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Judy Woodruff of PBS NewsHour speaks on objectivity, polarized media landscape during GJR’s 50th virtual anniversary celebration

Before she was considered a “beacon of
professionalism and civility” in the journalism industry, PBS NewsHour Anchor Judy Woodruff was starting
out at a local television station in Atlanta in an era where women were lucky
to be hired in broadcast journalism.  

Virtually, Woodruff was honored by Gateway
Journalism Review, formerly the St. Louis Journalism Review, on Oct. 13 with
its Lifetime Achievement Award for her contributions to journalism over decades
as a journalist.

The journalism review also celebrated 50 years
while hosting a conversation between Woodruff and Jon
Sawyer, the Executive Director
of the Pulitzer Center
for Crisis Reporting.

(Photo by Patrick Powers)

Since 2011 Woodruff has anchored the Newshour.
In 2016, after the death of her co-anchor Gwen Ifill, Woodruff became the sole
anchor of the news program. She is also the Managing Editor.

Woodruff started in national journalism in
1977 when she became a White House reporter for NBC. She later anchored CNN
during the Challenger space shuttle disaster, the 9/11 attacks, and the wars in
Afghanistan and Iraq. She also co-anchored a seven-hour series, Democracy in
America, that highlighted some of the anxieties that dominate today’s news cycle.

Throughout, she’s been setting the standard
for excellence in the journalism industry, Sawyer said.

In spite of the idealized version of the
objective news broadcaster that is publicly revered, Woodruff there is no such
thing as objectivity.

“I am the sum total of all of my life
experiences. I’m a woman, I’m a mother, I’m even a grandmother. I am somebody
who grew up as an army brat in Oklahoma, lived in the South, lived overseas.
All of that comes together,” she said.

Although her life experiences inform her
reporting perspective she also considers herself an “old-school” journalist
taught how to keep personal opinions out of her reporting.

Fact,
Analysis, and Opinion

In today’s media landscape viewers have
trouble distinguishing between opinion, analysis, and reporting. Journalists
should be more mindful about expressing their personal thoughts, Woodruff said.

“There is great reporting going on, but on
television news, there is a trend of celebrating and driving opinion.
Reenforcing people’s views,” Woodruff said. “It takes a strong reporter to be
put in some of those situations though because depending on which program
you’re on or which host is asking you questions you can find yourself in a
corner being asked to give your opinion.”

Opinion-driven journalism that grabs so much
of the public’s attention also drives polarization in the political climate,
Woodruff said.

Unconventional
Debate Approach

The contentious first presidential debate
between Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and President Donald Trump
exemplified the divided climate as Trump interrupted Biden and the moderator,
successfully derailing the traditional event.

“In the first debate, it was almost impossible
to control that. I don’t know what else could’ve been done, other than maybe
saying to the candidates, ‘we’re going to take a pause and take a breath. We’re
going to stop this debate and come back in 60 seconds to two minutes’,”
Woodruff said.

Woodruff said another component influencing
people’s beliefs and actions is social media because so many people find their
news on sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube.

News organizations and social media may both
be informational platforms, but their missions are different, she said.

“They changed how journalism works for better
and worse,” Woodruff said. “It’s a bloodbath and a lot of it has to do with
what has happened with these big social media sites.”

Democracy
Depends on Great Journalism

American journalism outlets will have to
figure out how to make journalism marketable to compete with the new
informational market that social media sites dominate, she said. The solution
will need to be clever and a tenacious approach to keep journalistic
enterprises afloat because our country’s democracy depends on it, Woodruff
said.

A savior, like a billionaire who buys papers and stations like Warren Buffett or Jeff Bezos, is not coming to save news, she said.

“People want to be entertained. Not everyone
has an interest in following news and information,” she said.

The NewsHour, being funded publicly through
the Corporation of Public Broadcasting and donors big and small, is one model
that is successful. Woodruff said that model in combination with others could
make a difference in the industry.

Woodruff credited her team of journalists at
the NewsHour for adapting and producing critical journalism during the pandemic
when about 95% of the staff is working from home.

What used to be Woodruff’s home library is now
her in-home studio filled with lights, cameras, computers, and wires, she said.

“It was put together by really smart
journalists who learned how to do all of this,” Woodruff said. “I marvel at
what my colleagues have been able to do.”

With the upcoming election, the PBS Newshour
team will be focusing on how long it will take for the election results to come
in after large sections of the public use mail-in ballots to cast their vote.

“We have to have good information. People that
we can call and be in touch with immediately,” she said.

Woodruff said the NewsHour is not concerned with being the first news program to declare a winner, but the one that is right.

Amelia Blakely reported from Nashville, Tennessee. She recently graduated from Southern Illinois University Carbondale and is now a 2020-2021 Campus Consortium Fellow with the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting in Washington D.C. You can find her on Twitter @AmeilaBlakely