The story must guide the journalist– never the other way around.
Dan Golden, senior editor at ProPublica, explains how he developed a passion and curiosity for investigative journalism. A successful veteran in the field, Dan has earned numerous accolades including a 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting and a 2004 Pulitzer for Beat Reporting.
In this interview, Dan discusses the future of investigative journalism while maintaining a standard of “afflicting the comfortable, and comforting the afflicted,” the personality traits that best lend themselves to the profession, and his own journey through journalism.
What drew you to the field of journalism? Specifically, investigative journalism?
I grew up during the Watergate era and even attended a Senate Watergate Committee session. The movie, “All the President’s Men,’’ about the Washington Post reporters who broke the scandal was really inspiring to me. I hope that the film “Spotlight” has the same effect on today’s young people.
What has been your favorite moment or accomplishment in your career thus far? What enabled you to get to that point? Have you had mentors and teachers along the way that have shaped your style or ideas?
My favorite moment concerns a front-page article I wrote for the Wall Street Journal in 2000 about a deaf Brazilian teenager, Monique Silva. Bright and thoughtful, she had been admitted to Gallaudet University, the premier school for the deaf. But she couldn’t afford to go to college, because she was an undocumented immigrant and thus ineligible for federal financial aid. Instead, she was pressing shirts in a Cape Cod laundry. On the morning that my story was published, Wall Street Journal readers deluged me with offers to contribute to her educational expenses. Their generosity sent her to Gallaudet, and was a wonderful testament to the way that so many Americans open their hearts to immigrants.
I have had terrific mentors everywhere I have worked: the Springfield Daily News, the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, Conde Nast Portfolio, and Bloomberg News. They all shaped my approach to journalism.
What is the most important lesson you’ve learned throughout your career in journalism?
The most important lesson I’ve found is that the journalist must be guided by the reporting. You have to be both willing and able to adjust or abandon a preconceived thesis if the facts contradict it.
How do you envision the future of communications and investigative journalism? What will be changing? What will (or should) stay the same?
The technology is changing, as are the ways that readers receive information. Yet, the emergence of outlets like ProPublica ensures that the pulse of investigative journalism will stay the same: searching for the truth, exposing corruption, afflicting the comfortable, and comforting the afflicted.
What are you most excited for in joining the ProPublica team?
I’m delighted to be joining such a talented group of journalists who share a commitment to investigative reporting.
What is the biggest mistake investigative journalists are making and how can they avoid those pitfalls? What is the one thing these journalists should be doing, but typically gets overlooked?
Investigative journalists today are generally very accomplished in the use and analysis of data and gathering information online. But sometimes I worry that the old-fashioned skills are being neglected– like showing up at people’s homes in the evening and persuading them to talk, or cultivating clerks and receptionists who sometimes know – or will tell – more than their bosses.
You are clearly very accomplished, with multiple prestigious accolades. How does that success shape your perspective? Does it influence the type of stories you like to pursue?
Not really. Perhaps having been fortunate enough to achieve some recognition gives me more faith in my judgment on stories—and also creates a self-imposed pressure to live up to the standards I’ve set.
What advice do you have for those looking to begin a career in communications?
If you’re skeptical, curious, enjoy writing, and have a social conscience, you should consider a journalism career.
Rapid Fire Round
- If I could bring one fictional character to life, it would be… Commissario Guido Brunetti, hero of Donna Leon’s mysteries set in Venice. He’s a kind of investigative reporter himself, persistently probing crimes that stem from broader social injustices.
- My spirit animal is…. I don’t have a spirit animal, but I’m devoted to our golden retriever, Sydney.
- When I was young I wanted to be… a baseball pitcher.
- If I could master one skill I do not currently have, it would be… fluency in foreign languages, especially Spanish.
- If you could abolish one piece of modern technology, which would it be and why? Automated customer service. I prefer speaking with human beings.
- If I could live anywhere, it would be… where I live now—the Boston area. It’s home.
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