By Matt Chaney
Rees Shapiro, the keynote speaker at the SPJ Region 2 Spring Conference, advised journalists to get out of the office, report from the ground and talk to people face to face.
Shapiro, an education reporter for The Washington Post, emphasized how getting out, going places and relating to people on a personal basis helped him cover important stories on college campuses across Virginia.
Without being there, he said, he could never have provided some of the first eyewitness accounts of the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech, gotten interviews with the family and close friends of murdered University of Virginia student Hannah Graham, or written the story that first cast doubt on the now-discredited Rolling Stone story about a supposed gang rape at U.Va.
“Journalism isn’t particle physics. It’s about going to talk to somebody. Then talking to somebody else. And then trying to determine between those two accounts, which is as close to the truth as you can get,” Shapiro told more than 100 journalism students, journalists and journalism educators from Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, Delaware and Washington, D.C.
He spoke on Saturday (April 9) at the Mark of Excellence awards luncheon during the conference, which was held in conjunction with the Virginia Press Association’s annual convention at the Hilton at Short Pump.
Beyond simply getting out of the office and speaking to people, Shapiro emphasized the importance of treating others with respect to build trust.
When Hannah Graham went missing, he said, he drove to Charlottesville, met with the president of the U.Va. student body over coffee and personally expressed interest in vigils and other events students had planned.
Likewise, when a subject for an article about sexual assault prevention at U.Va. alerted him to an error in his story about her own rape, Shapiro responded immediately by adding a correction to the story and expressing his remorse.
“In one minute’s time, I showed her how much I cared, and that I was willing to do what it takes to get the story right,” he said.
Ultimately, Shapiro said that while it’s important to treat the subjects of stories respectfully, it is equally important to follow up on the things they say. Were it not for an editor’s refusal to print a follow-up to the Rolling Stone story without getting comment from members of the fraternity allegedly involved, Shapiro would never have discovered the errors in the original article.
While it was difficult to confront Jackie, the alleged rape victim in the original Rolling Stone story, with the evidence that contradicted her account, Shapiro still did it. But he did so with empathy and tact.
“I couldn’t do that sitting at home on the phone,” he said.