by maddie gierber
For SPJ president Sudiksha Kochi, the draw of journalism has always been its ability to illuminate stories that are often hidden from view. Since her days as copy editor of her high school paper, Kochi has worked to connect people with experiences and perspectives to which they may not otherwise be exposed.
“History is important because of the people in it,” she says. “We have a job to be able to tell the stories of these people.”
Kochi works at Voice of America, a multi-platform broadcasting company committed to spreading accurate and accessible information. There, she documents the complexities of daily life for underrepresented communities, like first-generation international college students, to give readers a clearer picture of their experiences. She also examines the stories behind politicians’ public persona, providing citizens with a more three-dimensional view of the officials representing them.
Reporting political decisions isn’t enough; Kochi wants the public to truly understand the character and motivation of those they entrust with governing. “We know what they do, but we don’t know who they are,” says Kochi. She is concerned voters don’t always realize the “true colors” of those they elect, which can make it even more difficult for undecided voters to make an educated choice.
“People just need to know who these politicians are on the inside because it affects a lot of what they do on the outside,” Kochi says. She believes giving citizens a closer look at local government will help them become more engaged and encourage them to think more critically about those they elect.
Part of engaging local communities better is providing accurate information. Kochi notes how the rising distrust of the media has created a gap between reputable reporting and readers willing to consume that reporting.
“People need to know what the reality is, but people don't trust us,” she explains. “We have good journalism, but people can't see it because they're so engrossed in this misinformation.” Poor media literacy, which can lead to statements seen online being taken out of context, has contributed to an online environment where facts are overshadowed by easily-shared opinions.
Combating misinformation is part of Kochi’s job as an intern at Politifact, an organization dedicated to online fact checking. When digital sources like Facebook or TikTok post false or misleading claims, journalists assign “Truth-O-Meter” ratings after verifying the accuracy of the statement. Because facts are the foundation of good journalism, Kochi stresses how vital it is for the public to recognize and consume accurate news. Still, the surge of misinformation in recent years means it’s harder for journalists to reach a skeptical audience.
“It all goes back to the problem of how the media is perceived in society,” Kochi says. “People need to really start trusting journalists because we do a really hard job.” She hopes the increased focus on fact checking and demonstrating journalists’ dedication to the truth will rebuild the public’s trust in the media.
It’s harder to tell important stories when it feels like the public isn’t listening, but Kochi is eager to make sure journalists maintain the ability to work freely. In addition to her work at Politifact, Kochi has started two branches of GMU’s SPJ club to encourage a healthy press—the Truth Squat fights online misinformation, and the Freedom of Press Advocacy Group writes public officials in support of a free press.
Kochi has encountered personal challenges in journalism as well. As sometimes the only woman of color in the newsroom, she has struggled to have her voice heard, saying “People sometimes don't take you seriously.” Misconceptions about her ability or level of experience made finding opportunities more difficult, but Kochi lists her persistence as one of her best journalistic qualities. She remained committed to sharing stories that matter and felt her confidence grow as she accumulated successes like completing media clips or publishing her first factcheck.
As a journalist dedicated to telling the stories of underrepresented communities, she believes the industry can only benefit by increased diversity. Not only will it allow journalists to better represent a wide range of perspectives, but each step forward will encourage others to follow.
“We need to be able to break barriers in journalism,” Kochi says. “[If] I'm the only one representing all the Indian communities in the U.S., that's a problem, because I can't do it all.” But, she explains, there is value in serving as representation for those who may otherwise feel unwelcome in the industry—if they see someone like them on TV, they may feel that they, too, have a place in journalism.
“It's gonna be difficult, but at the same time you're bringing a unique perspective to journalism that no one has. That's very important.”
By Luke Harris
On October 22, 2020, George Mason University’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) met for a trivia night. The event served as a fun, informative break from the routine stresses that the middle of the semester can bring.
