From Bob Woodward's MasterClass

Publishing Secrets

Bob explains his approach to reporting on secrets—particularly information that involves the public's safety, national security, and government intelligence.

Topics include: Communicate With Skepticism • Aspire to Objectivity • Do Not Trade Stories • Publish What’s in The Public’s Interest • Matters of National Security Require Extreme Caution: King Hussein Case Study • The Sensitivity of Working With Intelligence Documents

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Bob explains his approach to reporting on secrets—particularly information that involves the public's safety, national security, and government intelligence.

Topics include: Communicate With Skepticism • Aspire to Objectivity • Do Not Trade Stories • Publish What’s in The Public’s Interest • Matters of National Security Require Extreme Caution: King Hussein Case Study • The Sensitivity of Working With Intelligence Documents

Bob Woodward

Teaches Investigative Journalism

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The reality is that reporters are always being used. Because our job is to listen and to communicate, but to communicate with skepticism, with inquiry. If there's things that are said that are not true, or things in the report that can be contradicted, it's our job to unearth them. But particularly for political figures-- we need to say this in the era of Donald Trump-- he is the master of using the media. By saying things, speeches, tweeting, he has got the press running around about six or seven times each news cycle it seems was something new that he has done and said. You have to report it. You have to deal with it. But just like Trump used the New York tabloids about his businesses, and casinos, and love life, it's now moved to Washington. Only he doesn't run casinos, he runs the US government. I think it's very important that the journalists be objective. And so much of that has to do with the presentation of the facts. But it also has so much to do with the tone. And you see this too often in news stories, particularly on television, there is a kind of snide presentation. Somebody will talk about an event, and then say the White House says the following. And then the expression is not just of skepticism, it's an expression of disdain. And I don't think that works. I think it sets off alarm bells with people about hey, what am I getting here? Am I getting facts laundered as politics? You have to look at the reality of true believers. And there are people on the left, people on the right who believe so intensely. And you need to step back and look at it and say, true believers are sometimes those who believe the most passionately, but they're not backing up what they say. And you need to kind of look at it almost as a scientist. How do-- there are these facts, there are those facts. Again, the human source is the savior of journalism. Not too many years ago, I was working on a story involving some sensitive intelligence matters. And I went to the intelligence chiefs and said, I've got this, and they did not want me to publish it. And I said I would consult with lawyers and editors and think about it. And one of the things I was doing as I was leaving the meeting, a key person in the intelligence agency took me aside and said, do you trade? I said, what do you mean? He said, if you agree not to run that story, we will give you another story that's as good or better. I said, absolutely not. I can't do this. I figured there would be secret recording devices in the room. And you can't trade information, particularly sensitive intelligence information. You can't trade anything. You can't say I'm going to suppress this story if you give me that story. I run into this person every now and then, and it's one of those relationships where you don't make eye contact. Because he doesn't want to make eye cont...

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Bob Woodward was just 29 when he changed a nation. His Watergate reporting with Carl Bernstein helped expose the corruption of the Nixon presidency. Two Pulitzer Prizes and nineteen best-selling books later, the legendary journalist is teaching his first-ever online class for anyone who wants to find the truth. Learn to investigate a story, interview sources, and understand how the news is written. The next history-making story might be yours.

Reviews

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Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

Excellent. Bob gave a very well rounded view of journalism past and present. Very interesting .

Woodward presents a tour de force of process, results, triumphs and limitations. We can only hope this spawns a new generation of reporters as diligent and persistent as he has been.

I almost have to keep shaking myself to remember the impact this man has had, not just in his profession, but in the world. He is a mild-spoken, giant-toppling defender of the public trust. Not only does he share his experience with finding and following the story, a large portion is spent on how to effectively interact with sources. I'm inspired and outfitted. Wonderful course.

The personal insights especially those involving Watergate was worth the price of my master class. I shared a few insights with a new reporter and recommended this class. This was one of my favorite classes online! Thank you!

Comments

Pamela Martin O.

This was one of my favorite lessons. These are the most troublesome worries when covering a story. Wow!

A fellow student

A friend of mine worked in a classified message center. He could never take part in current news discussions because the Air Force Times would publish almost all of the story leaving some sensitive items out. He couldn't remember what was left out.

Barb

what a facinating man and career - really good insight into professional journalism

Joe C.

This is particularly interesting in the context of sexual misconduct allegations against a sitting Federal Judge who is undergoing confirmation hearings for a position on the Supreme Court. The repercussions from the letter alleging and attempted rape 36 years after the fact have essentially destroyed the lives of both accuser and accused. Reporting the story as it developed had to require objectivity and sensitivity without sacrificing the truth. Getting at the truth or truths was made exceptionally difficult because of the stakes for all parties - even those not directly involved.

Mia S.

