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Edward Kivlahan February 23, 2018

Passion and truth are key elements of journalism according to the speakers during the Iowa Newspaper Association 2018 conference February 1-2 in Des Moines, Keynote speaker Olson related his experiences working for the CIA in the 1980s and reflected its relevance to today and media.

Olson’s experience working with a defecting Soviet general was a deep lesson in integrity and the value of trust. The intel that was shared between them was instrumental to America’s progress and in the end they were able to successfully get the general and his family to safety. On another operation, he was in Vienna and received death threats to his entire family by name sent directly to his home there. He could have fled immediately, but instead he ensured that his children were safe and completed his mission. This was to show the value of bravery in the face of hardships and danger in pursuit of what one feels is right. In the end the moral of his story is that one should pursue their passion when they find it and adapt when obstacles come. He also spoke about integrity and the value of integrity in journalism.

In his work with the CIA he had occasionally been assigned a cover as a journalist, but since then the CIA has removed journalism from its list of covers. This is due in part to how the usage of journalism as a false identity affected the public trust of journalists and he remarked about the public relationship with the press already being strained. Hence, there is a large burden on journalists today to report with integrity and work to rebuild the trust that has eroded in today’s society. Rebuilding that trust is a broad issue, but one approach is to begin at the college level. At the conference there was a panel by student journalists discussing their perspectives and experiences with building their publications.

The collegiate reporters panel was an assembly of four student leaders in their college media organizations. The panelists are listed alphabetically with their respective universities: Emily Barske from Iowa State, Madeline McCormick and Morgan McGrew from Buena Vista, and Laura Wiersema from Simpson. They spoke about the challenges they’ve overcome, innovations they’ve pioneered, and advice they would impart on someone in their shoes at the start.

At ISU, Barske has struggled sometimes with readership and engagement, but the particular challenge she spoke of was when she had the bravery to address an authority’s position on the university’s New York Times subscription. The rates on campus were too low to justify holding on to the subscription, so cancelling was on the docket. This authority stated that he didn’t like the publication anyway and they should have cancelled due to their opinion section offending him before then. She found that to be inappropriate, and spoke as such. At Simpson, Wiersema had a highly controversial story on her hands and had to make sacrifices to get it to the finish line. The story was about sexual assault on campus, and it hit very close to home with many readers. Even the process of writing and publishing it was arduous, as many people wanted the story killed before it could get off the ground. She lost friends and some people’s respect, but in the end she upheld her integrity and published. At Buena Vista, McCormick had a racially charged incident to report and McGrew had to adapt at the last minute to a member of his crew jumping ship. McCormick had pushback from the beginning due to the controversial nature of race discussion. The discourse was less than civil, but in the end McCormick also published. McGrew’s graphic designer was indisposed with hardly any time left before the graphic itself was needed and so he stepped in and did it himself in the nick of time.

On the topic of innovations, they each had one particular item to describe. For Barske it was starting a series discussing healthy relationships. For McGrew, he decided to rebrand Buena Vista’s TV news network from University Cable Network (UCN) to Buena Vista Television (BVTV). For Wiersema, it was setting up a simple react-based system for the Dean’s List, President’s List, and Most Likeable Person Award. For McCormick, it was innovating elements of PBS while she interned there in Washington, D.C. Each of them spoke of the difficulties and rewards of their innovations, and the take-away was overall to see changes through despite challenges. Each of their challenges helped form them into stronger leaders, and as leaders they all had advice for those in collegiate journalism. McGrew advised to become as informed as possible about the community, Barske advised adapting quickly, Wiersema advised growing thick skin but maintaining empathy, and McCormick advised persistence to passion and truth.

Pulitzer Prize winner Art Cullen exemplifies truth and passion in journalism. His panel at the conference was impactful, as he discussed the series that he pursued and in so doing united forces with the Iowa Freedom of Information Council to publicize the damage being done to Iowa’s agriculture and natural resources by companies such as DuPont and Monsanto. His pursuit of the records to incriminate the companies and complicit counties at hand was dogged and his victory hard-fought. The depth and integrity of his research and writing not only won him his Pulitzer but solidified his and the Iowa Freedom of Information Council’s abilities to promote each other and work for the people of Iowa to ensure that essential information is available to the public.

Public record is a vast and key element of an informed society. From young journalists in college to retired members of the CIA, all share a passion for uncovering the truth and informing the people. Jim Olson’s stories from his action in the CIA are available in his book: “Fair Play: The Moral Dilemmas of Spying,” and any students interested in sharing their perspective and informing the community are encouraged to contact The Banner about becoming a reporter.