INSIDE Chico State
0 April 20, 2000
Volume 30 Number 18
  A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico
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Journalism Department Brings Pulitzer Winning Sacramento Bee Columnist to Campus

Diana Griego Erwin, Sacramento Bee columnist, urged young journalists to immerse themselves in the communities they cover. (photo RL)
Diana Griego Erwin, Sacramento Bee columnist, urged young journalists to immerse themselves in the communities they cover. (photo RL)

Invoking awe and inspiration in a roomful of budding journalists, Sacramento Bee columnist Diana Griego Erwin spoke of winning a Pulitzer Prize as a first-year journalist, the importance of investigative journalism, and the need for reporters to immerse themselves in the communities they cover.

Erwin's April 5 presentation was part of a week-long Celebration of Excellence by CSU, Chico's Department of Journalism in honor of the twenty-fifth anniversary of The Orion, the university's student-run newspaper.

Erwin's reporting career began as a high school student in Los Angeles. Never aspiring to become a journalist, Erwin joined the school's newspaper staff at the urging of her English teacher. When she began undergraduate work at CSU, Fullerton, she made a beeline for the Daily Titan newsroom.

"Journalism is like quicksand," she said. "Put your foot in it, and good luck getting out."

After graduation, Erwin applied for an internship with the Los Angeles Times. She failed the required intern test, but the editors were impressed by her writing and awarded her the position. During her internship, she wrote several stories that appeared on the front page of the Times' Metro section, but when she applied for a full-time staff position, Erwin was told she needed five to eight more years of experience before they would hire her.

But a Times sports writer saw Erwin's potential, and contacted a colleague at the Denver Post. Erwin was offered the job, although it was not what she was looking for.

Erwin said she realizes, however, that she would not have been awarded the Pulitzer Prize if she had declined the job, because at a larger paper her story idea would have been passed to a more seasoned journalist.

Erwin earned the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service Journalism in 1985 -- an honor almost unheard of for a first-year journalist -- for her work on a series of stories that questioned the contention that thousands of children are abducted by strangers each year.

At the time, Erwin was the self-described "low man on the totem pole" at the Post -- writing the stories that other reporters didn't have time to write. After about two months, she came across a story about a dentist in Boulder, Colorado, who was placing identification chips into the teeth of child patients. The innovation was at the height of the "Stranger Danger" campaign, where it was reported that 1.5 million children are abducted each year -- 15,000 of that number by strangers. That translates to about one child in every classroom.

Erwin wrote the story, then set about confirming the numbers. She called several different agencies, and was quoted different statistics each time. Finally, after being advised to "write around it" by her editor, Erwin contacted the FBI.

The real number was sixty-seven. The gross discrepancy was due to a number of factors, including computer reporting errors. Erwin's discoveries led to a series of stories and eventually the respected award.

After the Post, Erwin was hired as a reporter with the Orange County Register. It was there, at age 29, that she was offered a position as the paper's first female columnist. After attempting her first two columns, Erwin had found her calling.

"I was drawn to writing about people who had no voice, and trusted theirs to me," she said.

In 1994, Erwin joined the Sacramento Bee. She continues to be passionate about writing columns because of the freedom it allows, going beyond traditional reporting by questioning how those involved are affected.

"I encourage you to go out and report on everyday people," she said. "Don't have them as talking heads, but [discover] what is their motivation behind their passion." -- RL

 

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