Remembering Don Pember

UW Communication professor emeritus Don Pember, a hugely influential journalism and media scholar and beloved teacher and mentor, passed away in late June. Pember’s legacy continues to shape our program and the discipline at large, and his many students and colleagues remember him as an advocate for ethical journalism as a pillar of strong democracies.

Pember joined the University of Washington faculty in 1969 and quickly established a reputation for his compassionate and rigorous teaching and his expertise in mass media, privacy and the press, and the first amendment. A pioneer in the area of journalism, media, and the law, Pember published articles and textbooks that shaped the discipline in important ways. Of Pember’s book Mass Media in America, Professor Emeritus Jerry Baldasty, former department chair and UW provost, says it “was one of the first that really took a critical/analytical view of the media— Don was a huge supporter of a free press but no apologist for its errors.” 

Mass Media Law, first published in 1977 (currently in its 22nd edition), is still the gold standard in the field. As Teaching Professor Caley Cook, who assigns the book to her own students, puts it, “Don Pember literally wrote the book on mass media law. I remember as an undergraduate using his text and being struck by the humor, wit, and curiosity with which he approached the study of legal issues within the media. And then I met him in person and realized his humor and love for the subject wasn’t isolated to just his written word.” Professor Patricia Moy remarks that Pember “stressed in his early writings how ‘knowledge of intricate details is the journalist’s best friend.’ In a society challenged by a crisis of legitimacy on multiple fronts, understanding the nuances of journalism remains critical—as evidenced by Don’s nearly two dozen editions of Mass Media Law.”

As accomplished as he was in his research, Pember perhaps made the greatest impact on the field as a teacher and mentor. Many of his former students went on to become influential scholars, journalists, and communications professionals in their own rights. Jerry Baldasty, who was Pember’s student and, later, his colleague, explains that what made Pember a great teacher “was his passionate sincerity. He really cared about the media, about the law and ethics. And the students. He wasn’t an easy grader! He encouraged his undergrads to take things seriously too—because he saw media as central to democracy.”

Pember laid the groundwork for a commitment to teaching excellence that continues to this day at UW Communication. In 1973, he became the first of eight Communication faculty members to receive the UW’s Distinguished Teaching Award and he was recognized two years later for excellence in teaching by the Carnegie Foundation. Former student Betty H. Winfield, Curators’ Professor Emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism, shares that “if ever a professor impacted a student, Don Pember certainly did: not just as an excellent teacher and a scholar but as a decent, sensitive human being.” Of her time as Don Pember’s student, she adds, “I was ever so lucky.” 

Baldasty characterizes Pember as “a splendid colleague—collaborative, direct and smart.” UW Communication’s intellectual and pedagogical mission—our emphasis on ethical, democratic communication—owes much to Don Pember’s leadership. He will be deeply missed.

The Don Pember Journalism Endowed Fund scholarship was established by students and colleagues in honor of Professor Don Pember, who cared greatly about providing educational opportunities to all students. If you would like to donate to this scholarship fund, please follow this link.

We will be including a remembrance of Don Pember in our next alumni newsletter. If you have memories you would like to share, we would love to hear from you at