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Soledad O’Brien and Jeff Fager address Excellence in Journalism Conference


For Immediate Release

Scott Leadingham, SPJ Communications Director, 317-640-9304,
Abby Henkel, SPJ Communications Coordinator, 317-927-8000 ext. 215

NEW ORLEANS—Opening the national Excellence in Journalism 2011 conference Sunday, Sept. 25, was Soledad O’Brien, CNN anchor and special correspondent. Jeff Fager, Chairman of CBS News and Executive Producer of “60 Minutes,” delivered a keynote address Monday, Sept. 26.

The Excellence in Journalism conference is co-presented by the Society of Professional Journalists and the Radio Television Digital News Association. The three-day conference in New Orleans, taking place Sept. 25-27, offers professional development sessions, networking and awards recognition for journalists in all forms of media. The conference is covered by the Working Press, a daily tabloid newspaper and news site from SPJ student intern journalists, and at rtdna.org.

O’Brien spoke with retired ABC News senior Washington correspondent John Cochran, who asked questions about her career as a reporter and her thoughts on the journalism industry. Cochran said of O’Brien’s new book, “The Next Big Story: My Journey Through the Land of Possibilities”: “It’s an autobiography, so it’s about her, but mostly it’s about other people.” As a documentary reporter, O’Brien works on long-term projects that require her to spend time with her subjects and work to understand them on a deep level.

When questioned about the distinction between advocacy and objective reporting, O’Brien explained she does not think of herself as an advocate for any issue, although she does have her own opinions on issues she sometimes covers.

She recalled interviewing serial killer Wayne Williams, explaining that her take on the issue was less important than understanding Williams—what makes him tick and what he is about. “My goal would be to flesh out really interesting, complex characters, who are going into the gray areas, the nuances, the complexities,” she said.

The ability to tap into subjects’ complex personalities is in part a result of being multiracial, she said. She asserted that her multiracial heritage makes interview subjects more willing to talk openly about their own race. However, she noted that talking candidly about race is not always an easy task, although it arises frequently when reporting on underreported communities.

In his Monday keynote speech, Fager told an audience of more than 500 journalists, “There’s something about humility for reporters. Do whatever it takes.” Both Fager and O’Brien told students not to feel above a story or a task. The willingness to do anything is a crucial mindset for journalists at any point in their careers.

Open mindedness includes embracing a changing industry, both Fager and O’Brien said in their sessions. Fager expressed enthusiasm for Facebook and Twitter, and especially mobile apps. Part of his acceptance of the new forms of news distribution comes from CBS’ success; the “60 Minutes” tablet app is the most-downloaded news app, Fager said.

Kevin Smith, chairman of the SPJ Ethics Committee and past SPJ president, asked Fager about his views on checkbook journalism, the controversial practice of paying sources for exclusive interviews or documents. Fager said, “I’m just so against it. I don’t know how it got so out of control,” referring to several recent incidents at news organizations. (Read SPJ’s response to incidents.)

Both speakers touched on the professional and more emotional aspects of journalism. O’Brien told of her experiences seeing people who are poor treated with less respect than those who have more money. Urging journalists to reverse this habit, O’Brien reminded the audience: “The human experience is everybody’s experience. In every culture: loss is loss, joy is joy. It translates.”

Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. For more information on SPJ, please visit www.spj.org.

Copyright © 1996-2020 Society of Professional Journalists. All rights reserved.

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