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Release: Feb. 14, 2000

UI journalism students take lesson in persistence from veteran reporter

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Students in Basil Talbott's political reporting classes got a lesson this semester in the value of tenacity for journalists. It took four months and three seized opportunities for face-to-face interaction, but Talbott managed to schedule Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack to speak to his students about politics and journalism. Vilsack will meet with the class Monday, Feb. 21 at
5:45 p.m. in Room W10 Seashore Hall.

Talbott, who is in his second semester teaching at the University of Iowa after a 35-year career as a reporter, political editor, and Washington correspondent for the Chicago Sun-Times, stood in line at three public events for the chance to ask Vilsack to come to Iowa City to speak to his journalism students. Each time Vilsack said he liked the idea and told Talbott to contact his staff to arrange the visit, but it didn't come to fruition until after the third meeting. At that time, Vilsack not only recognized Talbott and remembered his request, but wrote a note to remind himself to speak with his scheduler personally about arranging the visit.

A few days later, the date was set. Talbott said his students were surprised to learn that the governor was coming to meet with them, and that his experience arranging the visit provided a valuable lesson in journalistic persistence.

"The journalistic lesson is that you have to figure out where you can catch a public official, such as the governor, even though you don't have a special invitation, and keep plugging away politely until you have a specific commitment and nail it down," he said.

This is just one of many real-life reporting experiences Talbott will share with his UI journalism students. They are also studying media coverage of the Iowa Caucuses and state primaries. Talbott says he is teaching students about a media environment that did not exist when he was a full-time political reporter.

"I covered the Iowa caucuses when it was more street reporting" in 1980 and 1984, he said. "Now you have around the clock coverage, news channel explosion, and the Internet has entered the picture."

Today's students need to learn the same basic reporting and writing skills that have always been essential, but Talbott said they also must be increasingly vigilant about sorting through a "proliferation of information" that doesn't always adhere to journalistic standards of accuracy. In the race to be first to report a story or a detail, many media outlets are becoming less concerned with being right, he said.

"It seems it's no longer the task for journalists to make it accurate," he says. "The goal is to get it out first. There's a role for journalism schools and professors to rein that in and bring students back to the ideal goal of journalism of verification."

John Soloski, director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication says professionals like Talbott are crucial to the training of young journalists. He says the school tries to bring in seasoned journalists each semester to teach what he calls "value-added" courses -- classes that add depth and breadth to the curriculum but that the full-time faculty are not equipped to teach.

"Basil is a seasoned political reporter, and we thought he would be a great person to teach our students how to cover a presidential campaign," Soloski said. "Hiring visiting professors like Basil Talbott is very important to the school because it allows us to give our students experience dealing with professionals that goes beyond what we could give if we relied only on regular faculty members."