Mike Donoghue

Donoghue Honored for Dedication to First Amendment Rights Award: winning journalist promotes objective reporting and accountability

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Thursday November 30, 2017

Mike Donoghue made a living asking tough questions. The career journalist dedicated to defending First Amendment rights, including freedom of the student press, was recently recognized by the Journalism Education Association with the Friend of Scholastic Journalism award.

The Journalism Education Association, a national organization for teachers and advisers of journalism, honored Donoghue for leading Vermont grassroots advocates on New Voices legislation, which guarantees college and K-12 journalists the freedom to report without fear of consequence. The bill was signed into law May 25 by Governor Phil Scott.

“The key was to get as many groups under the umbrella” said Donoghue who rallied state legislators, media and colleagues at the New England First Amendment Coalition, the Vermont Press Association, and other affiliated organizations. “A lot of people helped fight to get this.”

Donoghue, along with Vermont Law School professor and attorney Peter Teachout and several Vermont high school journalists who had experienced censorship or retaliation for reporting on topics such as teacher contract negotiations, bond elections, and sexting, testified in favor of the bill.

“I think what really resonated is when students actually got in the witness chair down there in Montpelier,” Donoghue said. “These are the kids who are going to be doing the news tomorrow and how are they ever going to be able to find out the truth if we do not give them the skills?”

“It’s really just a very gratifying experience to see the law passed after people had worked on it for just about a decade,” said Nancy Olson, Journalism Education Association Vermont state director and retired Brattleboro High School English teacher and student publication advisor who was involved in previous attempts to pass protections. “Michael Donoghue was the linchpin of that effort.”

“We are so fortunate to have had the enthusiasm of respected professional journalists like Mike to pull off this remarkable achievement, which not only will make life better for students and teachers across Vermont, but will echo in states throughout the country,” said Frank LoMonte, former executive director of the Student Press Law Center.

“I’m really honored,” said Donoghue, reflecting on the award. “It’s a team effort. I may have called a few plays, but there was a whole team on the field that put it together.”

Donoghue got his start in journalism as sports writer of the South Burlington High School student newspaper. Conversations about his future during his sophomore year with social studies teacher, Rick Marcotte, for whom Central School is named, persuaded Donoghue. Two years later in 1968, he secured a part-time job with the Burlington Free Press, making $1.65 an hour, unknowingly building what was to become a distinguished 47-year career.
“If you’d have told me when I was a senior in high school that I was going to be writing professionally,” said Donoghue, who preferred civics to English, “I would have laughed.”

He went on to study business at St. Joseph College in Bennington (now Southern Vermont College) but continued reporting news on weekends and summer breaks. He graduated in 1971 with an associate’s degree in liberal arts. In fall 1972, Donoghue secured full-time work with the Burlington Free Press, learning all areas of the trade and covering news where he was needed most, including a 12-year assignment in sports, which earned him 10 honors as Vermont Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association.

“When you go into a story, you just never know what impact you’re going to have, or if it’s going have an impact,” said Donoghue modestly.

In 2010, the editor offered Donoghue a newly created position as accountability reporter. Donoghue considered it an exciting opportunity to bird-dog open government. And he did. He fought for public records and was the first to report on the state’s pension system and state employee salaries.

“What I’m proud of in my work are stories I’ve done that have actually had an impact on how Vermont addresses certain criminal justice and social issues,” he said, citing his investigative reporting on police fraud, rape victims’ rights and DUI/DWI repeat offenders. “We pointed out something that was a problem, the Legislature reacted, and the laws got changed.”

Donoghue retired from the Burlington Free Press in 2015 but works as a freelance writer. He continues to champion the public’s right to know as part-time executive director of the Vermont Press Association and vice president of the New England First Amendment Coalition.
“The thing I like is I get paid for my curiosity, and I get to ask questions,” he said. “Sometimes they’re uncomfortable questions for people, but somebody’s going to ask these questions to try to get you, the reader, the information that probably you want to know but aren’t there to ask yourself.”

For 30 years, Donoghue served as an adjunct journalism professor at St. Michael’s College, teaching mass communications and media law. He advised his students to write with nouns and verbs, not adjectives and adverbs. Objective reporting and accountability were Donoghue’s benchmarks, as exhibited best by broadcast journalist Walter Cronkite, the man once known as “the most trusted man in America” who said, “In seeking truth you have to get both sides of a story.”

“We have a saying in journalism, ‘When your mother says she loves you, check it out,’” joked Donoghue. “How do you know that’s true? If we’re just going to throw anything up on the web and think that it’s true, we’re doing a disservice in the news business and to the community at large.”

Donoghue says he’s “living the dream.” He resides in South Burlington with Ann Marie, his beloved wife of 30 years, who he met in church on Christmas Day. He says she is a great sounding board and acknowledges her support of a career that demanded crazy hours - a career that earned him numerous awards and recognitions. After decades chasing news and adapting to technology and the 24-hour news cycle, he still considers journalism a great profession.

“I think this is an exciting time,” said Donoghue. “You can really make a mark in what you do, and it’s important because people have to understand that there is real news out there; it’s not all fake news.”


SOURCE: Lisa Osbahr, Contributor