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Award-winning reporter Pittman discusses truth in journalism

February 20, 2018

For a journalist, truth is the most important part of any story, no matter what effects it will have once released, according to Florida journalist Craig Pittman.

Pittman, an award-winning environmental reporter and columnist for the Tampa Bay Times as well as a book author, spoke Monday to students and faculty at Troy University’s M. Stanton Evans Symposium on Money, Politics and the Media.

He was a student journalist from 1978 to 1981 at what was then Troy State University, where a dean described him as the most destructive force on campus. Pittman’s topic for Monday’s event was “How to Be the Most Destructive Force on Campus: The truth may set you free, but don’t expect everyone to like it.”

Pittman told the audience about his love for the environment and his job.

“I get paid to ride boats and tramp around in swamps. I love it. Any excuse to get out of the office is a good one.”

Pittman said he was in a group of students who were referred to as “foaming-at-the-mouth journalists” due to their drive for the truth.

“We put the news in the newspaper, not what people wanted to hear,” he said.

Pittman said that the Tropolitan, the student newspaper, was small but had big stories when he was on staff.

The students wrote stories about drug busts in dorms, an investigation into the university president by the state Ethics Commission, the university cutting the philosophy department’s funding while upgrading the president’s office, and a university yacht.

He said an important lesson he learned is how critical a paper trail is. When investigating the yacht, Pittman said, finding the receipts was the key to unraveling what was happening.

While these stories were being published, the university removed David McFarland, the student editor, Pittman said.

He said the university cut the newspaper’s funding, but the student staff kept publishing with help from the Student Government Association, which bought two full-page ads in each issue.

Tampa Bay Times environmental reporter Craig Pittman delivers the keynote address at the M. Stanton Evans Symposium on Money, Politics and the Media, sponsored by the Hall School of Journalism and Communication at Troy University on Feb. 19, 2018. (TROY photo/Clif Lusk)

Tampa Bay Times environmental reporter Craig Pittman delivers the keynote address at the M. Stanton Evans Symposium on Money, Politics and the Media, sponsored by the Hall School of Journalism and Communication at Troy University on Feb. 19, 2018. (TROY photo/Clif Lusk)

The situation gained the attention of newspapers around the state, which questioned the university’s decisions, Pittman said. The funding was soon restored. McFarland kept working for the paper, though he was no longer the editor-in-chief.

That was about when a dean described Pittman as a destructive force.

“We were destroying things, but in a good way,” Pittman said. “We shook the foundations of the university by putting out the truth.”

Pittman then told some of the things he has learned along the way.

He said one of the essential roles in journalism is beat reporting. It is important for a journalist to know their beat in such a way that they can clearly explain it to their audience.

Pittman said to look for common themes among stories. “If what you’re writing about is easy, someone else is probably already doing it,” he said.

He said a journalist needs to build a timeline, make a list of sources, type up interview notes as soon as possible, and always ask about numbers and who is compiling them.

Pittman took questions from students.

Paige Weeks, a junior broadcast journalism major from Elba who is student news director for TrojanVision TV, asked: “Today we face many leaders who claim ‘fake news’ and audiences who don’t really want the truth so much as what they want to hear. How do you stay motivated to keep publishing the truth?”

“We have to remember that we do not write for glory or recognition; our job is to report the truth and let the chips fall where they may,” Pittman replied.

Sable Riley, a senior multimedia journalism major from Dothan who is editor of the Tropolitan, asked: “How did you find the receipts for the university yacht?”

“It was all public information,” Pittman said. “I just had to find out which office was the right one. It is amazing how much free information is out there if you look hard enough. It is the same with stories; they are everywhere if you talk to enough people.”

The annual symposium is named for Stan Evans, a TROY faculty member who was a national columnist, commentator, book author and editor of the Indianapolis News. Evans held the university’s Buchanan Chair of Journalism from 1980 until his death in 2015.