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Opening Keynote: The Future of Media and Storytelling

October 27 @ 9:50 am - 11:15 am

Journalism has been going through constant disruptions over the past two decades, from social media breaking news, to changing revenue models, to consolidation, to distrust. We’ll hear from a leading television news journalist and Emmy award-winning news producer on their perspectives of where journalism is, where it is going, and how we as communications and advocacy professionals can play a role.


Speakers: Shawna Thomas (CBS This Morning), David Gregory (CNN)

Favorite Professional Accomplishments or Challenges:

David: Covering the White House during 9/11. The aftermath of 9/11 was such an important time for the country. Covering the White House, you are a spectator in the front row for history unfolding. 

Challenges would be succeeding Tim Russert for Meet the Press. The issue is how do you lead a program during a time of such transition and turmoil in the media landscape. Understanding a shifting media landscape in an industry that moves slowly is tough.

Shawna: Being a part of the VICE News team that put the story together on Charlottesville and what happened before, during, and after will be her top accomplishment for most of her career most likely. 

Challenge: The landscape of people willing to get up early to watch these morning news shows is shrinking. How do you expand that brand nowadays and attract a younger audience?

David: It’s not just numbers, it’s who watching, who’s engaging. Reminds me of Twitter. I have a lot of followers, but he can’t move things just because of that. It’s who you are trying to reach. 


How do you gather news these days?

Shawna: What is the lead story? How can my team add value to it everyday? We are building something where we try to keep you as engaged for as long as possible. Journalistically what is the most important thing for people to know? Sometimes that comes in conflict with what people engage with. (e.g. the Alec Baldwin incident: When I woke up the next morning, I knew that was the lead story. We are going to tease it at top of the show, but how do we add value to that story?)

Legally, what did it mean for Alec Baldwin? How do live guns work on a movie set? 

Constant push and pull of what is the most important thing vs. what are you actually interested in?

David: Bridging what draws people in vs. being serious about journalism. Back in the Civil Rights struggle, Ruben Frank, president of NBC News, had a standard that any story had to make you say ‘Wow!’ 

The reason why Trump drove so much media conversation is that people wanted to see what he said next. They were horrified, they couldn’t look away. 9/11 changed the world and how media coverage operated.

Certainly in the cable world, there are organizing themes.


Role of social media

David: Cesspool for political dialogue. Creates anxiety when it doesn’t have to. Isn’t truly representative. Trump appropriated it as no other politician had. It was like how FDR mastered the radio. He used social media the way it was designed to be used, which is horrible. 

David contacted the founders of Twitter and became a suggested user. Was all fun and games initially but turned nasty eventually. News programs started to pay attention to what was popping on social media and it really re-oriented how the news gathers information.

Shawna: People used to tweet out the location of where Barack Obama would go on the campaign trail before it hit the wire. This made social media a news-gathering tool and re-oriented news broadcast networks. They needed a presence on social media moving forward. 

How you tell stories and how you get your message out there is different for every social media platform. Twitter provides snippets of information. It’s a cesspool, but it’s a cesspool of journalists. You can use it to get your content out in hopes of people amplifying it. 

On Facebook, slightly older crowd. More willing to view video. Easier to make money. What is the best way to display a video on Facebook?

Everyone is trying to figure out TikTok from a news standpoint. 

David: What I was doing with Twitter was being open and casual, and pulling back the curtain. What I didn’t do was engage in the argument as much. Sometimes you get drawn into that though. Journalists are entering into the argument, and that’s part of new journalism that is more advocacy and argument-focused. 

There’s a demand for information from the consumers that you go to them. You have to find a viewer in the course of their day because we don’t convene at a set time as much anymore like it was earlier when you would watch the morning news every day.

What Fox News discovered is that by branding themselves as fair and balanced, they made it seem like the mainstream media was more left-establishment. But they called themselves fair and balanced and they created a community. MSNBC started to copy that too. Rachel Maddow has a cultish following these days, which is what you want these days. 


What does this mean for traditional notions of impartiality?


Shawna: Traditional notions of being objective are still there. What I think is changing, which we saw with George Floyd last year, are people think they can bring their own experiences to shape stories. How you are brought up, where you come from, can help shape a story and bring authenticity to a story and pull back the curtain more. It makes news feel it’s something the viewer can engage in. But if your opinion takes over the whole thing, it’s not news, it’s opinion. So how we label things matters greatly. 

