Live and Learn: Q&A with Jackie Spinner

By Kyle Foster

Originally published in Media Report to Women

Jackie Spinner is an assistant professor of journalism at Columbia College Chicago and correspondent for Columbia Journalism Review (U.S. Project). She was a staff writer for The Washington Post for 14 years and covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Jackie left the Post in 2009 and founded Angel Says: Read, an international literacy project based in Belize, Central America. In 2010, she returned to Iraq to start the award-winning AUI-S Voice, Iraq’s first independent student newspaper at The American University of Iraq. She was a U.S. Fulbright Scholar in Oman and taught journalism at Sultan Qaboos University in 2010-2011, where she founded Al Mir’ah, the university’s first independent student newspaper. In 2011, she was named Fishback Visiting Writer at Washington and Lee University. She has contributed to the Christian Science Monitor, Foreign Policy magazine, Slate, Glamour, Aswat al-Iraq, American Journalism Review, Defense Quarterly Standard and U.S. Catholic News. She is the author of “Tell Them I Didn’t Cry: A young journalist’s story of joy, loss and survival in Iraq” (Scribner 2006).

Kyle Foster: Jackie, as a professional journalist, you were a reporter at The Washington Post for 14 years, started student newspapers at universities in Iraq and Oman and founded founded Angel Says: Read, an international literacy project based in Belize. You’ve written a book, created a documentary and continue to freelance even as you work full time as an assistant professor of journalism at Columbia College Chicago and are a single mother to two boys – first – wow. But second, how have you seen journalism change from your experiences in journalism school throughout your career?

Jackie Spinner: When I think about how I do my journalism now and compare it to when I started at the Washington Post, I’d say that social media has been the biggest game-changer for me. It’s changed the way I report but also the way we share news and information. The economic disruption that started when news organizations started to put their stories on the web has continued, and it’s been seismic. That has dogged—and dare I say, plagued us because for much of my professional career I’ve watched the news industry try to figure out a different and more sustainable business model so that we aren’t giving our content away for free. That’s been the most disappointing and frustrating thing that hasn’t gone away. We are still wringing our hands over the Internet’s double-curse, and an entire new generation of consumers has grown up with the assumption that news is and should be free. That really hurts us. When I was in Iraq and Afghanistan the first time, we were not sharing stories on social media. We also were not able to report through social media. It feels very old-fashioned to think that just 15 years ago, I went out and reported a story, filed it and waited almost an entire news cycle for people to read the story. That doesn’t mean we weren’t posting stories online but I certainly wasn’t competing with the Twitterverse. The competition has also changed. It now includes anyone who wants to post information, and I think that’s made it harder for credible reporters and credible news sources. It’s easier for us to get lost. With all of that, however, I also think we are now entering one of the most exciting times in journalism. I’ve felt a sense of urgency and responsibility to the truth that I have never felt before, not quite in this way.

KF: What has remained the same in journalism?

JS: The core values have not changed. We still seek to be fair. We make every attempt to find the truth. We pursue objectivity even if we acknowledge that we will never truly get it. But we don’t stop trying. We hold public officials accountable. We shine a light into darkness.

KF: What are some of the most important skills you teach and talk to your students about? And what skills and tools do you believe every journalist should learn and use every day if they don’t already?

