About 400 students gathered in the HUB Auditorium last night to hear esteemed journalist Dana Priest of The Washington Post speak as part of the Foster Conference of Distinguished Writers.
Priest is a 2006 recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for her disclosure of secret overseas CIA prisons. She has spent nearly 20 years reporting for The Washington Post, covering the CIA, military and counterterrorism.
"Covering the CIA is the hardest beat because it's not just putting together pieces of a puzzle, but putting together shredded pieces of the puzzle," she said.
In 2007, along with Washington Post reporter Anne Hull, Priest broke the story of poor medical treatment of war veterans at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, which she said was previously regarded as the best the Army had to offer in military healthcare. The story led to immediate action and reform at the center.
"One of the most important functions of journalism is the watchdog function," Priest said. "You tell people, 'here is something you need to pay attention to,' and we're not always rewarded with immediate action, but that is what happened with the Walter Reed story."
Priest read selections from three articles: the Walter Reed story, the overseas CIA prisons story, and an article about the torture and subsequent death, under the order of the CIA, of an Afghan man. There was no record of the man as a captive, and he was buried in an unmarked grave without his family being notified.
Priest said she often wondered if the story about one unknown man would have impact, but something pushed her to continue pursuing the facts, which took her months to compile.
"Something was gnawing at my gut, and after years of reporting, I've learned to listen to that gnawing saying, 'no, you have to write that story,' " she said.
In the exposure of the overseas CIA prisons, it was decided that the countries where these prisons were located would not be reported. Many of these nations were cooperating in other non-controversial activities with the United States, and there was fear that the disclosure of the locations may put those countries at risk for terrorist attacks.
"When you get information that is classified, it is often classified for a good reason," she said.
Students found Priest's experiences interesting especially because she has had many unusual experiences in the field.
"I think her reporting is something that all journalists and students could learn from and take to heart," Blake Swagler (junior-journalism) said. "However, I think her specific field of reporting has a lot of exceptions to the classic journalistic rules that we all have to follow."
Brittany Boltz (junior-journalism) said the sensitivity of the CIA coverage was the most intriguing part of the presentation.
"The most interesting part was finding out how she deals with uncovering secrets of the CIA and walking that line between what to print and what not to print," Boltz said.
Priest advised aspiring journalists to concentrate on stories, adding that anyone can be an investigative reporter if they put in the time and effort.
She told students to "just unpack it," a piece of advice one of her editors once told her, which helped her to be patient with writing long and involved stories.
"You need to give readers handlebars to the story," she said. "To unpack, to be patient, to write simple sentences -- and that's a hard one -- but it's so great."