Woodward and Bernstein stress the constants of journalism
Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein covered the Watergate scandal using telephones, typewriters and good old-fashioned note-taking techniques.
Imagine the coverage they could have produced with modern forms of technology including the Internet, e-mail and the vast forms of social media.
Despite the changing times, Woodward and Bernstein agreed that the same reporting techniques they used in the early 1970s are still applicable for today’s journalist.
The two investigative reporters appeared March 20 at Hofstra University in Hempstead to discuss the Watergate scandal 40 years later. They also shared valuable advice with the many journalism students on hand for the presentation.
Be wary of the Internet
Woodward said that although the Internet is certainly useful, it could be a “sewer” of material, so a journalist must be careful in only choosing the information that is credible and useful.
Since there was no Internet during the Watergate scandal, Woodward and Bernstein relied on three key techniques in gathering their information: talking to people, researching public records and going to the scene.
“In our case, the scene really wasn’t the Watergate where the burglary was; go to people’s homes at night,” Woodward said. “When do we get our good information: at night. I like to say that the truth at night lies during the day.”
During their reporting for Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein would frequently show up to their sources’ homes at night. Government officials usually don’t have much free time during the day, and Bernstein stressed the importance of having open-ended time with a source, which takes away any sort of pressure or intimidation factor, he said.
Even when Bernstein reported on the Virginia Legislature, he would file his mandatory five-six stories per day and then do the bulk of his investigative work at night—on his own time no less.
Be a good listener
Bernstein also explained the reporting technique of letting the source do all of the talking. He generally would ask his question and just sit there—allowing his source to respond in detail.
“Many if not most journalists are lousy listeners,” Bernstein said. “Really where you get the most information is listening to what people have to say. Invariably, you’re going to learn something if you give them a chance to get it out. They’ll tell you some real surprising things.”
In contrast to today’s journalism in which deadlines drive the business, Woodward and Bernstein had the luxury of ample time to report and file their stories. This resulted in the thorough confirmation of every fact, especially since they were able to conduct multiple follow-up interviews with the same sources.
“Journalism is the business of excavation to dig through layers,” Woodward said. “If you don’t spend time, you’re not going to get there.”
Speed vs. accuracy in reporting
Unfortunately, the Internet has placed the importance on the speed of reporting more so than accuracy in that whoever breaks news first is given the most credit.
“You’re always under pressure,” Woodward said. “But sometimes we have to let up and say, ‘Are we missing the real story?’ Often the real story is much more important, and it’s harder to get.”
With the luxury of time, Woodward and Bernstein were able to develop relationships with their sources that helped later on. For example, Woodward met his famous source “Deep Throat” by chance at the White House in 1970, but he used this contact as one of his main sources of information to break the Watergate stories.
Though the constants of journalism still exist today, Woodward noted the changing nature of the newspaper business. Staffs and budgets have been slashed across the nation, resulting in a noticeable lack of resources.
“I think it’s really hard now to be a reporter,” Woodward said. “My deepest worry is that we’re going to miss a really important story and people are going to say, ‘Where was the media?’”
Even with the changes in technology, Woodward and Bernstein said they are confident they could report the Watergate stories today, especially by using the traditional journalism techniques.
“What we do, if we do it well, ain’t usually rocket science,” Bernstein said. “It takes an awful lot of common sense and courtesy.”
Though today’s aspiring journalist must be adept in forms of multimedia, often times sticking with the proven techniques yields the best results.
Just ask Woodward and Bernstein.