JS: I preach Maynard’s Fault Lines and don’t think journalists spend enough time crossing them to make certain that their reporting is reflective of the communities they cover. We don’t do enough to challenge our own comfort zones. We don’t accept that people are different and then look for those differences to help explain culture and community. As the editor of Gateway Journalism Review—and as a professor, I ask my reporters and students to find and interview people who are from different races, ethnicity, socio-economic groups. I show them how we fail our readers when we put our own experiential stamp on stories. I’ve had reporters turn in stories that have only male sources. I send them back. I’ve had reporters turn in stories that only have white sources. I send them back. We have to be conscious about this to enrich our reporting. We have to question information and where we get it. We have to push back and not accept “truth” just because it’s delivered by an official. We have to push back especially if it’s delivered by an official. I think journalists need to understand the digital economy. I work with reporters who don’t know how to hyperlink or who have never used Google Docs or who can’t tell you that HTML is a language. I know younger journalists who have grown up with Instagram who don’t know how to make an image, who have never heard of the “golden hour of light.” I also think in the last few years as we’ve pushed journalists to be “multimedia” that as an industry we’ve made a dangerous assumption that there is not room for expertise and specialty, that everyone can do everything and do it just as well. We still need photojournalists in our newsrooms. We need social media experts who understand reporting but also know SEO better than anyone. We need a common language to speak with each other but then we also need expertise.

KF: How have you seen the world and journalism change for women? What gender issues come up in your classes and how do you answer them?

JS: I think we still have a long way to go in journalism for women. We look at our journalism classrooms or our newsrooms and see women and think that women now have the same opportunities as men. But we don’t. There is a pay gap for women in journalism. I’m on a Facebook group for women in broadcast journalism, and the sexism, in particular, that women broadcast journalists have to encounter on the job, both inside and outside of their newsrooms, is incredible and nauseating. I don’t think journalism schools do enough to prepare young female students for this. We empower our students and it feels sometimes like we turn around and feed them to the wolves without equipping them better for how to find mentors and resources to deal with the inevitable crap that they will encounter in their first jobs.

KF: As a war correspondent and an all-around bad-ass reporter, how do you handle word attacks and non-physical attacks on the media and as a female journalist? Do you brush it off? Do you tell your students to do the same? Do you teach about it?

JS: I don’t brush off online attacks and in fact, my biggest worry today is that someone will come after my kids. I respect discourse enough to know that there are people who feel emboldened by the president’s attacks on the press to come after me and my family. I tell my students to take attacks seriously and to calculate risks. That doesn’t mean we stop doing our jobs or putting ourselves out there. If we do that, to quote my former employer, democracy will die. But I’m smart enough to be a little afraid. That’s what kept me safe in Iraq and Afghanistan. The minute I started to get comfortable, I always knew it was time to take a break. I’m like a defensive driver. I’m constantly looking and watching and anticipating. I’m upfront with myself and students about that but also about the importance of why we pursue journalism as a career.

KF: What is your biggest concern with journalism and reporting today?

JS: I’ve actually said this for the past 10 years: I think journalists today need constant reminders that they are not the story. There are exceptions, of course. When journalists are attacked, we are the story. I like backstory, and I think our readers do, too. They like to see how we do our jobs, and the more we can take the mystery out of it and explain journalism to people, the better off we are. But in our daily encounters and for the most part, we need to stay off the stage and that includes the stage of social media. I’m talking about random offerings of opinion and engaging in debates on issues we cover. We need to listen more and talk less. We need to remind ourselves that we didn’t get into this business for glory. The glory comes in writing or producing a story that makes a difference, that gives people crucial information, that changes lives. It’s not about us. I also think there is a danger in chasing every single social media sparkle, which ends up giving weight and attention to issues that might otherwise flare and die quickly.

KF: You finished your documentary “Don’t Forget Me,” which follows the lives of three families in Morocco with children on the autism spectrum. Are you working on anything now that you can tell us about?

JS: I’ve started pre-production on my next film, which is a story about how a community decides who doesn’t belong. It’s an important start as we head into the 2020 election. The film will be based in Morocco, Indiana.

J. Kyle Foster has been a professional journalist for 25 years -at daily newspapers -covering everything from house fires and tornadoes to county government, healthcare and education. – and Bloomberg News – covering telecom, the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks and SEC filings. She is currently a trainer for Facebook for Journalists – a partnership between Facebook and the Society of Professional Journalists. Kyle also freelances and works a couple of part-time jobs to make ends meet after a layoff by Bloomberg in 2017 – but she’s doing it on beautiful Marco Island, so it’s not so bad.