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DePalma encourages curiosity, integrity in reporting

Claire Heininger | Thursday, October 30, 2003

Prominent New York Times foreign correspondent Anthony DePalma shared his career experiences, encouraged journalistic honesty and emphasized the advantages of a broad liberal arts education as components of a lecture he delivered at Notre Dame Wednesday night.

Addressing a room filled with political science, history and American studies majors, DePalma stressed that undergraduate preparation for a career in journalism does not necessarily need to center around a major in journalism or communications. Rather, he said that prominent editors are far more interested in a reporter’s inquisitive abilities and writing instinct than a course load stacked with journalism classes.

“You can put it in the bank that those doing the hiring are looking for a deep, inherent curiosity – an interest in what people do, why they do it and how the world works,” DePalma said. “On top of that, journalists need endurance. They need to be curious not only about today, but about tomorrow, next year and the year after that.”

DePalma urged prospective journalists to develop such qualities with a wide curriculum that includes a language specialty, paralleling his own entrance into the field. While he graduated from Seton Hall University with a “dreaded degree in communications,” he said he chose the program over English because its more flexible requirements allowed him to take more electives.

“I used this opportunity to study everything from philosophy to computer science to Spanish,” DePalma said. “Already, without recognizing it, I was expressing the curiosity that these editors were talking about.”

After attending Seton Hall, DePalma’s curiosity earned him a position writing for the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J., a newspaper he said “thought of themselves as a minor league New York Times.” His intimidating first assignment was to interview the families of three children who tried to imitate Huckleberry Finn by rafting down a river on the afternoon of July 4 and were still missing the next morning.

“It was a baptism by fire. My knees were knocking at the thought … and as if that wasn’t enough, I had to interview them in Spanish. And on top of that, my editor made me go back and do it all over again to see if they still had their Little League uniforms on,” DePalma said.

After the Jersey Journal, DePalma became a freelance writer, a situation that he described as liberating but somewhat intimidating. “Freelancing is a pretty scary thing because you’re only getting paid for what your write. The pressure is on to earn money and get paid,” he said. “But this was writing the way I wanted to do it: to write what I want the way I want it. There was only one job I would’ve taken – The New York Times.”

After over 300 freelance bylines published in the Times, DePalma was officially hired by the elite newspaper, where he began in the Metro section. He was soon promoted to national correspondent and then became the foreign correspondent to Mexico City in 1993 and to Toronto in 1996.

DePalma is also the author of Here: A Biography of the New American Continent, a nonfiction book published in 2001. However, his book tour was circumvented by the events of September 11, 2001. “I was in San Diego to promote my book beginning on September 10,” DePalma said. After the tragedy, he “was stuck on the other end of the continent I’d been writing about – now it was the same continent standing between me and that story.”

DePalma made it back to New York and was able to participate in the Times’ subsequent coverage of the attacks, an experience which he said was an example of the cyclical nature of journalism.

“The project-oriented schedule is a big advantage of journalism,” he said. “You’re going to have a disaster. You’re going to have an election. It becomes a terrific opportunity to get your foot in the door, to show them what you can do – so you’ll be called in next time.”

However, DePalma cautioned new reporters eager to break into the field against the impulse to sacrifice some of their integrity in the process. Citing the example of ex-New York Times reporter Jayson Blair, DePalma said that “as a journalist, you have to be very careful about your reputation – one serious misstep can bring it all down.”

He closed with advice about persistence and payoff.

“Journalism requires sustaining effort over a period of time and sustaining it in a different way from other professions. In journalism it’s tough slogging all the way through,” he said.

“You won’t be rewarded with a big salary or a big office. But you will be rewarded with the opportunities to ask questions and to jump in and out of people’s lives in an infinite variety of settings.”