Veteran investigative reporter John Ullmann teaches us not to get complacent

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“Phones off. Put your laptops away. Remember how to take notes? Well, that’s what you’re going to do,” yelled John Ullmann as soon as he walked into the room. My colleagues and I complied like school children who’ve just been admonished by a stern headmaster, switched off our phones and computers and pulled out our notebooks and pens.

“So, tell me what you know about me,” he asked. When one of us mumbled something about Ullman being the former assistant managing editor for investigations and the former executive director of the World Press Institute he bellowed: “That’s what’s on your sheet! You don’t know a damn thing about me, do you?”

“Never arrive at a meeting without knowing all about the person you’re going to be talking to,” he said emphatically.

That was lesson number one: always do your homework. Basic stuff, right?  The trouble is that as the years go by, we get complacent, which is why Ullmann was determined to grab our attention and shake us up.

Anyone can be a potential source, he reminded us, even the lady standing behind you in the line at the checkout counter in the supermarket, which is why you must always pay attention to people, study them and find out as much about them as you can.

We looked at an imaginary scenario: the World Health Organization statistics for polio in a country and how that could be used to uncover an untold story, what lies behind the statistics, looking beyond the obvious.

Again, basic stuff that should be second nature to us as seasoned reporters, but often falls by the wayside in the era of click-driven journalism.

Then we talked about ethics. Would you record a source without his or her consent? We were divided on the issue.

As I watched Ullmann, disheveled and clad in black sweatpants and T-shirt, pacing up and down the room, I realized that beneath the sharp-edged, prickly exterior, he’s an old-school reporter who’s passionate about what he does and who’s never allowed himself to be sidetracked from what should be a journalist’s number one duty: to serve his or her readers, viewers and listeners.

Ullmann, who’s in his early seventies and describes himself as a “recovering journalist,” summed this up with a great metaphor: imagine yourself beyond retirement age, sitting on your rocking chair, on the front porch with your grandchild on your lap. What will you tell him or her about your days as a journalist? Which stories are you most proud of and which ones really made a difference? Stay true to yourself and never lose sight of what’s really important.

By the end of the class, Ullmann forgot he was supposed to yell and out came the big softie that he’s deep down inside, as he posed for selfies with some of the fellows and chatted amiably about the time he’s spent in each of our countries.