Since 2008, the nonprofit Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University has offered aspiring investigative journalists the opportunity to hone their skills through a program that combines mentorship with on-the-ground reporting. Graduate and undergraduate students work on stories about government and corporate accountability in partnership with professional reporters and editors at outlets like The Washington Post and PBS Frontline.
On July 1, Wesley Lowery, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter who covers law enforcement and racial justice, took the helm of the Investigative Reporting Workshop as its executive editor. Lowery, whose latest book, American Whitelash: A Changing Nation and the Cost of Progress was published last month, will also teach journalism courses at American University’s School of Communication.
I spoke with Lowery about previously collaborating with IRW students, his vision for mentoring the next generation of investigative reporters, and lasting lessons from his own journalism education. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
SOPHIE CULPEPPER: What drew you to this position and teaching opportunity at the Investigative Reporting Workshop?
Beyond that, I’ve just had really good experiences working with journalism students in general, because I think that for professionals, almost all of us, given where the industry is right now, are seeking resources — need a helping hand, need another set of eyes. And meanwhile, what a rising generation of journalists need is an opportunity to put in repetitions. And so working directly with student journalists provides an opportunity to do that: Let them work on real, high-stakes investigations, while also being a force multiplier, and getting more of the ideas off of my list and into the newspaper.
CULPEPPER: So you see it as a real win-win.
LOWERY: Of course. Not just for me and for the students, but I think also just for the industry itself, we all benefit from having better journalists and having more journalists who have been trained in investigative work, in data work, in critical thinking and story ideation. And one of the best ways to do that is to have professionals, full-time practitioners working directly with the rising set of people who want to be full-time practitioners, because we know so much of what we do is on-the-job training.
CULPEPPER: Are there any ways that you’re thinking of expanding or changing the Investigative Reporting Workshop in your new role?
I think that in this moment, the future of journalism cannot embrace the capitalistic competition of our past where everything is ends justify the means, rat race against each other. There are too many people out there poisoning our information ecosystem [and] those of us who are committed to rigorous, contextualized, fair reporting should — when it makes sense — share resources, should partner, and should build community around our best practices to ensure that there’s more journalism out there that services our democracy, and less that obfuscates our reality.
CULPEPPER: Do you have any specific organizations, either in the D.C. area or nationally, already in mind that the IRW might partner with [beyond their current partners]?
It’s very important to me, as a citizen of the District of Columbia, to be supporting local journalism here. And so I’m already beginning to think about and talk to organizations like the Washington Informer, which is the historic Black paper in Southeast about what it might look like to partner on some investigative journalism that services a community in the nation’s capital that very often is missing from media coverage. And so that’s a big part of it. But the reality is, as I call my friends and places that I’ve worked, and places I want to work with, the sense is, like, is there good journalism that can be done by adding some students to the work? And if so, I want to be a convener and a facilitator to make as much of that happen as possible. And that might be publications, that might be individual journalists. It’s [asking] “how do we use these resources to do more journalism?”
More recently in the Columbia Journalism Review, I wrote a piece where I outlined six deliberate methods that I think [have] to guide our journalism.
First, I think we have to be devoted to rigor, which means we have to do more journalism, call more people, ask more questions. We publish too many things that have too many unanswered questions in them, and that have not gone through enough journalistic scrutiny.
You have to have a commitment to fairness, which means, I think, that we have to give everyone a hearing. That does not mean we have to broadcast everything they say. But I think we have to actually seek out their perspectives.
I think we have to value context. Our job is not just to accurately record facts, but it’s to provide those facts in a form that’s coherent and meaningful.
I think we have to practice transparency. It’s not that we do not have conflicts, that we do not have biases — in fact, we do. And so I think that in cases where there is a potential conflict or perspective that informs our work, I think we disclose that and don’t hide it from our readers. I think we also don’t hide from our readers things that we do not know. I think we directly write when there are unanswered questions or things we’re incapable of finding out, and not deploy a voice of God, when in fact, we know that we’re not a deity.
I think we explore nuance. I think we lean into gray areas. And we don’t take things as black and white when they are more complex than that. But then I think we also have to seek clarity: When the weight of the objective evidence is clear, we don’t pull our punches. We don’t use euphemisms to obfuscate what we actually mean. And we are willing to tell truth, even when that truth offends our readers.