Sudiksha Kochi, the president of Mason’s SPJ chapter, hosted the event. She created twelve questions that were worth one point each. Kochi evenly divided them into two categories: journalism history and current events. Sydney Johnson, secretary of Mason’s SPJ chapter, volunteered to record the player’s scores. The players would write down their answers on a piece of paper as quickly as they could in the 10 second timeframe.
Kochi informed the top three players with the highest scores would be mailed prizes. That’s when a few more members jumped into the game.
The first round would prove to stump even the more experienced members of the group. Kochi started with a question asking about who coined journalism as the “fourth estate.” The answer was Thomas Carlyle and only two members got this question correct.
The majority of the journalism history section would prove to be equally difficult to answer for players. The only questions that most players were able to answer were those about the “watergate.” The famous “watergate” story was about former President Richard Nixon’s corruption while in office. Kochi asked for the title of the movie based on the story, the answer being “All the President’s Men,” and the name of the journalists that broke the story, being Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward.
After round one, the players accumulated a very low point average. Savannah Martinic was leading and the players began expressing their hopes that round two would allow them to catch up.
Kochi started the current event section by asking the question, “what member of Congress recently hosted an online streaming event playing the game Among Us to promote voting?” The answer, which most players knew, was Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez.
After this self-esteem bump, the players began to listen closely as their chances for the prize seemed to increase. The second question asked the players, “where is the second presidential debate being hosted?” The answer was Nashville, Tennessee, and the majority of players also knew this question. But the difficulty of the questions would increase again.
As the round progressed, the players began to lose more and more points. Many were stumped on question five, “what drug was recently approved by the FDA to treat COVID-19?” The answer, which few got, was Remdesivir.
In the end, Martinic maintained her lead and won first place. Since she is a leading member of Mason’ SPJ chapter, she willfully gifted her prizes down to the players who tied for second place. Kochi decided that due to low turnout the prizes would automatically go to the three new members of Mason’s SPJ chapter that attended.
The night wrapped up with team members saying their goodbyes. Many went on to go watch another dreaded presidential debate.
By Yara Belhaj
Presidential debates in the United States date back to the seven debates that took place between then senator Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas. These debates became known as the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and set the foundation for modern day presidential debates. They were meant to provide civil and constructive dialogue that gave a solid idea of what voters should expect in the future with the winning candidate.
Now, debates are less about constructive dialogue and more about “soundbites” and “pithy retorts”, both characterized by insults, opinions, lies and one-liners.
Since the first debate of this election, many criticized and provided numerous suggestions to manage interruptions and overtime of each candidate’s response. Among those suggestions was a mute button to ensure that each candidate has only 2 minutes to answer a question uninterrupted. Fortunately for this second debate, they implemented just that.
The threat of being muted worked tremendously compared to the first debate, and each candidate was forced to respect each other’s response time. That, however, did not stop President Donald Trump from attempting to get a few punches in after the completion of each response and the start of each question. Strategically, both candidates opened a new can of worms right before they were cut off, which then forced Kristen Welker’s hand as moderator to give a chance for a 10-30 second rebuttal.
Although this last debate was much more civil than the first, it was still not a great debate, despite the job well done by moderator Welker. Their responses were filled with false statements, accusations, and minor insults.
Welker strongly requested for both candidates to be very specific with their answers, but they failed miserably almost every time. It did however work on Joe Biden at times, which resulted in solid points. These points clarified Biden’s plans to help the country recover from the pandemic by providing resources for businesses and schools to open safely and offer rapid testing for the country.
In terms of their views regarding the country’s status, they seem to be living in different countries. Trump lives in a country where the United States has the cleanest air and cleanest water, booming economy, and where the young can catch the coronavirus with no consequences. When really the U.S. ranks 10th in air quality and 29th in water quality. In fact, there is still much work to do when it comes to the environment, especially since Trump ceased participation in the Paris Agreement and repealed Obama’s Clean Power Plan. The economy is still recovering from the biggest recession since World War II and still not doing as well as the pre-pandemic times. As far as cases go, Welker said it best when responding to Trump’s strong suggestion to open schools, “Boston became the latest city to move its’ public school system entirely online after a coronavirus spike.”
