January 09, 2015 MARGA LINCOLN Independent Record

From its founding days housed in Army tents on the University of Montana’s Oval in 1914, the School of Journalism has taught its students how to improvise in tough situations.

This was just one of the take-home messages at a ceremony at the Montana State Capitol Friday honoring the UM Journalism School’s centennial year.

The event also honored veteran reporters Charles S. Johnson and Mike Dennison, both of them UM journalism school alumni and members of the Independent Record State Bureau, and Sally Mauk, former news director for Montana Public Radio, for their collective service of covering state government news for more than a century.

The journalism school was founded by Arthur Stone, a chemist, who came west and “fell into newspaper work,” said Denise Dowling, journalism school department chair, in her opening remarks.

He thought that Missoula would be an excellent place to found a journalism school, only the second in the country, she said.

“We train students to think critically, to communicate clearly and to act ethically,” she said. “We have turned out journalists who care about and serve their communities by asking tough questions, by holding our leaders accountable and by giving voice to the voiceless.”

Gov. Steve Bullock told the crowd that the journalism school had come a long way “from its humble beginnings when Arthur Stone … pitched some Army tents in the Oval and called it good.”

“You play a critical role in creating an informed citizenry,” he said. “Montanans value honesty, straight talk, transparency and the truth. All of these are exemplified by journalists across the state.”

In contrast to sensationalism, he said, “you seek to clarify, to educate and to engage.”

“Hard-hitting, honest journalism is vital to any healthy democratic system,” he said. This tenacity and integrity becomes apparent every time the Legislature convenes for 90 days.

“Journalists facilitate conversations about the issues of the day,” Bullock said, calling them the citizens’ eyes and ears in the Capitol. “We depend on you.”

He concluded his remarks by complimenting the journalism school for its 100 years of excellence.

Dennis Swibold, chairman of the UM print and photojournalism department, spoke of some of UM’s award-winning journalists and those who have gone on to work in state government or to be elected officials.

“We want to pay special tribute today to three reporters,” he said, “whose journalism has kept Montanans up to speed on Montana government and state politics for decades and continues to set the standards today.”

Generations of Montanans have relied on Johnson, a 1970 graduate, and Dennison, who graduated in 1981, for “accurate, fair and timely coverage” of elections, legislative sessions and state controversies, Swibold said.

“We trust them because they understand that the central discipline of journalism is verification,” he said.

He also paid tribute to Mauk, for her insights and her compelling radio interviews that made her a staple on Montana Public Radio for nearly 30 years.

He acknowledged all of them for their generous service as mentors to UM journalism students who have been covering the legislative sessions since 1995.

After the journalists were presented their awards, Mauk stepped to the podium, saying that as journalists “we don’t make speeches. But we can’t help but note this has been a tragic week for journalists,” referring to the killing of a dozen people, including journalists, at the magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris. She asked the crowd for a moment of silence and to raise their pens or pencils in tribute to the slain journalists and all journalists who have been killed.

The event closed with a UM student journalist, Kristin Kirkland, recounting her own journalistic challenges as part of this year’s multimedia storytelling project, “A Century of Stories.”

Life-sized photo portraits of 12 Montanans, age 100 and older, were displayed in the rotunda with small placards telling part of their story.

Each of the 12 students in the photojournalism class interviewed a Montana centenarian, but Kirkland’s subject, Doris McCulloch, refused to talk, so they sat in silence. On Kirkland’s final visit to say goodbye, McCulloch looked at her and said “good morning.” And then McColloch finally shared her story.

Kirkland told the crowd it taught her that each interview will come with its own challenges and to always have a back-up plan. “Most of all,” she said, “have a passion for the story.”

All three veteran state house reporters are known for keeping that passion for the story alive over their decades of reporting.

Following the ceremony, each shared a key piece of advice they’d learned.

Johnson spoke of journalism professor Nathaniel Blumberg: “He was always challenging us to pursue the truth. The message was: ‘Get the truth. Keep working. Push hard.’”

Dennison remembered a talk by Larry Pettit, the former commissioner of higher education, who warned of “intellectual incest,” and about the need to not just accept what you read, but to personally check the facts.

Dennison also recalled some advice from Blumberg: “If you take on power as a journalist, be prepared that power will strike back. You have to be tough. … When you’re going to be tough, make sure you have each fact absolutely correct.”

“My journalism school was the Montana Legislature,” said Mauk, who graduated from the University of Kansas in 1970, with studies in Western European History and German Language and Literature.

“I think I was pretty bad,” Mauk said of her skills when she first arrived at the Capitol as a reporter, but relied on peers like Johnson and Dennison to teach her. “I learned everything I needed to know. It was just fantastic.”

She would advise students, she said, “to have a sense of humor and a sense of outrage” and they would do just fine