garbage bag and put it in a freezer to be disposed of later.

The story was published the weekend before Brutus was scheduled to die. And the day that it ran, Brutus and 25 other dogs from that shelter were adopted. It was the first time that I personally realized the power that the media can have.

 

A SIMILAR LESSON came to me in Savannah a couple years later. Although the city is known for its beauty and history, as a police reporter there, I saw a much different side. Savannah had one of the highest homicide rates per capita in the country.

My editor and I fought for — and ultimately succeeded — in getting the newspaper to agree that every single homicide, no matter the circumstances, would be reported on the front page. Our argument was that every life is important and ought to be acknowledged by the community.

At the end of 1999, the most violent year on record in recent years there, I pitched an idea to bring even more attention to the violence within the community.

I suggested taking the entire front page and running a photograph of each person who was killed. Each entry would include the victim’s name, the circumstances of the death and whether an arrest was made. There was no story, just a six paragraph explanation of what we were trying to do — raise awareness.

The Lives Lost page ran on Jan. 31, 2000, and immediately caused community groups, churches and the local police department to rally. They created a campaign called Victory Over Violence and held events in the streets, at local parks and in houses of worship.

I don’t know that the efforts had any part in reducing the crime rate, but it did make people pay closer attention, which is often the first step in any meaningful work.

 

IN MY YEARS at the Post-Gazette, I have written thousands of stories. Some of them have had a personal impact on the subject, like one woman who was left to raise her eight children after her  husband drowned trying to save their son in Virginia Beach. After that story ran, readers donated some $8,000 to help their family.

And just last year, I wrote several stories that showed police officers failing to properly investigate alleged crimes that led to the total withdrawal of criminal charges against two different people.

Still, other stories I’ve written have had a national impact. I was the first person to break the news that former Penn State President Graham Spanier had been criminally charged as part of the Jerry Sandusky investigation.

And in 2017, it was my story, cited nationally for several days, that led to the resignation of Congressman Tim Murphy and prompted the closely-watched special election that followed.

 

MY JOB IS FUN. But that’s not to say that it’s not hard. Sometimes it is incredibly, ridiculously hard. And awful. And sad.

As the police reporter, and now courts reporter, the stories that I write about are very rarely happy ones.

Some of my worst days have been spent in the courtroom, listening to the details of the horrors that people can inflict on their own loved ones. Since having my children, covering cases that involve young victims has become infinitely harder. I have, more than once, had to quickly leave the courtroom so that no one could see my tears.

I am, I think, an unusually empathetic person. I believe it makes my writing better, but it also makes my days harder. There is an emotional burden that comes with this work.

But I feel that we as reporters have an obligation to tell those stories. To capture the emotions as jurors might feel them. To make victims be heard, but to ensure the rights of defendants are protected, too.

Journalism is a noble endeavor — don’t let anyone tell you any differently. We get to inform society, and help those same citizens stand up and fight when things go wrong.

 

A Pittsburgh police officer walks past the Tree of Life Synagogue and memorial flowers, Oct. 28, 2018. Photo by Gene J. Puskar.

LAST MONTH, I was part of the team at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that won the Pulitzer for breaking news for our coverage of the Oct. 27 massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill.

The morning of the shooting, I was preparing to head out with my two boys to practice soccer at Schenley Park — a short drive from the synagogue — when a friend who was a member there, sent a message to our team about an active shooter in the area.

I immediately called the city desk and told them I was coming in.

I kissed my husband and boys goodbye and told them to stay home, skip soccer, and I’d call later.

I didn’t think about it. I just went. I had to. It’s the only thing I knew to do.

I spent the rest of that day and night running down as much information about the shooting — and later the shooter — as I could.

By mid-day, we knew 11 people had died, but there was no time then to think about it. We just kept working, trying as hard as we could to gather as much information as we could, so we could share it with our community and the world.

I got home at 2:30 a.m. That’s when the tears came.

And then I got up the next morning at 7, so we could meet at 8 and lay out a plan for how we would tell the stories of the victims.

I spent that day with a photographer, going to houses, making calls and writing about the people who were killed in such a senseless, awful act.

When I got home that evening, I had promised we could carve pumpkins. I wasn’t really in the mood to have fun, but the boys were excited, so there we were — carving a ghost, a jack-o-lantern and a soccer ball.

The whole time, I just kept thinking to myself, “I’m here, happy with my boys, carving a pumpkin, and the entire world has changed. But I am fine.”

I felt guilty.

Once we’d finished, I walked the pumpkin guts out to the garbage, and I looked up and saw this incredibly beautiful moon and started to cry again.