I think that those are the six things that have to guide our journalists. And I think those are the six methods and values that have guided a lot of the best journalism in the country. I think that so often, when we talk about objectivity, what we’re really talking about is our desire to appear objective, to be marketed as objective to our reader. But that is very often in direct conflict with our ability to actually tell the objective truth.
CULPEPPER: Do you think that the next generation of reporters, including students at the IRW, already share your perspective on these six methods of guiding journalism and your described view of objectivity as truth seeking to a great extent — perhaps more than older journalists?
LOWERY: Certainly. I don’t think that the rising generation has much of a choice. It is a generation of people who woke up and saw the world around them, and set out to try to change it for the better. I think a lot of the young journalists who are entering journalism schools, not unlike other moments of expansions of journalism education, are coming to our schools because they want to uphold the tradition of us having a robust public square that’s informed by shared understandings of reality — because they want and believe that good journalism can change the world for the better. And most of them aren’t caught in these kinds of word games that I think a lot of establishment journalism likes to get caught in. Fundamentally, much of the debate about “objectivity” spawns from a bunch of journalistic institutions and journalistic gatekeepers pretending not to understand what young people are saying and then attacking a strawman. And the reality is the young people I work with every day just want to do great journalism.
CULPEPPER: Are there any new techniques or digital presentations for investigations and data-driven reporting that you find especially inspiring or exciting? Or, are there any ways that you would want to innovate, or formats you would want to innovate with in guiding students through new kinds of data projects or digital projects?
How do we use investigative techniques to tell stories that otherwise wouldn’t have been told? By using the same tools, only on a different project, or towards a different goal. And so I think that’s a big part of it. But beyond that, though, the reality is, how do we empower a rising generation of journalists to use the tools that we have mastered on the stories that come into their minds and into their notebooks? And so…you know, I might be the one driving the car, but I don’t intend to be the one holding the map, necessarily.
CULPEPPER: What lessons and professors, if any, stuck with you from your own journalism education during undergraduate at Ohio University? What, if anything, do you think was missing? And what of these things do you think you may carry with you into your own teaching?
CULPEPPER: Was there anything in your journalism education that stuck with you specific to investigative or data reporting?
LOWERY: I did a lot of FOIA work — even back then, in college, I did a fair amount of public records work, with being a public university. Not all of it was traditionally kind of investigative, but a lot of it was enterprise. This thought of, how do we be thoughtful? How do we choose our ideas and choose our targets and not cover “what happened today?” How do we contextualize it? How do we push it forward? If it was worth writing about on Tuesday, it’s probably still worth writing about on Thursday or Friday or the following Tuesday. And so I think that that’s a big part of it as well, trying to create space for students to follow a story through the various depths of reporting, not just that first level.
CULPEPPER: Beyond the six deliberate methods for guiding journalism that you mentioned from your Columbia Journalism Review article, is there anything else you would say about the most important elements of journalism education in 2023, especially for investigative reporting?
I think it’s our job, to the extent that we can, to provide a space and a ground for our young aspiring journalists to learn to do the type of journalism they want to do, and that they came into this field to do. And so for me, my thought is with each student, it’s like, “What’s the story on your list you’ve always dreamed of doing? Let’s figure out a way to do it.” Or, “What’s the thing you want to learn?” So that when you get that idea, you know how to do it, and you know that you can do it.
CULPEPPER: To close us out, what advice do you have for young journalists, and is there anything else you’d like to bring up that we haven’t talked about?
LOWERY: I always tell young journalists — and I think it’s fitting now that I’m going to start leading kind of a training ground, right? — I really do believe that we learn this by doing. Every part of being a good journalist, from being able to notice the things that other people can’t see, to coming up with story ideas, to researching and reading, to reporting and interviewing and then to writing, all of those are things that we get better at the more we do them. And so, for someone who wants to be a journalist, I think the best thing to do is to start doing journalism.
Correction: A previous version of this article included an incorrectly transcribed word. “Attacking a strawman” was incorrectly transcribed as “attacking Trump.”
Photo of Wesley Lowery used courtesy of American University.