7 things I learned from Scott Pelley

RTDNA just announced that “60 Minutes” correspondent, former CBS Evening News Anchor and “Truth Worth Telling” author Scott Pelley will be honored Sept. 6 with the Paul White Award, so when I heard he’d be talking about his new memoir at a neighborhood DC bookstore, I knew I had to go.

I’m so glad I did.

I left inspired and reminded why what we do matters, more than ever. Here’s what Pelley, with humor and eloquence, reminded me:

Empathy is one of a journalist’s most important tools but comes with consequences.

I asked Pelley what it’s like when covering history-making moments also means covering the worst moments of people’s lives. The book is about people who found new meaning in those major moments and, for journalists, he said the key is empathy. But with that empathy can come trauma, and that’s not talked about enough in newsrooms. (We’re working on changing that and will be talking about it more at September’s conference). Pelley himself has experienced PTSD, anxiety and depression after being on the ground on 9/11, for example.

 Whether news is delivered on a “stone tablet or a glass tablet,” the rules of reporting don’t change.
We’re experiencing a revolution in distribution, Pelley said, not a revolution in content. Maybe that’s why news managers tell us they’re optimistic about adapting to changing technology: journalists already have the skills to tell good stories.

It’s more important than ever to “show people what we do, how we do it and what our principles are.”
One section of the book recounts an interview with a notorious “fake news” website proprietor. He amassed clicks (and ad revenue) with blatantly false, inflammatory stories – and had fun doing it. News consumers, for the first time, have to put some work into deciphering what’s real – but journalists must do their part to help. (We’ll dig into that at September’s conference, too, with the Trusting News Project).

“Reflection is the greatest gift writers can give themselves.”

There are no great writers, only great re-writers, storyteller Steve Hartman told us at last year’s conference. Pelley agrees! In a section on writing, his book talks about taking the time to observe the small details, pause to see if things are really as they seem and revise up until the moment of your deadline – a writer should always be working to improve.

 As an eyewitness you actually don’t know much.
You can’t report what you don’t observe, of course, so being an eyewitness is important. But the real work is behind the scenes, Pelley says. That was true at the evening news anchor desk and in adding context to coverage of 9/11. In fact, he was on the ground that day, but only in reading all the reports from the National Institute of Standards and Technology did he understand and could he fully report on what he’d seen. Put simply: Do your homework.

 “There’s no democracy without journalism.”

“The fastest way to destroy a democracy is to poison the information,” and bad actors are working to do that right now. Journalism, in other words, matters more than ever.

And the last thing? I’ll leave that for Pelley himself to share with you through his book (or, if you can, in person).

Pelley’s words left me with a sense of urgency, but also inspired. If you get a chance to hear him speak – like at Excellence in Journalism this September in San Antonio – take it!
Pelley will receive RTDNA’s highest honor, the Paul White Award, on Friday, September 6 at Excellence in Journalism in a session open to all attendees, followed by a reception (ticket required).