Judy Woodruff to aspiring journalists: ‘You need to care about the world around you’

PBS NewsHour co-anchor and managing editor Judy Woodruff addressed questions from journalism students Tuesday in the first in a series of Facebook chats featuring NewsHour journalists. Questions ranged from her perspective on new media and changes in the industry to her own career trajectory, along with more personal inquiries, including how having a father in the military impacted her worldview, and the most interesting news story she ever reported.

Below are some excerpts from Tuesday’s Q&A, which have been edited for grammar and clarity. Stay tuned for information about our next Facebook chat for journalism students.

Grace Reynolds: Hi Judy. What would you suggest I do now, in high school, to work toward becoming a successful journalist?

Judy Woodruff: You should study hard, be as good a student as you can be, and don’t worry too much about what you’ll major in in college. A good liberal arts education will take you far. You should focus on reading as much as you can – in the areas that interest you – and focus on writing. That will be important no matter what area of journalism you choose.

Grace Reynolds: Thank you!

Olivia Bosar: As a high school junior looking to pursue a career in political journalism, what should be the most important factor in my college search: location, prestige of the college, the alumni network or internship opportunities? Or is there another factor that I have not considered?

Judy Woodruff: You should look for a school that offers a solid program in your area of interest; if you love history, a great history department; if you are fascinated by documentary filmmaking, there may be a school that has a terrific program in that area. BUT, having said this – you may also be governed by financial and geographic considerations. If the “best” school for documentary making is thousands of miles from your home, you may want to find another school that offers a strong program but one that may not be as recognized. And of course, you may have to be mindful of your family’s budget. Is it worth it to you to go into debt, if necessary, to get an education at your “dream” school?

My view is that as long as you get a good education at a school with a faculty that cares about undergraduates and spends time focusing on them as individuals, and a place that teaches you how to think critically, you will have picked up lessons for life. This is far more important than learning a specific skill or getting plugged into a specific internship that will get you to what you want. If you have the luxury of going anywhere you want, it’s different. But for most of us, focusing on getting a great education and then figuring out – or reconfirming – career afterwards is the wisest path.

Patrick Mullins: What classes did you take in college to become a journalist?

Judy Woodruff: I majored in political science and didn’t know I would go into journalism until I was just about finished with college. In fact, I started out majoring in math! But I would argue that everything I studied helps me as a reporter because we essentially cover the world – politics, foreign policy, health care, education, the economy, and on and on. Everything you learn has a bearing on what you understand as a reporter.

Trey Ray Burwell: Hey Judy! I’m sitting in broadcast journalism right now at Richwood High School in West Virginia. When did you first discover your passion for journalism? And what qualities should a young journalist have?

Judy Woodruff: Where is Richwood High School? Just curious. I didn’t discover journalism until I realized I couldn’t probably get a job in Washington working in politics as a young woman back in the late 1960s, before women were given the better opportunities they are today!

What you need to be a journalist are these things: an insatiable curiosity, the refusal to say “no” when someone tells you they won’t be able to help you; and a love of news and current events. You can specialize, but at the basic level, you need to care about the world around you and the people in it.

Trey Ray Burwell: Thanks for the reply! Richwood High School is just nestled in the mountains of central-eastern West Virginia, in Nicholas County.

Meg Parry: What advice would you give to cross-format journalists looking to travel internationally?

Judy Woodruff: Whether you’re reporting inside the U.S. – or especially internationally – you’re better off if you not only are a good writer and can speak in a crisp and compelling way, but you also know how to shoot and edit video! Increasingly, news organizations want to hire journalists who can do it all. You may be more interested in one aspect of journalism or another, and you should pursue those interests, but take the time to learn something about the rest of what it takes to get a news story published in print, on air or online.

Meg Parry: Thank you for your insight!

Kimberly Allison O’Neill: I was wondering how you feel the newspaper industry is being impacted by technological advances in media platforms?

Judy Woodruff: Newspapers have already been powerfully affected by new technology. Scores, maybe hundreds, of newspapers have either closed down altogether or downsized. I want to believe that the worst is behind us, but I know pressures continue on papers to find ways to save money and get by with less revenue. The problem is that too many news consumers now believe that the news is free – that there shouldn’t be a cost to gathering the news. But that’s not true. Reporters have to earn a living in order to do their jobs, and we need good reporters to dig and find answers to the questions we have as citizens about what’s going on in the world around us, in our nation and in our community. This won’t happen unless reporters are allowed to do their work. So let’s hope your generation is prepared to pay a little for the valuable news it gets!

Kimberly Allison O’Neill: This is a very different viewpoint compared to how I was assessing this situation, and was very eye-opening. Thank you for taking time to respond.

Matt Johnson: What advice, in general, would you give to us just starting out?

Also, do you think TV news will continue to be the dominant medium people get their news from?

And do you think publicly funded media will not only survive, but thrive in an increasingly digital age?

Judy Woodruff: Advice to you who are just starting out – go ahead and jump in with enthusiasm. Don’t be deterred by all the talk about the news media dying out. If you love the idea of reporting, of working on stories that can move people, even change people’s lives, there’ll always be a place for you. Also, learn everything you can, but emphasize writing above all else.

