By Ashley Carnifax
The Working Press
When Soledad O’Brien applied for her first job in TV news, the woman hiring her said there was no future in the evening news, and she shouldn’t bother entering the industry.
Twenty-three years later, the host of CNN’s “In America” documentary series remains optimistic about the future of journalism.
“There’s no question that people are cutting back, but we do today more stories that focus on communities that were never here 10 years ago,” O’Brien said at a session on making documentaries.
“I get to do those. I get to do hour-long documentaries, and we would do a ton. But I just cannot live on a plane … so the limiting factor is me,” she said.
O’Brien spoke to a standing room-only crowd Sunday afternoon, offering advice to students looking for jobs and sharing anecdotes about her experiences as a television anchor and documentary reporter.
John Cochran, a retired ABC News senior Washington correspondent, interviewed O’Brien during the session, asking questions based on her book, “The Next Big Story: My Journey Through the Land of Possibilities.”
Cochran said he picked up on her anger regarding Hurricane Katrina and the government’s response.
“It was that sense of, ‘Where is everybody?’” O’Brien said.
CNN would speak to officials who estimated that 40,000 people were at the convention center, said O’Brien, an anchor at the time. But when the network spoke to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, officials there would have no idea about the numbers.
Another time, FEMA said it wasn’t safe to get to Charity Hospital, but CNN medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta was there reporting.
“And all the coverage felt like that — that complete contradiction after contradiction all the time until you really felt like, ‘Got it. We’re just being lied to.’”
O’Brien said she thought journalists working in New Orleans after Katrina had a huge impact on the recovery.
“I think that’s why people beg you not to forget them,” O’Brien said in an interview that was cut short when security ushered everyone but O’Brien from the room without explanation.
“People fully understand that if reporters are there shining the light and telling stories, everybody’s attention is focused on it and then stuff gets done,” she said.
During the session, O’Brien was asked about the line between objective reporting and advocacy reporting. She said she doesn’t see herself as an advocate.
“I actually see myself as someone who takes interesting issues and then fleshes them out so people can really understand what is behind the story,” O’Brien said.
A student asked for advice to help stand out from other job applicants.
“I don’t think it is about standing out from the pack, I think it is about whatever opportunity you get, do it well,” she said.
O’Brien then described a situation when an intern didn’t want to get coffee, because she thought it was “demeaning.”
O’Brien said it’s most important to help in whatever way possible, even if it means doing something you might not necessarily want to do.