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Weekly Lunches: Experiencing the bravery of journalists at ProPublica

Updated: Aug 3, 2019

By: Katie Mest, intern at Family Circle

With only two days between us and the July 4 holiday, us ASME interns welcomed the lunchtime getaway to investigative journalism hub ProPublica to meet with senior editors Alexandra Zayas and Nick Varchaver.

It certainly had been a change of pace from our previous lunches. ProPublica was no lifestyle magazine, and the office itself represented that. It was everything I pictured a workplace for award-winning writers would look like – stacks of papers, scattered notes and busy people. That’s when I knew we were in for a treat.

I had been excited about this lunch going into it, knowing that we were among exquisite storytellers, and if we were lucky, some of their skill might just rub off on us. Not only was the writing fantastic, but it was writing that created real, lasting impact: something I think every young journalist needs to be reminded they can do with their words.

Zayas and Varchaver talked through some of the big ProPublica pieces that had shot across the wire recently and their experiences as writers who had to push past their comfort zones to get the facts, and they answered the questions of a room full of interns who were hungry to squeeze out any piece of information seasoned journalists could give us.

Our ProPublica visit was an eye-opening experience for all of us, at least for me. It reminded me why I initially wanted to pursue journalism in a world in which journalists in some areas faced death threats for doing their job and the president condemns the media. So much can go wrong in the world, but it’s up to us to bring attention to it. If there’s no attention on a wrongdoing, how can we fix it?

Some key takeaways from Varchaver and Zayas:

  • The redundancy of the phrase “investigative reporter.” When we’re writing stories, we’re reporting. We ask questions and express genuine curiosity in every aspect of our jobs. A reporter in any capacity is investigating if they’re asking questions. We should be investigative all the time. It’s part of who we are.

  • For fact checking, check positive information, too. Your source told you they earned the awards that sit behind them on the shelf in their office? You better make sure that’s true. There is no length people won’t go to to lie.

  • Because headlines each day tell us the world around us is a dumpster fire, as journalists it’s important to foster idealism, not cynicism. Reading articles in the paper or online is one thing, but physically questioning sources about life-changing and sometimes horrific events requires a reality check. Bad things do happen in the world, but we shouldn’t just take that lying down. We report on these hard topics so people can be informed, and change can be made.

  • Journalists have to be the ones to ask the tough questions, and that takes bravery.

So even though we all went back to our lifestyle and business magazines after that lunch, we all practice that bravery every day – although, admittedly, many times for us it means hesitantly pitching a story to our editors or facing the impostor syndrome of working at amazing publications in New York City for the summer. But, hey, we’re only interns. The bravery will find its way.

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