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Poynter Journalism Ethics Chair & Allderdice Grad: Duty, Responsibility ‘More Important Than Ever’

Josh Reynolds
Copies of The Boston Globe on sale at a news stand in Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass., Wednesday, May 6, 2009.

Six graduates of Taylor Allderdice High School in Squirrel Hill were inducted into the school’s hall of fame Thursday night, including Indira Lakshmanan.

After graduating from Allderdice, she attended Harvard and later went on to study at Oxford. For many years she was a foreign correspondent for The Boston Globe. She’s the fill-in host for 1A, produced by public radio station WAMU in Washington, D.C., and airs daily on WESA. She has a new job as the Newmark Chair of Journalism Ethics at Poynter Institute, the leading journalism think tank in the country. 

90.5 WESA’s Sarah Schneider spoke with Lakshmanan about how journalism has changed since she left Pittsburgh.

Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

SARAH SCHNEIDER: You graduated from high school in the '80s. What role did your high school or Pittsburgh have in shaping your interest in journalism?

INDRINA LAKSHMANAN: Well, it absolutely had a role. First of all, we had a terrific journalism program at Allderdice, run by a wonderful lady called Marsha Tharp. And we had the Allderdice Forward, the student newspaper, which was great. But, I think it went back even earlier than that. At the sadly, now defunct, Reizenstein Middle School, we had a really great audio-visual program. So, believe it or not, in middle school I actually hosted a little TV show that we had in sixth, seventh and eighth grade and it was really fun. And I got to narrate little documentary films that students made. So, I feel like, you know, Pittsburgh Public Schools gave me the opportunity to do journalism whether it was audio visual journalism or print journalism starting at a very young age and for that matter we even had a student literary magazines in my elementary school at Wightman.

Credit provided photo / LinkedIn
Indira Lakshmanan was one of the six Taylor Allderdice High School graduates inducted into its hall of fame Thursday.

SCHNEIDER: So, when you were in middle school and high school, were you also consuming a lot of Pittsburgh news?

LAKSHMANAN: I definitely was consuming not only Pittsburgh news, but national news. Once I got into high school, the honest truth is that I was consuming public radio basically from the crib because my parents are a lifelong public radio listeners. And growing up in Squirrel Hill, in an academic community, my parents are both academics and they have always listened to public radio, so I grew up hearing NPR my whole life.

And then in high school, I did speech and debate. And so that's when I would say that I started reading national newspapers. And since that was in the pre-digital age, I was actually in the school library clipping out newspaper articles and magazine articles and putting them into, you know, folders and taking them to debate tournaments with me to prepare on every subject from the economy to foreign policy you know to be prepared. So I was certainly reading journalism, not just in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Pittsburgh Press at the time, but also national news.

SCHNEIDER: Journalism has changed quite a bit since you graduated from high school. What would you say were the challenges when you were just starting out? And how have they changed now?

LAKSHMANAN: Well, I mean I think that some of the challenges are always there in the sense that I think journalism is less of a job and it's more of a calling. If you're taking it seriously, it's something that takes over your life and you have to be always devoted to it and always doing it. It requires you to have some pretty high ethical standards. And so it means, you know, whether you're on the job or off of the job, you have to think about what you're doing and how you're conducting yourself and you have to think about any conflicts of interest. And so those are things that permeate your whole life. And also time, you know, in a way you're sort of always on. I think that's much more true now than it was then in the sense that cell phones and the internet mean that there's never any time that you're not off work.

Back in the day, there were certainly police scanners. So (when I was an intern) at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, if I was working on the city desk, there was the police scanner there we knew if some crime was taking place at the time and you had to run off and cover it. But now, you know if somebody is uttering something at that moment, you know if the president is tweeting something at that exact moment.

So, you're covering everything literally in real time. I worked for The Boston Globe for many years as a foreign correspondent. I remember feeling exhausted that I was working around the clock, filing for multiple editions of the paper, you know, throughout the time of an election, for example, or like covering the fall of the Taliban or the Afghan War, and I would write a different story for different editions. Well, now as a journalist, you're writing it in real time because it's going on the digital edition of the newspaper or, you know, it's going on the radio right away and it can be updated all the time and of course your Twitter feed is live journalism, let's face it. So I think the time pressures are intense, the competition is intense. You know everybody wants their scoop. But I think that the duty and the responsibility is more important than ever.

I think we see this especially now in the Trump era when we have a president who has tried to brand the press as the enemy of the people, his words, and has tried to sort of you know pit the press as if as if it is the boogeyman. And I think it's a time when it's especially important for the press to stand up, check its facts, verify what you're doing, but not be intimidated and make sure that you're out there telling the truth.

Watergate was long before my time, but just in the same way that I think Watergate inspired a whole generation of journalists, I think that this Trump era will also generate a new generation of journalists. And it may end up being in the end a very good thing for journalism, causing journalism to grow and make itself stronger.

SCHNEIDER: And with that live journalism comes a new problem: we're seeing a lot more of in fake news, right? And you have a new job now with the Poynter Institute and you're looking into this in media literacy and young people, including the students that now attend Allderdice High School. So, in your new position, what are you looking at when it comes to people who tend to get their news from social media?

LAKSHMANAN: As the Newmark Chair of Journalism Ethics, it's a really incredible opportunity and it's an opportunity to not only work at the leading journalism think tank in the country, which means I'll be writing and teaching and convening conferences that relate to ethics and the importance of best practices in the media, but it's also an incredible time to think about the role that journalism plays in in our democracy.

And that's what I was referring to before when I spoke about Trump trying to make the press into the enemy. So, when we talk about ethics, I see part of what my role will be is, you know, thinking about fake news and how do we stop it. How do we stop its spread? Thinking about trust in journalism and how do we rebuild trust? Why have people stopped trusting the media? And what can we do to try to restore that trust? And likewise, what can be done to rebuild media literacy?

We began our conversation with you asking me when I began to listen to or read the news and, you know, it's a good question. At what age are people reading the news now? You've got young kids on cell phones. They may be on Snapchat. They may be looking at the internet, but is that news? Do they understand what news is and do they understand the difference between sponsored content and actual journalism today and understand the difference between a site that's trying to sell them something or promote something versus, again, an independent journalism organization that is verifying its facts checking it out and doing real journalism?And I think the answer to that question, sadly, is no. Many young people, and for that matter many adults, do not understand the difference. They can't visually see the difference, they can't hear the difference. And so part of that is on social studies teachers and the American Library Association and sort of education to fill that gap, but it also is partly the role of journalism to try to help reeducate people on what is journalism and  play our role in trying to rebuild news literacy.