Journalist, author and Illinois native Nina Burleigh has chased stories in almost every state in the country and across six continents over the last few decades.
The University of Illinois Springfield, where Burleigh began her career as a graduate of its Public Affairs Reporting program, is honoring her work with an Alumni Achievement Award.
She sat down with NPR Illinois’ Sam Dunklau to reflect on a career spent covering, teaching and advocating for the news.
SD: Chat with me about your career. It started at PAR when it was under Sangamon State University; what happened after that?
NB: "Well, after PAR, I was an intern at the Associated Press in the [Illinois] Statehouse. Then I briefly worked at the Associated Press in Chicago on the 4pm to 2am shift, which they gave the young people back then. I worked at the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin back down here covering the judiciary, and then I worked at Time and People [Magazines] in the bureau in Chicago."
"I worked for Time and People in Washington, D.C. covering Clinton and Congress, and then I moved to New York [and] wrote a book about a famous unsolved murder in Washington in the Cold War. I freelanced, lived in Paris, freelanced, wrote another book, moved back to the States, freelanced, wrote another book, and then worked again at People Magazine. I left to cover the Amanda Knox trial as a book in 2010."
"[Then] I freelanced for a couple more years and then took a job at Newsweek covering national politics in 2015. I covered the campaign of Donald Trump and the election of Donald Trump, covered Donald Trump's Washington and the United States for the last four years. I left last year to take a job lecturing at a university in Norway and I'm freelancing in New York again."
SD: So all of this has brought you back to Springfield! In your estimation, Nina, what's the comparison of Springfield then versus now?
NB: "I hightailed it over to the press room to find my old colleagues. Of course, none of them are there but younger ones are there and in talking to them, talking to you, and talking to people who live here, it's pretty clear to me that the enterprise of the Public Affairs Reporting program here is still alive and crucial."
"It's a crucial element: the training of journalists here in Springfield, to cover government gives me hope...that our democratic system has a strong foundation. There are so many people here who are keeping tabs on what the politicians are doing, and the government seems to interact with the media here in a way that is somewhat healthy, not quite as unhealthy as what's going on in Washington."
SD: I know that a lot of [other] states have gotten rid of their press rooms, and yet Illinois still has theirs. Is that a surprise to you?
NB: "Well, I don't want to say it's a surprise that the statehouse still has a press room. I'm happy to see that it is still there. It's absolutely crucial. I know that there is still one in Albany, in New York where I live; the statehouse is covered."
"But it troubles me greatly to hear that there is not enough coverage in states around the country because if we're not watching what's going on in these legislatures, how is the public to be informed in terms of who they're going to vote for and what the issues are?"
SD: There's no question, as it has been reported since Donald Trump ran for office, there's been this new era of hyper partisanship that's been ushered into the country. A lot of people argue it was simmering on the fringes for a long time. You've seen the country evolve from what it was before all the way up to now in this current era...and in your estimation, will it ever swing the other way?
NB: "Well, I think we are living in pendulum swings. I'm reading a lot about the 60s and The Weatherman and New Left right now and thinking about a project on them now, and those times were much more violent than the times we live in. [They were] much more partisan. I mean, actual violence [was] happening all the time in cities and [there were] bombings and so on. We aren't living in that kind of an era."
"That said, I've never seen anything like it [hyper partisanship] in my career. It wasn't something that I was covering or was aware of, really, until the 2016 convention of the Republicans in Cleveland, where they nominated Trump and where I started to meet people, average people, who were getting their information about the political world from places that I couldn't determine. I had people telling me, you know, 'Obama is going to declare martial law! There won't be an election!' and this was in the summer of 2016. And I'm thinking, 'where are you getting that?' "
"So, that was the beginning of my understanding that there's this sort of dark underworld of misinformation that's just spewing out. It was unbeknownst to many of us. We were asleep at the wheel or not paying attention, because people had tuned out of the mainstream discourse and were listening to or reading information that was coming from other sources that were not vetted, that were not accurate and that were completely partisan."
"I blame Fox News for it. I think Roger Ailes was the tumor, and Fox News is a cancer that is going to flip this nation for many years, probably [for] another generation, where people tune in to Fox News and they only get one side of the story. They're not understanding things like, 'what are the allegations that were underlying the impeachment trial?' "
SD: Some people have suggested that all of that signals the end, or the decline of, traditional journalism. Your thoughts on that, and if that's not the case, how do young people get a leg up in the business?
NB: "Well, journalism isn't completely dead. You know, there are people in the statehouse press room. I think that for young people coming into the business, they have to really try to avoid the clickbait trap, which is really the route to fake news. If you're writing articles where your main focus is getting as many clicks as you possibly can on it, then you're going to end up writing about things like PizzaGate, and, you know, aliens coming in from Mars because...studies have shown that on social media, novelty is what is promoting the sharing of fake news. Fake news is shared far more often than real facts."
SD: I think it's fair to say that in your career, you've been a fighter against some of these things that we've been talking about. Now you're being presented this Alumni Achievement Award from the university. Is that the capper to a career of reporting all over the place or is it just the beginning?
NB: "It's not the beginning because I'm not that young anymore, but it's definitely a great honor! I hope that I've been able to give back in my career some of what I got from Springfield and from this university, which really has strong grounding in being fair and ethical. I do see that still being taught here, and I do feel that those standards are worth upholding, and this university and the Public Affairs Reporting program have done a fantastic job in maintaining that."