Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters discuss role of journalism in national security

Monday, December 2, 2019 - 11:15pm

Journalist Ellen Nakashima discusses the role of journalism during a conversation on National Security Journalism in Weill Hall Monday.

Journalist Ellen Nakashima discusses the role of journalism during a conversation on National Security Journalism in Weill Hall Monday. Buy this photo
Kyto Batt/Daily

The Michigan Foreign Policy Council hosted a conversation on the role of journalism in national security with Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters at the Ford School of Public Policy Monday night. Ellen Nakashima from The Washington Post and Eric Schmitt from The New York Times discussed their experiences covering national security issues with moderator Javed Ali, a Towsley Policymaker in Residence at the Ford School. The audience consisted of about 50 students.

The event began with an introduction to the Michigan Foreign Policy Council by its president, Public Policy junior David Carpenter.

Ali began the conversation by asking the panel what advice they would give to college students and recent graduates looking to work as national security reporters. Schmitt highlighted the need for budding journalists to find and follow their voices.

“Everybody needs to find their voice, find their rhythm, find their interests, their passions and where their interest is and the kind of reporting and writing they do,” Schmitt said. “Learning the rhythms of Washington is really crucial to understanding (national security journalism).”

Nakashima said she agreed with Schmitt, adding that journalists need to start small and then move up the ranks. She shared an anecdote about how she never intended to become a national security reporter.

“I, for one, did not start off my career in journalism thinking I wanted to be a national security correspondent,” Nakashima said. “I started off covering cops and courts and local town councils in Milton, Mass., south of Boston 30 years ago and gradually worked my way up to small towns to medium-sized towns to getting an internship in Washington, D.C.” 

Ali then asked how the panelists tackled the issue of dealing with sensitive information coming from classified sources.

Schmitt spoke about dealing with information in regards to military operations and the responsibility of journalists to judge whether or not publishing certain bits of information could jeopardize innocent people and the security of the nation. 

“You also have to ask yourselves, particularly in (the) military side of things — is there any reason why we shouldn’t be publishing this,” Schmitt said. “Is this going to jeopardize American lives on the grounds, be they military personnel, be they diplomats, be they NGOs, aid workers or people who work with them, innocents that could be affected by this?”

Nakashima spoke about the need for journalists to hold back information at certain times in order to respect and maintain the security of the United States from its adversaries.

“There are other instances where we have held back pieces of information entirely because the intelligence community felt that it would really give away a capability to say North Korea or Iran or Russia or China the four major United States’ adversaries,” Nakashima said. “You balance public interest versus the intelligence community’s own sensitivities about what might be information we should not publish.”

She further elaborated on the complexity of drawing a line between information that should be published and information that should not be published.

“It is not a science, it is more of an art,” Nakashima said. “It is never going to be perfect. You are never going to satisfy the intelligence community a hundred percent and they are never going to satisfy us.”

Ali’s next question addressed the role of opinion in reporting and the importance of ensuring that personal bias doesn’t ebb into reporting.

Schmitt responded that modern-day journalism requires incorporation of analysis in news stories and journalists add their judgement to the information provided by their sources.

“In this kind of era, it is not just (about) the facts in reporting, it is more and more about being pressed to be much more analytical in our reporting,” Schmitt said. “We add our judgment which comes in the form of analysis or (we) tell you the backstory of how a certain decision was made or it is more predictive.”

Schmitt also spoke about the struggle of differentiating between factual pieces and opinionated pieces.

“The problem I think now is that in the olden days when you looked at a print newspaper, it would be very easy to separate sections. You literally had a news section and you could flip a page and it would clearly label editorial or opinion,” Schmitt said. “The way most of us get our newsfeed now, it is very hard to tell where they are coming from, first of all, and second are they news stories (or) are they news analyses?”

LSA freshman April Tsai, a member of the Michigan Foreign Policy Council, commented on the relevance of national security journalism in an increasingly globalized world. 

“National security is a very important subject that more people should look into due to the fact that the world is becoming so much more globalized,” Tsai told The Daily at the event.“There is so much more interaction between countries and there are so many more crises that are happening.”