With Trump, there seems to be no plan for the future, no replacement for Obama Care, no resources for reopening safely, negligence of climate change action to save big corporations some money, and no concern whatsoever for foreign interference with elections. However, he was able to swat a few at Biden in regard to the crime bills he endorsed between 1980 and 1990 that put thousands of young black men in prison for minor drug possession charges. Biden’s contributions to these bills might not necessarily be forgivable despite his acknowledgement of it being a “mistake” when questioned by Welker.
Voters need to consider what they value most, a corrupt past or a corrupt present. There is no denying that the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus was not the best. The administration failed over 200,000 dead Americans. In honor of the late John Lewis who dedicated his life fighting for voting and civil rights, I’ll leave you with his message, “the vote is precious. It is almost sacred. It’s the most powerful non-violent tool we have in a democratic society and we’ve got to use it.”
By Olivia Vermane
In an age of information overload, the shared experience of watching the candidates speak for themselves is rare. Too bad we learned nothing from either one.
In 1960, Democratic nominee John F. Kennedy went face to face with Republican nominee Richard Nixon in the first nationally televised presidential debate.
As the first in history to be televised, this debate gave Americans across the nation a front row seat to the candidates they would be voting for.
A confident Kennedy emerged as the apparent winner against a sweaty, nervous Nixon.
Although foes, Kennedy and Nixon engaged in a dialogue that impacted every American.
Fast forward 60 years, and the first debate of the 2020 presidential election was hardly a debate at all.
Full of exaggerations, interruptions and outright lies, those 90 minutes resembled more of a chaotic cacophony of arguments than a civilized conversation. Trump interrupted Biden, Biden insulted Trump, and moderator Chris Wallace desperately grasped for any form of control that was, unfortunately, lacking from the start. Wallace closely resembled a parent who has been homeschooling their kindergartener since March.
Both candidates did little to address important issues, and for the topics they did speak on, the discussion was not exactly a discussion. Many of President Trump’s interruptions were met with sarcastic chuckles or a direct “shut up” from Biden. Within minutes, the debate went down the drain. However, just because this debate didn’t go as planned doesn’t mean presidential debates don’t matter. In fact, these debates may have more significance now than ever.
The media landscape of Kennedy and Nixon’s age is almost unrecognizable compared to today’s. The modern 24 hour news cycle has created an information overload that constantly flows through an array of traditional news outlets and social media sites. Our selective exposure to content that reaffirms our opinions has led to ever increasing political polarization in all corners of the country. For an American public with constant biased information at their fingertips, presidential debates come as something of an artifact of the former media realm. Rarely are Americans of all backgrounds, political affiliations and opinions viewing the same material that is unfiltered by direct media commentary. Just the two candidates, face to face on one stage. This is one event that anyone, no matter their literacy in politics or prior knowledge of either candidate, can take part in. The shared experience of the same debate being broadcast across the country is a valuable moment for the American public. Or, should be at least.
The purpose of the debates is to learn something about the candidates, whether it is related to their character or the policies they plan to bring to the oval office should they be elected. For Tuesday’s 70 million viewers, among them a number of undecided voters, hoping to learn anything about either candidate, they unfortunately left empty handed. With the official election date just under a month away, candidates' chances to show what they can bring to the American people are running out.
The Commission on Presidential Debates announced that “additional structure should be added to the format of the remaining debates to ensure a more orderly discussion of the issues.”
For the sake of both candidates and their Vice Presidents, let’s hope the next debate goes a bit smoother.
By Madison Rudolf
On September 24, 2020, George Mason University’s Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) organization had the pleasure of hearing from Kevin Bohn, Supervising Producer in charge of CNN Washington weekend coverage. Kevin joined us Thursday evening to provide SPJ members with not only a glimpse of what it’s like to have worked with CNN for the past 33 years, but also to provide valuable advice to young and aspiring journalists ready to take on this fast-paced industry.
