Alumnus Richard Griffiths: “Local journalism is absolutely critical”

Posted on October 10, 2022

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Richard Griffiths

More than 2,200 local newspapers have shut down in the last 15 years, the Washington Post reports.

In Greensboro, the News & Record – which once was able to employ more than 100 people to bring readers the latest news each day – reportedly has only six full-time journalists on staff. The amount of local coverage has dwindled.

It’s a trend seen in every part of the nation.

“We have to really focus, big time, on strengthening and encouraging local journalism,” says Richard Griffiths ’78.

After retiring in 2017 from CNN, where as vice-president and senior editorial director he was responsible for editorial quality control, he led the Georgia First Amendment Foundation. The focus? Bolstering open government and true, independent journalism in that state and inspiring it throughout the nation. Now president emeritus, he speaks nationally and internationally on the topic. For the last 24 years, he has served as a visiting professor at UNC Chapel Hill.

“In order for us to make rational decisions as a society, we have to understand what’s going on in our communities,” he says. “And, frankly, social media isn’t enough, because nobody has the time to go to every county commissioners meeting and take note of what’s actually happening. And they don’t have the time to stand outside the representative’s door to ask the accountability questions that are required to keep democracy healthy and to hold government officials responsible.”

With a career including work at CBS News in Atlanta and Los Angeles, his final 26 years were with CNN. There, among other responsibilities such as investigative reporting, he and his team were responsible for CNN’s fact-checking. That included ensuring all news reports, including those related to the U.S. national elections, were factual and accurate.

“We learned early that being first with the news was almost irrelevant. Sure, it was nice to get a scoop now and again, but what was important was being absolutely accurate, making sure the context was right. That meant a dedicated team of researchers, whose job it was to verify every fact in every story. CNN still has that system today.”

His journalism career yielded two Emmys, five Peabody Awards, and two Investigative Reporters and Editors medals. The impact isn’t measured in those.

“What I hope that I have achieved in my career is to help the public understand the world around them and trust journalism a bit more,” Griffiths says. “That only happens if the news process is transparent. My message to journalists every chance I get is to make sure they explain to the public how they do their jobs.”

He got his start at UNCG. “The school was absolutely critical in developing my critical thinking – in particular (through) my extracurricular activities. I was initially a reporter for WUAG (the UNCG radio station), and then a news director there. I wrote a column for The Carolinian.”

He conducted a lengthy interview with Chancellor James Ferguson for Pine Needles. He vividly recalls covering a student march on the Chancellor’s House on campus, with the chancellor meeting the protestors at his door in his pajamas.

Sociology professor Bill Knox and communications/media professors Tom Tedford and John Jellicorse inspired him the most. But his journalism work pulled him away from his classes. While he didn’t complete his degree, his passion was kindled.

“Bill Knox truly understood the nature of journalism in the context of the society in which we live and taught me so much that was so important.”

And effective journalism is key. “The Pew Charitable Trust and others have done research that shows that, if a community loses its local newspaper, taxes jump substantially and government becomes much less efficient,” Griffiths says. “Everyone should subscribe to the local newspaper – or their local NPR station by contributing – to make sure that we have good functioning, local journalism.”

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