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The CJD continues to prepare the next set of gatekeepers

Written by on November 30, 2023

By: Erin Slaughter

Students attended the 2023 HBCU forum “Transforming Journalism Education,” hosted by the Center for Journalism and Democracy on Oct. 26, 2023 [Photo taken by Josh Molock]

It was a sunny day in Washington, D.C., absent of wind. Inside a conference room located on a campus whose history signifies the need to maintain a democracy that does not overlook or undermine any part of society, the future of journalism was discussed. Gallaudet University was founded in 1864 to accommodate the deaf and blind, allowing them to receive college-level instruction and confer college degrees. The location in itself shows the importance of telling the stories of the underserved; stories that would typically be left hidden in the archives, and it set the stage for the 2023 HBCU forum “Transforming Journalism Education,” hosted by the Center for Journalism and Democracy (CJD) on Oct. 26, 2023.

Inside the room, college students from eight different HBCUs were seated. Notepads, pens, and cameras were scattered on the tables before them. The room was quiet. However, the thick silence only increased the anticipation. The rear doors to the conference room opened, and in walked investigative reporter and Pulitzer Prize recipient Corey Johnson.

He sported a gray suit paired with a light blue button-down shirt that complemented his toasted brown skin. He immediately began lightening the mood by telling jokes as he walked to the front of the room; his gray tennis perfectly matched his suit. Slight smiles and deep exhales from nervous students began to change the mood in the room.

Corey Johnson told jokes and lightened the mood in the room. [Photo taken by Josh Molock]

It was no coincidence that Corey Johnson walked in. With a remarkable contribution to journalism, particularly in investigative reporting, Johnson has set a precedent for storytelling that transcends time. When he made it to the front of the room, he immediately began to share with the students the importance of what he does.

Johnson has used his investigative reporting skills to uncover safety issues and hold those in power accountable. 

In 2022, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his investigative reporting on a lead plant in Tampa Bay, Fla., where mostly Black people and immigrants were falling ill due to exposure to hazardous levels of lead. His reporting prompted state-wide policy changes and the implementation of safety measures to ensure the protection of workers and residents.

Johnson also helped to expose doctors under contract with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and bring to light how they had sterilized nearly 150 female inmates from 2006 to 2010 without the required state approvals.

He told the students that, while working on that particular investigation, he visited the doctor’s house “drenched in sweat” and convinced the doctor to have a conversation with him by asking for a glass of water.

“He said the sterilizations were cheaper than welfare.”

Corey Johnson

His investigative reporting once again exposed dangerous and unethical practices by trained professionals.

Johnson sharing his work allowed the students to see the impact investigative reporting can have on unsuspecting communities and the world. The CJD having Johnson share his knowledge was a gift in itself and it shined a light on the importance of investigative reporting.

The iconic New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, who too is a Pulitzer Prize winner, created the CJD. Many of the students in attendance shared that she is a source of inspiration for them and their future endeavors. Her investigative reporting primarily on the 1619 project that won her the Pulitzer Prize, became a standard to be followed when seeking to expose the breaches in democracy.

Hannah-Jones and Johnson share a common goal: fostering education for the next generation of investigative reporters. Collaborating with their colleagues, they work to fully equip the upcoming gatekeepers of democracy with the education and experience they will need.

The students and speakers had an open and honest conversation. [Photo taken by Josh Molock]

During his conversation with the students, Johnson emphasized the importance of not being afraid to expose the truth and not allowing others’ opinions to deter them from pursuing their dreams.

“We let people tell us in the beginning that we didn’t look like investigative reporters, that we didn’t fit the description, and I wish we knew then, what we know now,” he said.

Corey Johnson

Josh Molock, a Texas Southern University student, expressed a shared experience with Johnson regarding overcoming the challenge of self-doubt.

“I’ve worked really hard like Johnson to perfect my craft, and I don’t necessarily get discouraged about my appearance; I just sometimes get the feeling like I’m not prepared as I need to be, so I can relate to him feeling held back,” he said.

As Johnson discussed the impact investigative reporting has on the world, the students in the room eagerly raised their hands, ready to absorb all the experience and knowledge he had to offer. Even as time dwindled, Johnson seized every opportunity to answer the questions asked by the engaged students.

