Note: I first published this through Thrive Global, but what I wrote remains relevant, and I highlight one of many ways in which journalists can regain trust.
As a starry-eyed, young and bushy-tailed aspiring journalist, I vividly remember hearing Walter Cronkite speak at USC’s Annenberg School for Journalism. After his talk, I saw his black car waiting outside, and awkwardly and anxiously awaited for him to come out to the car. As he emerged, I threw myself in front of the vehicle so I could speak directly to the most trusted man in journalism. I forget exactly what I asked. Maybe it was something about how to make it in a world where even my own misogynistic journalism professor at USC told me I just wanted to be a pretty face on TV. Cronkite offered some words about the relentless pursuit of truth, but what I remember most was his grumpy demeanor.
I wonder how Cronkite would fare in this Trumpian era of fake news, in which reporters spend a lifetime earning the public’s trust, only for one misstep to take it away. Just ask Brian Williams. My personal belief is that in today’s environment, the public craves authenticity and humanity. Based on my experience the past decade on the job, viewers want reporters to be real people, with heart.
My intent is to humanize every story
My encounter with Cronkite galvanized me to not only to seek the truth, but also, to seek compassion. Journalists have a unique opportunity to help people, to show the human element in each story we cover. Pursuing that, in my opinion, will help uphold trust. I recently saw it during a trip to the Middle East with The Children of War Foundation. We went to Jordan to meet Hashim, a 17 year old boy who was blown up by a roadside bomb in Baghdad when he was 9 years old. I stood by him as the doctors started operating on his skull. COWF had given him life-saving brain surgery nearly a decade prior when 20 percent of his brain had been blown out, and now it was coming full circle with skull reconstruction surgery.
I poured my heart into Hashim. I asked about his life in Baghdad, what he wants to do when he grows up. He told me he wants to help other disfigured kids embrace who they are. He had dealt with a lifetime of bullying ever since he woke up from a 5 months long coma. He didn’t want other kids to feel the pain he had. And his biggest worry, as he sat before me in a head bandage post-surgery, was his mother’s emotional condition.
I only share all this to send home the point: We, the journalists, could’ve sensationalized his story for more clicks. Maybe the headline would read “Child’s Brain Blown Out in Baghdad.” But that’s not the agenda. My intent is to humanize every story. To find the heart of it.
Hashim’s story was not about the ruthlessness of war, or a boy whose life was ruined, but instead a boy who got a second chance at life because of an army of people who sought to help him. This is the story about a boy who now wants to make life better for other children like him. And by the way, Hashim was the first kid COWF helped. Because they were so inspired by his heart, they created the foundation and have helped more than 10,000 children since. Sharing the story the way we have will hopefully result in more good: viewers feeling compelled to support Hashim in attending college.
We showed the heart of Mexico City
Another story I remember covering vividly was the Mexico City earthquake in September 2017. We hit the ground running, with very little sleep, and immediately found ourselves at an elementary school where it was a race against time to save children buried alive in the rubble of their school. The following day, we were on the scene of a collapsed office building where an estimated 50 employees were buried alive.
We didn’t choose to stand in front of a camera and list off facts. Instead, my camera man and I were constantly moving. We showed the full scene, including the families who were camping out in tents. If they had a message they felt compelled to share, we gave them that opportunity. We cried with them, and embraced.
I read off the list of names of the people believed to be trapped. I scooped a 10-year-old girl up in my arms who had run to see her collapsed school, where her friends were likely dead. I covered the valiant effort of thousands of people who lined the streets, making warm meals for the displaced, or who had traveled from across the world to volunteer digging through the rubble. Viewers 1,800 miles away in Los Angeles said they felt like they were there with us. We showed the heart of Mexico City.
The result was amazing. Viewers were engaged, ratings went up, and social media exploded. The LA Press Club nominated me for an award in Breaking News.
Telling stories like that is how journalists win back trust. The concept ‘If it bleeds, it leads’ is just isolating the news from its viewers. It’s time for a renaissance of what counts as news. The overriding point is that you don’t have to sensationalize to grab the attention of viewers, the humanity of the story speaks volumes.