Jody Barr has worked as an investigative reporter for nearly a decade and is currently working for the FOX affiliate in Cincinnati. In 2006, he started out at the CBS affiliate in Myrtle Beach, SC before moving to the NBC affiliate in Columbia in 2009. Jody has been working in Cincinnati since June 2014. His investigative reporting beat focuses on government spending and accountability, with a concentration in corruption, fraud, waste and abuse of tax dollars and the public trust.
Are you fresh out of j-school and wondering about the true purpose of the media? Why we do what we do? What type of stories should you target? How you could make the most impact with this brand new power you’ve yet to realize you have?
I was there, too. I’m still there, frankly. But, I did glean some direction early in my college days that has guided me through this first decade of my career. For right or wrong, what I’m about to tell you helped me more than I could have ever imagined back in the day.
I hope it can help you, too.
In 2002, I did something no one else in my family ever did: I applied to a four year university to “go get me some learnin’.” (That’s Darlington County, SC speak for seeking a college degree). I went into j-school with the sole intention of doing color commentary, covering NASCAR races.
Don’t laugh, we all have our faults.
All that would change early in my first couple of semesters at the University of South Carolina when I took my first government class. My minor was political science. I really knew nothing of local news then and it wasn’t until I was in my senior semester TV news class that I found out local news was done live.
Yep. Just ask Professor Rick Peterson at USC if we didn’t have that conversation in the middle of the control room. I’m sure he remembers because of the look he gave me told me that question definitely made an impression on him.
It wasn’t a good impression. That tells you how far off my radar local news was before college. Boy, I had a lot to learn before I got out of there.
It was sometime in early 2003. I remember sitting in Gambrell Hall, thumbing through a textbook and coming across the Founding Fathers’ writings and quotes on the importance of a free press and its role in the experiment of this system of government. Now, I’m a guy that has read the Federalist Papers, the Constitution, most of the arguments made in the Continental Congress. I have a deep appreciation for how this country ever came to be.
I’m also one of the nerds who tear up reading the things our Founders wrote, understanding the passion they had for this country, this system of government and the trust they had in ordinary people to govern themselves in the human pursuit of happiness.
One of the main things the founders agreed on was ensuring people had the freedom of speech and a free press to keep a check on the powerful. The ability to investigate and the public’s ability to freely criticize our leaders was important to those men.
They believed it was essential in making sure the public knew the conduct of the folks who govern them.
It took opening a textbook and really understanding why “the media” exists that caused something in me to change my career choice. Here are the five quotes that swayed me in that book that day. I scribbled them down and they are still in my wallet today:
“The public cannot be too curious concerning the characters of public men.” –Sam Adams
“If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.” –George Washington
“If all printers were determined not to print anything till they were sure it would offend nobody,there would be very little printed.” –Ben Franklin
“The press must be free; it has always been so and much evil has been corrected by it. If government finds itself annoyed by it, let it examine its own conduct and it will find the cause.” –Thomas Erskine
I knew then that there was a calling in journalism and a tangible role the free press plays in our system of government.
I’m talking A-block journalism. That stuff that comes before first weather!
It’s easy to get lost in what dominates today’s “journalism”: the features (although they have a place, I guess), the “viral” social media postings, shared click bait, anything animal-related, etc. Those are interesting to a segment of the public and the clicks prove it. But, the substantive journalism, AKA: investigative journalism, will reach a broad audience, as well.
I believe it’s the latter in the above paragraph that will allow you to be taken seriously. Instantly. It’s that type of journalism that allows us to stay close to the real reason why we exist: to be one of the final checks on those who control our laws, our tax dollars, our freedoms and to ensure the playing field is level for all of us ordinary people.
I also believe it’s imperative that new and aspiring journalists take an old school approach to journalism. After all, there’s a very large segment of the public who view journalists in the same vein as used car dealers and ambulance-chasing lawsuit attorneys. (No offense to those I know who dabble in such professions.)
Perhaps this could be a way to turn the perception of our profession around. I can tell you the absolute most rewarding letters and emails I’ve ever gotten were from investigative reports that made a difference to someone who had no means to fight the powerful. Or someone who knew something wasn’t right and wanted it fixed.
If you’re struggling to find your journalistic purpose, I say get back to the basics of this profession. Learn why we do what we do. Kind of like Waylon sang, “Maybe it’s time we got back to the basics of love.”
It’ll focus your pursuits. At least, it did for me.
Here are a couple other quotes you might find useful along the trail:
“When the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe.” Jefferson
“It is a newspaper’s duty to print the news, and raise hell.” Wilbur Storey
“When a dog bites a man that is not news, but when a man bites a dog, that is news.” John B. Bogart NY Sun News editor
“The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” F.P. Dunne
“I am a journalist myself and shall appeal to fellow journalists to realize their responsibility and to carry on their work with no idea other than that of upholding the truth.” Mahatma Gandhi