Pulitzer winner for investigative reporting remains dedicated to the profession he loves, teaching UI students about journalism’s powerful force.
Forty years ago, political science graduate Steve Berry found himself three months into unemployment with loan repayments looming. He needed a job, and fast. Berry ultimately landed at a newspaper—a temporary situation, he told himself then.
Indeed, the reporter who would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism entered the field out of financial desperation.
“But not long after starting work there, I saw the power and the value journalism could have on local, state, and national issues,” says Berry, associate professor in the UI School of Journalism and Mass Communication. “The profession grew on me fast.”
After 33 years in the newsroom, Berry left for a classroom at The University of Iowa, fulfilling a goal of sharing his acquired knowledge with students. As much as he loved the interviews, the inquiries, and the investigations that occurred daily in the newsroom, seeing his students succeed is just as striking as a brilliant byline.
“I love journalism,” Berry says. “I’m dedicated to journalism, and I want students to realize journalism is a powerful force. It can impact the community. If sharing what I’ve learned helps lead to them becoming good journalists, I know I’ve done my job.”
Berry spent a year at his first newspaper job before jumping to the Greensboro News & Record, where he spent 17 years honing his journalistic craft. Concurrently he returned to school, receiving an MA in American history. During this time, Berry found himself “reading between the lines, digging for information, and learning the cause and effect of past events.” It was a transformative point in his journalism career.
“History is great preparation for journalism,” Berry says. “Every action that occurs has a history. After being immersed in academia for three years, I realized to truly understand a current event, you have to know how that event emerged, how it evolved, and that could lead you to how it ends.”
In 1989, Berry took his skills and his newfound approach to the Orlando Sentinel, where he was able to put his investigative skills to work in short order. A local sheriff’s department had been performing a drug intervention program for a couple of years, a program that involved traffic stops. Motorists’ money was confiscated (in accordance to Florida’s contraband seizure law) if the suspect exhibited the behavior of a drug dealer.
The program intrigued Sentinel editors. Berry and a colleague were assigned to investigate.
The sheriff repeatedly claimed the motorists were pulled over at random. He also said that if money was confiscated, the suspects rarely challenged the law or hired attorneys.
Berry and a fellow colleague found contradicting evidence: African-Americans made up seven out of 10 motorists selected by deputies for traffic stops and nine out of every 10 motorists whose cars were then searched. Also, many of them fought tooth and nail to get their money back, but the legal bills would escalate beyond the initial amount of money confiscated. “Many cases were settled out of court after the finances became unmanageable,” Berry says.
The Sentinel published nearly 20 stories showing the wrongdoings of the sheriff’s department. For their work, Berry and his colleague won the Pulitzer for Investigative Reporting in April 1993. And perhaps as important to Berry: three years after the initial story hit the wire, the legislature passed reform to the seizure law.
Berry downplays the crowning achievement of his career; he thinks the investigation of the contraband seizure law should have occurred sooner.
“I don’t like to say I’ve excelled any more than anyone else,” Berry says. “Whatever success I’ve had, it’s only because I try to be very conscientious. Looking back at the Pulitzer, I feel we were still too late. Investigative reporting should be started from the outset. It should be a preventive tool, not a reactionary one.”
After leaving Orlando and spending seven years with the Los Angeles Times, Berry joined the UI School of Journalism and Mass Communication faculty in 2003. He has loved every minute of his time in academia, channeling his passion for journalism toward his inquisitive students.
“I didn’t want to go into teaching as the burned-out reporter putting in his last days before retirement,” Berry says. “I’m dedicated to this job, and it is exciting to be able to point to students who now have good journalism jobs.”
Since joining the University, Berry has authored Watchdog Journalism: The Art of Investigative Reporting, and cofounded the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism. This nonprofit organization collaborates with other news outlets in producing investigative projects on issues pertinent to local residents.
Berry’s outlook on journalism remains positive, even as newspapers fold and magazines close. The crisis has to do with the historical vehicles of journalism, Berry says, not journalism itself. All academic institutions will play a key role in the field’s future success, he says.
“Journalism schools play a major role in the proper functioning of a free society, and they must ensure journalism continues to be a force,” Berry says. “This is a time for our journalism students not to retrench, but to push forward.”
story by Travis Varner; photo by Tim Schoon