Re: TV news – I believe a form of video will always be essential to news, whether on television or streaming online or something new. Pictures are so powerful they will outlast us all.

Re: publicly funded media – I think we have a special place in the media spectrum. We aren’t subject to commercial pressures that other media are, which gives us latitude to cover all the news we think is important.

Jackie Kim: Hi Judy, what is your advice on staying objective?

Judy Woodruff: To me, there’s no such thing as being “objective” in covering the news. We are human beings, even as reporters we each bring the sum total of our life experiences to our work, and that inevitably affects how we see the world and events around us. The best we can do is try to be consciously fair in approaching every story, make sure we reflect all sides if there’s controversy involved, and be fair in our selection of stories. We have to remember every day, all day long, that we owe it to the audience to tell them all the important things we know about a story, and to include different points of view. Our philosophy at the NewsHour is that it ‘s up to our audience to decide what to think – it is not our job to tell them.

Jackie Kim: Thank you Judy, this was just as meaningful to me as a semester at school.

Matthew Martinez: What is your feeling toward advocacy journalism, or reporting that unabashedly takes sides?

Judy Woodruff: I draw a bright line between news reporting of the type we do regularly on the NewsHour and advocacy journalism, where the writer or commentator is clearly taking sides and giving his or her opinion. We don’t do that here, except on Fridays when I interview Mark Shields and David Brooks for their analysis of the week’s news. Even then, they don’t express their opinions without explaining the background. I don’t engage in advocacy journalism – it’s just not what I do. As a reporter, I was trained to understand the public doesn’t care what I think, or what my opinion is. My job is to report, and sometimes offer analysis when it’s clearly labeled as such, and to stop there.

Quan Tran: What goes on in the mind of a journalist when it comes to selecting a story to report on? Is it based on personal interest, controversy or what’s currently trending?

Judy Woodruff: It depends on the reporter and his or her assignment and position. As an anchor, I have some leeway to choose some of the stories I work on; it’s different for someone who covers a particular beat – for example, health care or foreign policy. For me, I’m interested in many different kinds of stories, from the federal budget to medical research to stories about how war veterans are adjusting to life back at home. I’m always more interested in something if there’s a clear human connection – if I can see that real people are affected or that doing the story will help others understand the plight of those in a difficult situation. I also have a personal interest in disability issues because I have a son with physical disabilities.

Susan Matthis Johnson: This is from Logan Brown in Richwood, W.Va.: What is the most interesting news story you covered in your career?

Judy Woodruff: This one is tough – there have been so many. I guess it would have to be the day, as a White House “pool” reporter for NBC News, I stood just 15 or 20 feet away from President Ronald Reagan when he was shot. It was of course something I’ll always remember; it required making an instant decision about whether to stay on location to file a story, or follow the president’s motorcade. And on a personal level, seeing his press secretary James Brady lying gravely wounded on the sidewalk was an image I couldn’t get out of my mind, even as I went on to spend the rest of the day reporting about what had happened.

Susan Matthis Johnson: Danielle Skaggs from Richwood High School in Richwood, West Virginia, wonders how having parents in the military may have affected your views on war?

Judy Woodruff: Growing up as the child of a father in the military and traveling around the world living on different military bases taught me several things – that the men and women who serve in the military perform a great service for all of us; that it is a broadening experience to get to see parts of the world I wouldn’t have otherwise known; and that with war comes sacrifice. Now that we no longer have a military draft, we need to remember to thank the men and women who serve selflessly.

Kimberly Allison O’Neill: My father was also in the military for 22 years, and I feel this has impacted my view in a very similar way.

Susan Matthis Johnson: Emily Bennett wants to know how you got to work at PBS, and how do you manage the pressures associated with covering national events?

Judy Woodruff: I came to work at PBS – at what was then the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour – because it was about to launch as the first hour-long newscast on a U.S. television network. I felt I would be getting in on the ground floor of an all-new and important venture in journalism; and I was right. It was quite a leap, to go from NBC News to a brand new news program on PBS, but I’m so glad I did!

Re: managing pressures – They come with the job. They are with us every day – mainly the pressure to be accurate, to make no mistakes. I guess we get used to it. We get to a place where dealing with important national and international events is just what we do. But we never forget the great responsibility we have to our audience, the American people.

Luis Torres: Hi Judy – In the world of journalism interviews are essential, but what if they don’t like being interviewed? What are your ways of approaching an interview if they aren’t interested?

Judy Woodruff: You’re right – interviews are one important way of conveying information. And sometimes people who have valuable information don’t want to share it – either because they are uncomfortable talking about it – maybe they are shy – or because they’re embarrassed because they did something that will be criticized. Or because they face retribution if they go public with what they know. We deal with so many different scenarios – and it really does depend on the motive the person has for not wanting to talk. We have to tailor our approach to the person: persuade them why they should be relaxed, or why it’s worth it to them to discuss something publicly. But in the end, they have to decide it’s something they want to do. There aren’t many times when people can be “tricked” into talking if they absolutely don’t want to.