 

BUT SOMETIMES, even on my beat, the stories, even when they start out bad, can be uplifting.

A few years ago, I wrote about a woman who was nearly killed by a drunk driver. Although the victim’s story was certainly compelling enough, what made it moving was that at the offender’s sentencing hearing, the victim forgave her.

Some months after that, I wrote a follow-up story on those two women. The offender – as so often is this case – had her own story. She’d been raised by abusive parents, married a man who shot her and struggled with alcoholism.

The morning of the crash, she was trying to commit suicide. But she didn’t die. And since then, the woman has been sober. She’s in counseling, and she and the victim have become friends.

 

AND THEN, there is the story of the Patterson family. When I am old and gray and retired, it is that story that will still be with me.

In October 2012, I covered the arrest of a couple accused of abusing two children they adopted from Ethiopia. The little boy, who was then 6, had been deprived of food and forced to lie on his own urine-soaked mattress and be locked in a dark bathroom. The little girl – not yet 2 – suffered a traumatic brain injury and had fractures to her toe and leg that went untreated.

The couple’s two biological children were unharmed — perfectly fine. My colleague and I wrote a story about the parents’ blog chronicling the adoption, and I followed the criminal case closely.

Both the husband and wife pleaded no contest to endangering the children. The man, a deputy attorney general, got probation. The woman got jail — but get this, with work release to go home and care for her biological children, who remained in their custody.

The entire story was so unseemly and ugly, and showed the very worst of what humans can be.

But at the sentencing hearing, we learned that the two Ethiopian children had already been adopted by someone else, and those people were wonderful.

Kevin and Ali Patterson already had three children – one biological and two adopted – and they found the love and room to take on two more.

I got to do an in-depth story on the family and the triumph of those kids. I shared dinner with them and watched as they laughed and teased and bragged about school and dance.

Those kids — that family —  exemplify the resilience of the human spirit.

 

WHAT I GET TO DO is amazing.

That’s not to say there have not been times where I question my career choice. As many of you are aware, journalism is not a terribly lucrative business — we haven’t had a raise in our newsroom for 13 years and have actually had our pay cut by nearly 15 percent.

At the Post-Gazette, reporters are unionized, and three times during my tenure, there have been questions about whether we’d be able to settle our contract. In fact, we have now been working without one for two years, and no end appears to be in sight.

I have contemplated whether I ought to look for employment elsewhere. I know, as most reporters do, that I could get a job in public relations and make way more money. I have a friend who owns his own PR firm who asked me to join him. We talked about it for weeks. My salary would have doubled. I would have been able to take my dog to work.

The evening we went to dinner to discuss my decision, we sat down at the table, and he asked if I was alright. I burst into tears – apologizing for not being able to take the job.  It would have been great, I know – his two brand new cars and semi-annual trips to Walt Disney World attest to that – but I couldn’t do it. I’m a reporter. It’s who I am.

Guest lecturer Paula Reed Ward and journalism student Keith Bogus, IUP College of Humanities and Social Sciences Building. Photo by David Loomis.

Then, about two years ago, I got another job offer — at a university. I would have increased my salary by $20,000 AND my kids would have gone to college for free. That one, I really agonized over.

But, I still couldn’t do it. I couldn’t give up being a reporter.

Since covering the death of Antwon Rose last June, and then the synagogue shooting in October, there have been days when I struggle with the work I do.

It seems, more often now than in years past, the emotional burden is more

.When it has been particularly difficult, I will break down to my husband and share with him how I’m feeling.

Inevitably, he suggests that I switch to a beat that’s less emotionally taxing. Or, that I find a job teaching full-time.

And, inevitably, I get mad at him.

I tell him I can’t quit. I’m a reporter. It’s who I am.

And he angrily responds, “It’s not who you are.  It’s what you do. Who you are is a mother, a wife, a sister.”

But he is wrong. It’s not “just” what I do. Being a reporter is a part of me. It is ingrained in my soul. It’s how I identify myself. It is as much a part of me as all those things he listed. It’s who I am.

 

IN REACHING THIS MILESTONE, you have already proved yourselves to be exceptional. For those among you who will pursue a career in journalism, it requires bravery – to be able to ask tough questions, deal with difficult sources and editors, and know you face an uncertain financial future.

But you will also find that you’ve chosen a rewarding career path that gives you the chance to improve the world by telling stories — and will ensure for you a life that is never, ever boring.

 

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2 Responses to Why I am a journalist: a 2019 commencement address

  1. Vicki Stelma says:

    So glad to have read this. Thank you for posting it.

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