The job of a journalist is no different today than it was 200 years ago, a managing editor of the Washington Post said Thursday.
“What does it mean to be a journalist, a truth teller, in 2019?” Tracy Grant asked.
“It has always been essential. It’s not more essential now,” she said. “This career is protected by the Constitution. Think about that.”
What’s happening in Washington, D.C., with the Trump administration or around the world is no more important than past events, Grant said.
“There’s always big stories,” she said. “What journalists do is craft the first rough draft of history. Journalism is the work of history. It was 200 years ago and will be 200 years from now.”
Grant, the Washington Post’s managing editor for staff development and standards, was the speaker at Thursday’s Ann Devroy Memorial Forum at UW-Eau Claire.
Devroy, a UW-Eau Claire graduate, was a White House correspondent for 15 years with the Washington Post. She died of cancer in 1997 at the age of 49.
Grant said covering President Trump, who repeatedly complains about “fake news,” is not what people may think.
“We are not at war,” Grant said of her Washington Post colleagues. “We are at work.”
“Journalists don’t set out to set precedents. They set out to tell the truth,” she said.
Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein didn’t set out to change history when they covered the Watergate scandal under President Richard Nixon, Grant said.
“They unraveled government corruption by seeking to tell the truth,” she said.
“A journalist’s job is to make sure citizens know what their government is doing,” Grant said. “It’s up to citizens to act on the truth.”
Grant admitted that how people receive their information has changed dramatically.
In 1993, the internet basically didn’t exist. Six years later reporters were updating print stories so people could read them on their computers.
“Five to 10 years from now,” she told the student journalists in the gathering at Schofield Auditorium, “be prepared for not knowing how people will consume your stories.”
“But that doesn’t really matter, not if you have a story to tell,” she said.
Grant admits journalism is a stressful profession.
Her colleagues at the Washington Post were prepared for Thursday’s release of the Mueller report. “We knew that was coming.”
But they weren’t prepared for the fire this week at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.
“We didn’t know that was coming,” she said. “When news breaks and you have to respond to that, that is really stressful.”
“Things can change instantaneously,” Grant said. “It’s very stressful, but it’s also what makes it never boring.”
Grant was asked by an audience member about television journalism, which can sometimes put a slant on stories.
Grant said if you preserved 12 hours of continuous coverage of the same event by MSNBC and Fox News and said it was the same event, “people 200 years from now would think we lost our minds.”
“If you watch Fox or MSNBC, you want affirmation,” she said. “What you should want is to be challenged.”
Grant is heartened that the Washington Post and New York Times have more subscribers now than ever before.
“People are realizing that trusted news sources matter,” she said. “Journalism protects you. You should protect journalism.”