"The hardest documents are intelligence documents. 'If you ever tell anyone who I am, I need a pledge from you that you will not tell anyone, even after I'm dead.' 'My god, you can't publish that document, it's got information about future operations.' We argued, we had a meeting at the Pentagon, and deleted three words at their request. Ran it. First time I've ever seen The New York Times copy our story nearly paragraph by paragraph. This particular source knew I wasn't going to publish stuff that would get people killed - so there's a relationship of trust. You've got to build that relationship of trust - it's hard, it takes a long time, and it's never perfect. So in the reporting end of war, it's our job to really get into the granularity of it, and really explain what's going on, and a lot of people don't like that. I think in a sense, that's one of the most important things a reporter can do is try to explain more."

Mia S.

"'Do you trade? If you agree not to run that story, we will give you another story that's as good, or better.' I said, Absolutely not, I can't do this. I figured there would be secret recording devices in the room. And you can't trade information, particularly sensitive intelligence information. You can't say, I'm going to suppress this story if you give me that story. People bandy this term 'the public interest' around. And it does exist,it's something that journalists and all kinds of people have to consider. Sometimes it's rough on people to publish truth or government action or other things that happen; you may find somebody saying, 'If you publish this story, it's going to hurt a child.'' The emotional ramification on somebody is going to be so great that you're going to cause harm to them.' A woman called me, quite hysterical, 'I don't want you to write a story about my son, it's going to be so embarrassing to the family.' It turned out that person had been indicted for murdering two children; we of course ran the story, because there's an official charge. If somebody is formally charged, it's a story that needs to be published. You need to keep people informed about what's going on in the community. 'Totally off the record... no notes. Please don't run the story, it's going to hurt Middle East negotiations.' 'Will it harm national security?' which is the standard. 'I'm asking you as president to not publish this.' We went back and cleared to run it because he had said it's not going to harm national security, it turned out the story ran - big headline across the front page the morning that the new Secretary of State had arrived in Jordan to see King Hussein. That was an uncomfortable moment, and Carter was really upset. 'Tell Ben Bradlee, fuck you.' When you're dealing with big, big secrets like that, you've got to be really careful. I think we didn't understand how new Carter was; it's tricky when you get into this realm, and what you need to do is have full disclosure with the editors, with the lawyers, and you can have a gut instinct about it, but I don't think that should be controlling. I think what has to be controlling is what the impact is. 'If you publish that, we could lose a war.' You really are careful."

Mia S.

"The reality is that reporters are always being used. Because our job is to listen and to communicate, but to communicate with skepticism, with inquiry - if there's things that are said that are not true, or things in the report that can be contradicted, it's our job to unearth them. Particularly for political figure, we need to say this in the era of Donald Trump - he's the master of using the media. By saying things, speeches, tweeting, he has got the press running around about six or seven times each news cycle, it seems, with something new that he has done and said. You have to report it, you have to deal with it. Just like Trump used to the New York tabloids about his businesses, casinos, and love life, it's now moved to Washington. Only he doesn't run casinos, he runs the US government. I think it's very important that journalists be objective - and so much of that has to do with presentation of the facts, but it also has so much to do with the tone. And you see this too often in news stories, particularly on television, there is a kind of snide presentation - somebody will talk about an event, and then say, the White House says the following, and the expression is not just of skepticism, it's an expression of disdain. And I don't think that works, I think it sets off alarm bells with people about, Hey, what am I getting here? Am I getting facts laundered as politics? You have to look at the reality of true believers. There are people on the left, people on the right, who believe so intensely. And you need to step back and look at it and say, true believers are sometimes those who believe the most passionately, but they're not backing up what they say. You need to kind of look at it almost as a scientist. There are these facts, there are those facts. Again, the human source is the savior of journalism."

Jennifer

Investigative reporting is so difficult on multiple levels. The hardest one to maintain would be, Never compromise your principals., even if it means saying 'No' to a better 'Trade you for a better story,' deal. I admire Bob for what he did.

Joyce

How do journalists explain war? Motivations of political leaders? Without doing harm. In the public interest! Difficult job!

Vickie R.

Thank you very much for the tips on publishing sensitive material. Sadly, I think I'm going to stick with comedy writing and publishing short humorous essays (like the ones in the New Yorker). My story is too controversial and if the government is in fact involved it won't do many any good to anger some big General or Pentagon official. Although I would like to know who sent that GIANT bumble bee Drone that followed me all over Los Angeles from my home, to Costco to target and back home again. Looked just like a giant bee until a cop informed me bee was in fact a Drone. Can't drones kill you by the way? I'm allergic to bees also and once was chased around the 17th floor of a hotel room by a bee that managed to get into my room? Never had a bee follow me up to a hotel room floor before, but who knows? THanks much for the advice. Back to the comedy writing,