Craig Pittman: ‘Our job is to tell people what’s really going on’

Zach Henson

Assistant News Editor

“Our job is not to change things,” said Craig Pittman, a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times. “Our job is to tell people what’s really going on.

“What they do about it is up to them.”

Pittman, an alumnus of Troy University, was once a writer for the Tropolitan, a position that caused an angered dean to call him “the most destructive force on campus.”

Pittman spoke to students at the Hall School of Journalism and Communication’s annual journalism symposium Monday, highlighting the topic “How to Be the Most Destructive Force on Campus: The truth may set you free, but don’t expect everyone to like it.”

In a time when the university expected the Tropolitan to be a branch of public relations, Pittman “did everything but print the paper,” according to Tom Davis, a former journalist and current executive assistant to the chancellor.

Pittman shared stories of his time at Troy, and some of his most controversial stories, including the discovery of a yacht the university owned and used to “wine and dine” Alabama legislators; drug busts in the dorms; some of the lowest salaries in the state for university faculty; and a story covering drug dealers, which led to a subpoena from the Pike County grand jury.

Since then, Pittman has become a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times, the author of four books and a four-time winner of the Waldo Proffitt Award for Distinguished Environmental Journalism.

“In an era when anyone with a cellphone camera and a blog can call himself a journalist, Craig Pittman is certainly the real thing,” said Davis.

Pittman related his stories to lessons to be learned by today’s young journalists and students.

“Words matter,” Pittman said. “Somehow, we had shaken the foundations of the university just by putting the truth in the paper.”

He described Troy State University painting an image to be seen by the public. By asking questions that nobody else seemed to be asking and publishing their findings, the writers of the Tropolitan exposed many things the university didn’t want to be seen.

Pittman credited much of the information the Tropolitan found to paper trails and receipts showing how much the school spent on different projects.

“You’ve got to have the receipts,” he said. “You can’t just make a statement and say, ‘This is what’s going on.’

“You have to be able to back it up.”

Pittman also shared his experience of working for the Tampa Bay Times, including one about working with the Corps of Engineers in Florida, who issued 12,000 permits for the destruction of wetlands. He made spreadsheets of this information and used satellite imagery to document the loss of 84,000 acres of wetlands between 1990 and 2004.

“When shown this research, the Corps of Engineers said, ‘Wow! We wish we could do that,’” Pittman said.

“We were asking questions nobody had even asked before, and to me, that’s the essence of what good journalists do,” he said.

He encouraged students to stay organized when researching and writing by using spreadsheets, timelines and searchable notes, along with any other helpful and available technologies.

After his prepared speech, students asked questions related to topics such as fake news, technology in journalism and how to keep readers engaged.

Although Pittman answered each question uniquely, many answers focused on telling people what is happening while treating sources fairly and respectfully.

“Our job is to report the news without fear or favor,” he said. “This is the whole reason why there is a First Amendment.

“The whole way our government is set up, it requires informed voters, and informed voters have to know the way the government is spending their money, the way government officials are behaving, what they’re doing. The only way people can find that out is if we tell them.”

When asked what advice he would give to current journalism students to help hone their skills, he encouraged them to join their student newspapers and apply for internships related to their fields.

“Do whatever you can to get in the door,” Pittman said. “Just get in there and start doing it.

“Even if you can’t get into an established paper, start doing freelance stuff. There are great stories all around you. Think about stories you want to read, and then start working on them.”

Steve Stewart, an assistant professor in the Hall School of Journalism, concluded the symposium.

“I hope you’re not flying home, ’cause I’ve got something that might be destructive here,” Stewart said to Pittman while presenting him with a Troy University-branded portfolio-style folder. “The most dangerous thing in there is a reporter’s notebook and a pen.”

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