Bohn is a graduate of American University (AU) with a double degree in Political Science and Broadcast Journalism. He knew he wanted to be in TV news since he was 9-years old, and since he started at CNN in 1987, he’s built an extremely successful career for himself covering events as big as 9/11.
With CNN’s presence around the 1989 Tiananmen Square Protests as well as the Gulf War in 1991, the network gradually went from receiving little to no recognition to becoming the major news entity we know today.
Bohn experienced first-hand what it was like working with no cable in Washington, D.C. or on Capitol Hill and trying to book guests for the weekend talk show using only his handwritten list of home phone numbers. In 1990, he became a White House producer under President Bush and President Clinton, and now, with the full benefits of cable, the internet, and social media, he oversees everything that premiers on CNN during the weekends out of Washington.
With Bohn’s long timeline of experience, one major topic that came up was his thoughts on the relatively new use of social media under the current Trump administration. He states, “whenever Donald Trump is out of the office, in one year or five years, I will be thrilled not to ever have to be asked again, what does he mean by a tweet?”
Bohn explains that there’s a lot of criticism with tweets and how we cover tweets, but he considers them to be official presidential announcements. You can’t ignore the tweets, nor can they dominate everything. President Trump regularly communicates directly through social media, so as journalists, it’s about finding a balance and sorting through what constitutes news.
Further, Bohn describes how we can make ourselves valuable as journalists: “The way I think you can stand out is experience, and the more experience and the more skills you have, then you’ll stand out.”
While in high school, he wrote letters to CNN, and he volunteered at the local TV station where he actually got to work with CNN for a month. In school, he knew he wanted to be in TV, but he also wrote for the school newspaper and became the editor in chief his senior year at AU.
“Everybody should be writing for the school newspaper. I don’t care what kind of journalism you’re in,” he states. “It’s all covering a story. If you’re a print person covering a story or a TV person covering a story, how you deliver is different but covering the story is covering the story.”
His biggest piece of advice moving forward is to not only get as much experience as possible and learn a variety of new skills, but to also make sure you’re reading at least one newspaper or two newspapers a day – The Washington Post and The New York Times. “You can’t know everything, so you have to try to prepare yourself as much as possible,” he states.
Elissa Free, who started at CNN before it went on the air, joined the call and discussed why she hired Bohn back in 1987. She was extremely impressed that he knew all about CNN, and “he must’ve been watching CNN in his crib, because he actually remembered that I had been on the air,” Free states.
With their wealth of experience and expertise, both Bohn and Free discussed how CNN truly revolutionized broadcast news. “You got morning news and nightly news and that was it. And then CNN came along and basically you could get news any time you wanted and if something happened…people would tune in.”
Reflecting on how much the industry has changed, Bohn proclaims that “It used to be like the daily news cycle and then the hourly news cycle, now it’s like the minute news cycle… it’s our job to try to put it into perspective, and we don’t always do a great job of it because we’re just trying to keep up with it.”
Despite the fast pace of daily news, Bohn leaves us with some parting advice, “You can’t be an expert on everything. You probably can’t be an expert on anything. But you gotta be able to understand it a little bit.”
We thank Kevin Bohn and Elissa Free for taking the time to speak with GMU’s chapter of Society of Professional Journalists!
Welcome to the new blog for the George Mason Society of Professional Journalists! We are so excited to announce this new project we are launching this semester. Our blog will be open to all of our members, and will feature recaps on special events, helpful tips and tricks for student journalists, information on what SPJ is up to, and whatever content you want to write about. This blog is an outlet for student journalists to explore whatever type of journalism it is that you're interested in, whether it be politics, international news and politics, local news, sports, or fashion, etc. We want to hear from you! If you're interested in writing a post for our blog, email our Blog Coordinator at firstname.lastname@example.org.