PUNTA GORDA, Florida–Florida Gulf Coast University journalism students got a glimpse of what it is like to be an investigative reporter on Feb. 16, as they sat listening intently to a 30-year news veteran tell of his experiences while reinforcing the need for investigative journalists.
Journalist Jerry Mitchell spent three decades as an investigative reporter at the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., dedicating his work to “report the truth.”
“There’s no way to get justice without truth,” he told The Epoch Times. “And so that’s why what we do is so important.”
Mitchell’s stories over the years helped put four Ku Klux Klan members and a suspected serial killer in prison, when his investigative reporting skills forced law enforcement to reopen cases and solve crimes, sometimes prompting death threats, he told the students. This experience led him to write his book, “Race Against Time.”
These [investigative reporting] skills cannot be taught, he said, but a passion for the craft of reporting is something that is “desired within one’s soul.”
He lectures journalism students everywhere, he said, and sees investigative journalism as “a need area.”
News is sometimes “regurgitated” from sources that may not be credible or true, he added.
“You hate to see it, but anybody can hang up their shingle now and claim to be a journalist,” Mitchell said. “They write a blog. They don’t have a degree. They have not entered or abided by any ethics–that’s a real problem.”
Another problem Mitchell has noticed is that lines have been “drawn in the sand,” and that the moderate lane is shrinking as a result of multiple media outlets and the stance they take.
“It comes down to who’s best at ‘eviscerating the enemy.’ Everybody has kind of their own channel,” he said. “Where most news is shared today is on places like Facebook. It reinforces what they already believe.”
Authentic journalism has lost its way, he said. People “pick a lane” and remain in it and tend to choose outlets that reinforce their beliefs. even if the information turns out to be false. And, unfortunately the “damage has already been done.”
“After this false information has been shared by thousands, or even millions, it’s too late,” he said.
“Shrinking newsrooms” prompted Mitchell to leave the Clarion Ledger after 32 years to form his own non-profit. In 2018, he co-founded the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting where he serves as director. Retirement is not on his radar, he said.
“We need more investigative reporting, not less,” he said. “We literally give away our content for free in all newspapers across Mississippi. We want all takers to be able to have this kind of content available for them, and that’s what we’re doing.”
Mitchell said the problem he sees is that students worry that they don’t have a future in journalism, and he speaks to students to try to dispel that idea. He tells them they can make a difference where they are, and that success is not defined to national news outlets.
“It used to be that you thought you had to go to New York, or someplace like that, to do top notch journalism,” he said. “You don’t—you can do it where you are. It’s important, it’s incredibly important.”
Two students who heard Mitchell speak were inspired by what he had to say.
“It is so inspirational to see how powerful journalism is and where we, as students, could be one day,” Demi Concepcion, a junior at FGCU told reporters.
Katie Fogarty, another junior and classmate, said she was in awe of Mitchell’s dedication to finding justice for people who had been harmed.
“Just the fact that he kept going despite the risks, despite the circumstances. He helped justice to prevail, and I think that’s really cool, and something that I am going to take away to wherever I end up after this,” Fogarty said as she also addressed reporters.
Mitchell has been speaking around the country since the late 1990s, and has no plans to slow down because finding the truth and exposing injustice is paramount in the journalism field, he said.
“You have to have the truth in order to get justice,” he said. “There’s no way to get justice without truth.”