Wesley Lowery, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for the Washington Post, discussed his experiences covering law enforcement, race issues and politics Wednesday during the annual Foster-Foreman Conference of Distinguished Writers at Penn State.
Since the conference started in 1999, it has hosted 42 Pulitzer Prize winners, including 10 Penn State alumni.
Gene Foreman, retired Foster professor of communications, introduced both Lowery and Lisa Falkenberg, a columnist at the Houston Chronicle who spoke at the conference Thursday morning at the HUB-Robeson Center.
“We’re hosting two outstanding journalists who rooted their career in excellence and devotion to the finest principles of our profession,” Foreman said.
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Lowery took the stage and spoke to nearly 200 audience members about his coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement, which was sparked in 2014 after Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black male, was shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.
“The story of Ferguson slowly revealed itself to be the story of America,” Lowery said. “The story you were watching play on the television quickly became the story playing out on the streets of your city.”
Lowery read aloud an article he wrote in 2015 while at the funeral of Jamar Clark, a 24-year-old black man fatally shot by police. The article detailed the combination of grief and outrage the funeral-goers felt toward not only Clark’s death, but what they saw as a larger problem. Lowery’s reporting prompted a question that was at the center of the Washington Post’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Fatal Force” project, a database that tracks fatal shootings by police.
“How often are the police shooting and killing people?” Lowery asked.
After realizing there was scant data at both local and national levels, Lowery said the question expanded to a nationwide project.
Moderating the discussion, Penn State professor Tony Barbieri asked Lowery how he builds trust with sources when reporting on divisive local issues as a national reporter.
“The resource of time is essential,” Lowery said. “I’m not just here to get a quote, I want to hear what they’re saying. As journalists, we show up at the worst and best days of peoples’ lives — and it’s difficult.”
The most important lesson Lowery said he learned was to “shut up” and listen before asking a barrage of questions.
A question and answer segment followed, during which students asked Lowery about how he emotionally deals with covering police shootings, reconciles personal biases with fair reporting and responds to criticism of his work.
“I don’t believe in objectivity, I don’t think it exists. I strive to be fair,” Lowery said.
Maddie Biertempfel is a Penn State journalism student.