Pulitzer Prize-Winning Journalist on Why Being a Student Reporter Builds Character
Megan Twohey is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter for The New York Times and co-author with Jodi Kantor of the bestselling book She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement. The pair’s latest book, Chasing the Truth: A Young Journalist’s Guide to Investigative Reporting, offers tips and best practices for student journalists and guidance for those interested in pursuing a career as a reporter.
We know that intellectual humility is a key character trait that allows individuals to listen to other people, hear their points of view, and gain knowledge. And because all journalists should ideally embrace intellectual humility, the Center for Parent and Teen Communication decided to learn directly from Twohey, one of the most respected journalists working today, what she thinks teens can gain from being student reporters.
Twohey recently sat down with author and senior writer for the CPTC, Allison Gilbert. During their conversation, Twohey revealed the unexpected and exciting ways being a journalist helps teens and young adults build character.
Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
AG: Your book reveals the importance of many character traits — curiosity, courage, trustworthiness, and more. In what ways does being a reporter build these kinds of character traits in teens and young adults?
MT: I still pinch myself every day when I wake up and realize that I still get to do this work because it really is an invitation to ask questions about the things that you find interesting, confusing, and troubling. To be able to look around your community and world and say, “I want to learn more about this.” To me, it’s such a gift to be able to do reporting – it’s the biggest way to embrace your curiosity. It’s almost like a muscle you develop, the ability to pick up the phone and call somebody or knock on a door. I do think that reporting gets you into a pattern of forcing yourself out into the world and engaging with subjects that you’d like to learn more about.
AG: Persistence is another character trait that comes to mind.
MT: There’s no question, especially when you’re doing investigative journalism and you’re trying to uncover secrets and wrongdoing, you are going to encounter obstacles. There’s often been great effort that’s gone into hiding wrongdoing and preventing people from uncovering it.
AG: In some ways, your book helps young journalists feel wiser and more capable. Does reading Chasing the Truth have the capacity to help teens with developing a sense of purpose?
MT: I think one of the things that’s important to realize is that when you’re asking questions as a reporter with the intention of publishing a story, you are asking questions not just on behalf of yourself, but on the behalf of the readers, the public, and your community. You have to have a strong sense of duty. It doesn’t mean that asking questions is always going to feel comfortable, but asking questions is your duty and your right as a reporter.
AG: I imagine that sense of duty is a confidence builder. Does it make you feel more capable?
MT: Oh, yeah, definitely. I am working on a medical-related story right now. I’m not a doctor. I’m not a researcher. And so in my interviews, there are lots of times, even with this much experience in reporting, where I say, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand what you’re talking about.” There’s no question that this skillset spills into other parts of your life – whether I’m at dinner with friends or in a meeting with colleagues. That ability to say, “This doesn’t make sense,” and I am going to ask a question and not feel uncomfortable about that.
AG: The backbone of this book is that student journalists are more essential than ever. With so many local papers folding across the country, student journalists are essential to our most pressing discussions today. Can you spend a little time sharing your thoughts on that?
MT: In the time that Jodi and I have been in journalism for the last 20 years, the landscape of local journalism has gotten smaller and certain papers have become shells of themselves. And there are some communities where the newspapers have just completely disappeared. While that is depressing and concerning for the broader media landscape, what has been so heartening to see is the student journalists in some of these communities step up to the responsibility of providing that local news. Student journalism is not just a training ground for the real thing. In many of these communities, it is the real thing. It’s the only thing. I think it’s really inspiring to see young people stepping up to that responsibility.
AG: Let’s talk about mentors. Many aspiring journalists may find it hard to find a mentor to show them the ropes. Perhaps they live in a community where the local paper has closed. Do you think your book may help fill that gap? Where else can students look?
MT: One of the best ways to become a good reporter, and certainly a good writer, is to read. From magazines, to your local paper, to online publications – you will slowly start to identify reporters and writers that you admire and connect with. Reporters and writers like to hear from young people. I would encourage young people to reach out to journalists that they admire and be willing to ask questions. And be pesky about it, if necessary! It’s one thing any good journalist will admire is somebody who knocks on their door with questions and doesn’t go away until they’re answered.
AG: War in Ukraine, gun violence — we’re living in unsettling and scary times. Does sticking to the facts – as a reader and writer, as a young journalist – have the ability to make us feel stronger, smarter, and more in control?
MT: Yes, absolutely, and that has been my experience over the past 20 years. Especially when there’s something that feels so big and so scary going on in the world, there’s something really comforting about being in a newsroom. It’s the only place I want to be. The moment you step into a newsroom in those situations, you immediately feel a little bit better because you know that you’re going into action. The ability to ask questions, the ability to feel like you’re contributing – not just passively experiencing pain and suffering. To me, that has not just been professionally satisfying, it’s been personally comforting.