Voice for the Silent Masses

by Saniya More

April 5, 2018

Pulitzer Prize winner Jim Asher G’73 says human empathy is key to effective storytelling

A photo of Jim Asher G'73
Jim Asher G'73

After Jim Asher G’73 earned a master’s degree in newspaper journalism from the Newhouse School, he knew he wanted to work for a publication where he could represent people who have no power. 

“I wanted to be in places where it was clear there were many failings, particularly on unresolved issues like poverty, crime and lack of access to education,” Asher says.

His journalism goals brought him to, as he describes it, “dysfunctional” Washington, D.C., where he worked for the McClatchy Company as their Washington bureau chief. While at McClatchy, Asher was part of a team that won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for collaborative investigation into the 2016 Panama Papers. The award was shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and the Miami Herald.

The Panama Papers are a collection of 11.5 million documents that contain the financial and attorney-client data of people trying to hide their wealth in offshore accounts. In early 2015, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICJ) gained access to some secret corporate records from a law firm In Panama, which jumpstarted the investigation. The ICJ approached McClatchy to be their U.S. partner. Information from the Papers has affected governments and wealthy people around the world.

Shortly after winning the Pulitzer, Asher took a one-year leave from reporting and worked for Injustice Watch, “a non-partisan, not-for-profit, multimedia journalism organization that conducts in-depth research exposing institutional failures that obstruct justice and equality,” according to the group’s website.

Asher eventually returned to the newsroom. Last year, he began working at the Associated Press as the Washington bureau chief, where he has overseen coverage of investigations into interference in the 2016 presidential election and the tumultuous Trump administration.

When he was first asked to become an editor at the Inquirer, Asher says, he was skeptical because he enjoyed reporting and wasn’t sure he wanted the different responsibilities that came with being an editor. But he decided to take the plunge, and says he loved editing from the minute he started.

“I constantly have a yellow pad full of story ideas,” Asher says. “What you learn when you’re full of ideas is that you now have a staff and you can have them do the stories. You can distribute them or inspire your writers to come up with more ideas of their own. The leverage you have as a journalist is greatly enhanced when you are an editor.”

In a time of fake news and increasingly partisan reporting, Asher says journalism students must be more vigilant than ever when it comes to storytelling. He advises students to be fully grounded in what they are reporting on, and to take everything they hear with a grain of salt.

“There’s a tendency to report what a powerful or influential person says, and if you don’t take the time to check it, you pass along untrue information,” he says.

Asher also urges young journalists to write stories that make people feel something. He says one of the best ways to do this is to feel empathy towards the people you are putting a spotlight on.

“When you know it, see it and understand it, your writing is more powerful,” he says. “You capture the essence of the story, and you move people.”

Asher says one of the things that irritates him most about his profession is when some of his colleagues question whether anybody ought to pursue journalism anymore.

“I think that is so wrong-headed and so damaging to the country, to the democracy, to the profession and to the ambition of young people,” he says. “While there is a financial struggle for some news organizations, there should never be any ambiguity about how important journalism is to a free society.”

Saniya More is a junior broadcast and digital journalism major at the Newhouse School.