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Q&A: Boston Globe Reporter on the Need to Hold the Powerful to Account

Investigative journalist Sacha Pfeiffer delivers the commencement address at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York, Tuesday May 23, 2017. (Courtesy of The Cooper Union/Photo by João Enxuto)

Investigative journalist Sacha Pfeiffer says she worries about ‘fake news’, and encourages readers to think critically about the information they receive.

[Editor’s Note: In an exclusive interview with VOA Khmer last month in New York, investigative journalist Sacha Pfeiffer, a former member of the Boston Globe’s Spotlight Team, talked to Reasey Poch about the importance of questioning authorities and the need for small independent newspapers. Pfeiffer says she worries about ‘fake news’, and encourages readers to think critically about the information they receive. She also talked about the heavy responsibility of reporters in terms of balance and accuracy. Spotlight famously investigated the Catholic church’s cover up of child sex abuse in 2001. The Boston Globe won the 2003 Pulitzer Prizes for its coverage. Currently Pfeiffer writes about wealth, philanthropy and nonprofits for the paper.]

VOA: What is your message to graduates across America?

Pfeiffer: I want them to realize that they are leaving college with a very adult perspective on life that’s very valuable. They learned here the way that leaders can make mistakes; the way leaders can recover from their mistakes. They learned how they can create valuable things with their money like Peter Cooper who create a free school. And I really want them to realize that it is worth paying for news because when you do, you help support high quality journalism. And I hope even though they are very young and they know that mostly news has been free for most of their lives, they are willing to pay for it at some point.

VOA: People are increasingly turning to social media for their news. What is going on?

Pfeiffer: Well, I think people are overwhelmed by information, so they get it in very small superficial doses. I read several newspapers a day but I think most people don’t do that, and I think we have to hope that the news that they do consume is accurate and factual, and they get many perspectives. But it is a time when news consumers have to be the ones responsible for figuring out whether the news they are reading is truthful, accurate and factual. That’s a lot of responsibility for a news consumer. So I worry about the quality of news people get today.

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VOA: What are the dangers of ‘fake news’?

Pfeiffer: Well, I think the main danger is that people stop trusting the news, and if you don’t distinguish between high quality news and poor quality news, then you are going to be skeptical. You are not going to want to invest in it. But I think people have to decide ‘is what I am reading high quality?’ And if it’s not, they need to try to find solid, responsible fact-based reporting to make sure they stay informed.

VOA: What’s your advice to someone who wants to get into investigative journalism?

Pfeiffer: I think that because the news business is so challenged right now. Particularly, young people you need to take whatever job within journalism you can find; whatever solid responsible job. Then you climb; you learn the basics; you learn how to cover municipal government. Then you go to the next job and take your skills there. But I also think that people have to remember to be impartial, and objective, and realize how much responsibility we have, how much judgment is involved in our job. We have to get it right, otherwise, people won’t trust us, won’t believe us. It is a huge responsibility on reporters today.

VOA: You were the only woman on the Spotlight team. What advice would you give to female reporters?

Pfeiffer: I actually have not felt that being a woman has changed my job very much. When I was on Spotlight, there were three men and one woman. Currently, the Spotlight team at the Globe has more women than men, and is led by a woman. So it is much more gender balanced. I think that it is the same basic fundamentals of reporting whether you are male or female. But I also think that the United States is a very safe country to be a reporter in. I mean, we don’t have to be worried about being injured, or killed, or put on trial as in many other countries. So I feel very fortunate to be a reporter in the US.

VOA Khmer reporter Reasey Poch with Sacha Pfeiffer, The Boston Globe's reporter, at the The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, New York, Tuesday, May 23, 2017.
VOA Khmer reporter Reasey Poch with Sacha Pfeiffer, The Boston Globe's reporter, at the The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, New York, Tuesday, May 23, 2017.

VOA: Why is freedom of the press in decline?

Pfeiffer: I think no matter how progressive we get in the world, the job of reporters is to ask tough questions of powerful people and powerful people don’t like to be asked tough questions. And I think that there is so much change happening in the world now. And as a result, we have reporters really taking on powerful institutions and powerful people. There is this human tendency to push back on that. And I feel that factored into this. But that means more than ever, reporters cannot back down.

VOA: What are the dangers of not speaking out against injustices?

Pfeiffer: I think that it is natural for some people to be reluctant to talk because they are afraid of the consequences, but if we don’t have some people who are brave enough to come out and tell the truth, and hope that there is a community of people supporting them and hope that the country’s press laws will protect the reporters that write about them, then I think society is a lot weaker and poorer. I think that press freedom, free speech and the ability to express what we disagree with our government about is basic to having a healthy country.

VOA: The Boston Globe is a big newspaper, but what about small and independent newspapers, do they play an important role?

Pfeiffer: Oh I think they are so important and I worry about them a lot. You know in the United States some of the big newspapers are doing okay — The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post. They are hanging in there. But a lot of smaller regional newspapers are really threatened, and that’s where some of the most important local reporting comes out of. So I think this is a very tough time for the news industry, and that’s why I hope people realize that if you want to have journalism watchdogs in your country, you have to support the news.

VOA: You don’t go into journalism to get rich. Why do you continue to do the job?

Pfeiffer: Because I like it. Most of us have to work for a living and you really want to hope that the job you do is interesting, satisfying, that you feel like it is purposeful. And for me that is what journalism has been. I call it a ‘brain candy’ job sometimes. You know your brain gets satisfied every single day. So I think that is worth maybe making a little bit less money for.

VOA: Were you happy with the movie about Spotlight’s investigation into the Catholic church?

Pfeiffer: Yes, but I was very worried at first because I thought that getting involved with Hollywood was a very bad idea. I thought they would embarrass us, they would sensationalize our work. In the end, they made this wonderful, respectful, beautiful movie that wasn’t exaggerated and I think they did a great job and they help spread that message about speaking truth to power and asking tough questions to powerful people. They help spread it in the way that only Hollywood can do.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.