One student reporter asked him if he felt discernment was a huge part of conducting interviews.

“Discernment is absolutely key to investigative reporting. On the street, it’s called ‘peeping game,’ and your ability to peep game and see when something is not right or not working is essential in investigative reporting,” he said.

Johnson went further into how not only his discernment but also his ability to read the room has helped him be a successful investigative reporter, especially in getting people to talk with him.

“I did a story that won the Pulitzer Prize last year about a lead plant, and it was mostly Black folks who were getting hurt and poisoned at this lead plant. I knocked on the door, and I hit them with the I’m looking for truth and justice. They said, ‘Man, I don’t give a damn about no truth and justice or what’s good for the people, the people ain’t never done nothing for me, and you want me to blow my spot up for the people? ‘No,’” he said, in reference to how that conversation went.

Johnson said he learned that “truth and justice” was not ultimately the flex he first thought it was, and when he returned, he had to approach the situation differently.

“I had to go back with something more personal and real to them and their lives,” he said.

Corey Johnson
Corey Johnson answered every question the students asked. [Photo taken by Josh Molock]

Keleigh Arrington, a student representing Savannah State University, recalled Johnson’s impact on her and said that his knowledge of interviews has equipped her with better communication skills.

“I would say Corey Johnson had a big impact on me. He and Topher Sanders [another award-winning journalist who spoke at the forum] helped me understand investigative reporting. They broke it down in a really informative way. They also helped me to understand that it is better to approach interviews with transparency. I struggle with just talking to people, and those two stressed the importance of knowing how to do that,” she said.

Johnson highlighted the need for more Black investigative reporters and for more college institutions to implement investigative reporting degree programs by sharing personal experience and the groundbreaking work that he and his colleagues have done in investigative reporting.

Out of the eight HBCUs in attendance, which included Howard University, Morehouse College, Morgan State University, North Carolina A&T University, North Carolina Central University, Savannah State University, Texas Southern University, and The District of Columbia—not one currently has an investigative reporting degree program. However, out of the 28 students in attendance, all were ready to get on board with the task of protecting democracy.

Johnson and Sanders spent the morning and afternoon leaving no stone unturned. They made sure that the students fully understood the tenets of investigative reporting.

Amber Land, a TSU broadcast journalism major, said that Johnson broke down investigative reporting for her, and she had a newfound understanding of it.

“Hearing from Corey Johnson was eye-opening for me. He shared insights on what it takes to be a great investigative reporter and taught us different ways to connect through commonalities,” she said.

The students were engaged and had fun discussing the future of journalism. [Photo taken by Josh Molock]

Johnson was able to not only shine a bright light on investigative reporting but he also gave the students an understanding of what Hannah-Jones is attempting to achieve by hosting these forums and working to support her core HBCU partners in their journalism departments.

She focuses on bringing investigative reporting and pro-democracy programs to HBCUs. The implementation of these programs will prepare students to go out into the world and tell stories in underserved communities and be ready to stand against efforts to subvert democracy.

Her vision for cultivating the next set of Black investigative reporters to maintain an equal and fair democracy is a vision she shares with good company, not only her colleagues but with a pioneer in the fight for African American civil rights who was relentless in shining the light on the world’s wrongdoings, Ida B Wells. Wells and her investigative reporting work are legendary; she knew the importance of using her voice to bring attention to the world’s injustices. She fearlessly exposed atrocities, specifically, the lynching of Black men wrongfully accused of raping white women, and brought it to national and international attention.

“The people must know before they can act, and there is no educator to compare with the press”

Ida B. Wells

She reminded journalists of the power they yield and the responsibility to yield that power with integrity.

The 2023 HBCU forum, “Transforming Journalism Education,” provided students with a valuable opportunity to learn of the rich history of investigative reporting, as well as interact with award-winning journalists leading the way in the field. By actively participating in discussions about the future of journalism, these students witnessed the ongoing transformation that lies ahead. The experience served as a gentle reminder that familiarity can breed contempt, urging them to never be content with the disproportionate areas in American democracy that continue to underserve and undermine the historically disadvantaged. As the forum concluded, the message was clear, and the mission was firmly understood.