JAWS Member Alicia (Lisa) Shepard, advocate for ethical journalism, dies at 69

Alicia (Lisa) Shepard 1953-2023

From JAWS files
From JAWS archives

Award-winning journalist, author, academic and advocate for ethical public journalism, Alicia (Lisa) Shepard, 69, understood the need to secure the privacy and sanctity for her sources.

In the past four years under treatment for Stage 4 lung cancer, she extended that professional grace to herself, choosing to keep her illness private.

Ms. Shepard died April 1 from complications of lung cancer a few weeks shy of her 70th birthday.

A Journalism and Women Symposium member for more than 25 years, Ms. Shepard has been writing a “cancer memoir” for the past year under contract with a publisher. It details the love story with her husband, David Marsden, his recovery from a brain tumor, and her own struggles with cancer. The couple met in 2012 and married Dec. 28, 2021.

“Time is our big, precious, unrenewable resource,” is a phrase Ms. Shepard used in her email signature. 

“Lisa did not want people to know about her illness. And in these last months, this beautiful and brilliant woman was determined to finish her book, but it was difficult,” said Susy Schultz, JAWS member and a past president. 

“So, quietly, without fanfare, we sent her the JAWS quilt, sewn by the late Betsy Wade. It’s something we give to women who are up against different life challenges to remind them that your friends are there. It went to her with a note saying this was for a writer facing a fierce deadline from other writers who understand. She was grateful and texted just weeks before she died—which was not easy—sending her love and appreciation.” 

Lisa with colleagues in Kabul, Afghanistan. They lived on the US Embassy-Kabul grounds, where they celebrated Christmas in 2015. Photo curtesy of Susy Schultz.

A USA Today columnist on the Board Of Contributors since 2016, Ms. Shepard was also a senior writer at American Journalism Review for 10 years and a regular contributor to a variety of outlets, among them: The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Washingtonian, People and Chicago Tribune. Ms. Shepard was also a mentor-editor with The OpEd Project. 

I’d rather look back at my life and say, ‘I can’t believe I did that,’ instead of saying, ‘I wish I did that.’

In 2007, she authored the book, Woodward and Bernstein: Life in the Shadow of Watergate, considered the first extensive look at the impact the two reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, and the story had on journalism. 

She served as the ombudsman for National Public Radio from 2007 to 2011. 

Kitty Eisele, host and executive producer of “Twenty-Four Seven: A Podcast About Caregiving” from Texas Public Radio and NPROne, said of Ms. Shepard, “What a force! We met a few years before she came to NPR as ombudsman. She showed neither fear nor favoritism in that job—but it felt like, in Lisa, we had someone in our corner who knew journalism, cared deeply about it and about our work as journalists. Her personal style rocked– she was unique in Washington in that way—to me it suggested that everyone’s voice counted to Lisa, not just the people in gray suits or green rooms sounding off or bossing the rest of us around. That was journalism as I saw Lisa do it—leaning in to listen to everyone’s voice.”

In 2014, she moved to Kabul, Afghanistan to work with journalists as managing editor of Impassion Afghanistan, Afghanistan’s first digital media agency. She then became senior press liaison for the United States Agency for International Development in Kabul from 2015 to 2016.

Former senior project manager for International Women’s Media Foundation, Ms. Shepard also was a three-time winner of the National Press Club’s top media criticism prize. 

She co-authored with Cathy Trost the 2002 book, Running Toward Danger: Stories Behind the Breaking News of 9/11, featured in exhibits at the Newseum and the Museum of Broadcast Communications. She also worked for the Newseum in Washington, D.C., researching and writing exhibit captions. 

She won the Foster Distinguished Writer award from Penn State University in 2003.

Born in Boston, Mass., Ms. Shepard graduated from George Washington University in 1978. She worked from 1976 to 1982 as a Washington, D.C. reporter for Scripps League newspapers before moving in 1982 to work as a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News.
Denise Gamino, journalist for nearly three decades at Austin American Statesman, knew Ms. Shepard from Washington, D.C. journalist circles. Gamino worked in  the Washington, D.C. bureaus for the Daily Oklahoman, Oklahoma City Times and the Colorado Springs Sun.
“Lisa’s Washington connections and experience are so key to her story because that is what allowed her to come back to Washington after Japan and get work that led to her wonderful career. It was tough for her to find a job after the sailing trip, yes, but she’s part of the Persisterhood and had the Washington credentials to finally land at American Journalism Review and the rest is history. Without her early years as a full-fledged Washington reporter, she may not have been hired at AJR,” Gamino said.

In 1987, she and her then-husband, Robert Hodierne, and their 1-year-old son, Cutter, set off on a sailing adventure in the South Pacific for three years, sending dispatches back to the newspaper about their adventures.

The family then stayed for two years in Japan, where Ms. Shepard taught English, before returning to the U.S.  She earned her masters degree in journalism from University of Maryland in 2002.

Journalism education was a passion for Ms. Shepard who was the Times Mirror Visiting Professor at the University of Texas-Austin from 2005-2006. 

She taught media ethics on the graduate level at Georgetown University from 2007-2010, and in 2012, was a guest professor in journalism at University of Nevada-Las Vegas. 

From 2017-2018 she was the visiting Media Ethics Professor at the University of Arkansas. She also taught journalism courses at American University for several years.

Three-year sailing trip across the world with son Cutter

A steadfast supporter of her son, Cutter, and his filmmaking and directorial career, Ms. Shepard saw him earn the 2012 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury prize for the short film, “Fishing Without Nets,” centering on the stories of Somali pirates. 

Since 2018, Ms. Shepard kept her lung cancer diagnosis private save for family and some close friends so as not to have others focus on her illness. Instead, she focused on continuing the adventures she loved whether it was hiking, biking, traveling or being with family. 

An avid cyclist, Ms, Shepard bicycled more than 500 miles in 2002 from Amsterdam to Paris and in 2012 participated in the Des Moines Register Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, (RAGBRAI) with David. She biked in several states and participated in fundraisers for Ring The Bell.  

On her Twitter account, @ombudsman, Ms. Shepard pinned the tweet, “I’d rather look back at my life and say, ‘I can’t believe I did that,’ instead of saying, ‘I wish I did that.’”

Ms. Shepard is survived by her husband, David; son, Cutter; her three stepchildren, their partners and three grandchildren; as well as immediate and extended family. A service will be held on Friday, April 14 at 2 p.m. at Riverbend Park, 8700 Potomac Hills St., Great Falls, VA.

Memorial contributions in Lisa’s honor may be made to: 

The Alicia “Lisa” Cobb Shepard Legacy Fund.


The nonprofit recipients of this fund will have to excel in modeling one or more of the following Lisa-isms:

(1) Working to right a wrong;

(2) Chasing a good story which needs to be told even when it’s uncomfortable;

(3) Providing resources and mentoring so those who are often forgotten can pursue their dreams; and

(4) Supporting talented investigative journalists and media critics who are doing groundbreaking work.

You can read some of her work here.

–Michele Weldon