Everyone has a bias. It exists. Be aware of it and check it where you can. Trying to pretend we don’t work that well anymore. 

David: This is not a modern manifestation of our politics, in my opinion. New York Times went through a huge reckoning of how they should cover news events in the South during the Civil Rights Movement. They began to see the folly of trying to toe the line between those pushing for civil rights and the white southerners trying to limit the rights of Blacks.

What is journalism and who is a journalist is the question. We don’t get to tell you. You get to decide. There are still platforms that matter and some basic tenets, but the audience writ large is much more wary and disdainful of someone that tries to position themselves as being independent. 

Shawna as a Black woman, you have lived experiences and bias, some of it unconscious. I have lived experience growing up in LA and being Jewish. The network news was dominated by middle-age white men, many of whom were Jewish. They were determining what news was for the entire country. That was such a narrow time. The notion we have a bigger world, something of a revolution about who got to tell their story has evolved into who gets to decide whose story is accurate. What truth are we agreeing on? That’s hard. That’s part of what Trump exposed.

Shawna: We thought we had some agreed-upon truths about how government worked and how the WH worked. Trump broke those. They had to adjust. 

But Trump did something good for journalism. It made people re-evaluate how they covered government. It made them slightly better. They had to pay attention to how they cover politics and remind themselves what good investigative journalism is. 

David: The ideological split in the news makes you think that this is one ideological battle. And that’s not wrong. What is most important to tell your clients is there is bias in everything. You have to get your clients to understand where major news outlets are coming from with their coverage. 

People erred in thinking that Trump was the first to break some norms. Jimmy Carter did it. The Clintons did it by blowing off some of professional Washington.


Do journalists now need to become influencers? What role do influencers play in news generally now? Can anyone be positioned as an influencer?

Shawna: I think CEOs can be positioned as an influencer nowadays. It is just as good to have Jamie Dimon come on the show as some Senator you have never heard of. Now how do you do that to position these people as influencers is another conversation?

Journalists would like to be influencers but that’s a different challenge. Rachel Maddow has a following that listens to what she says. You have to figure out ways to cultivate social followings. Does every journalist have one? No. 

I don’t think we can get out of the influencer game right now. Influencers were on TV before, it was just 3 major TV networks. Now that web has grown. 

David: I don’t even think it’s fair to use the influencer moniker for major news figures back in the day. They were so much bigger. 

Your clients should want to be influencers. Jamie Dimon is the most important banker in the world, so that’s not a great comparison. It’s really important to try and position yourself as an influencer but it has to be mission-driven. You have to be careful. Living in a time where institutions are in such disrepute, you have to be able to defend the imperfections of your own organization and figure out how to engage. 

Everybody is a potential influencer when it comes to White House coverage. Sean Hannity is a demagogic figure. Rachel Maddow is partisan but she is deeply researched. Hannity is received as a paragon of journalistic virtue because they say they are telling you stories the left doesn’t want you to hear. 

We live in a world where the amplification is different. I don’t think it’s stronger because the power of TV in the 60s was so centralizing and incredibly strong. Stronger than social media. 



  • Debate in journalism is how the NYT covers things like the civil rights protests and stated positions of both sides. The debate of whether we should treat parts of the Republican party like they are worthy of being explained, where does that make sense?

David: This harkens back to the earlier eras, like Vietnam coverage. David Halberstam was reporting out what he was actually seeing. I think that it is important still to report what you are seeing and what the facts are. There is a way to capture the Republican view on an expansion of voting rights and rigorously report out where there are concerns

Shawna: Did news organizations go too far to understand the rise of Trump? I think so. But you have to go to places and try to understand people because we are such a fragmented society. It’s hard to get out of our own bubbles so we need to do more to get outside of them. You tell better stories that way. We didn’t go too far, but people didn’t tell the stories correctly, or sufficiently.

David: There should be tension in a relationship between subject and journalist. The whole business of calling out President Trump when he knowingly lied is something you report out and try to create some space between that and the people on your network who call him a liar all the time. 

Consumers of information are being asked to wade through a lot these days.

  • How do you keep a thick skin?

David: I never did. Criticisms always hurt until they stop hurting.

Shawna: I stepped away from Twitter because I couldn’t take it. It’s not about having thick skin. I’m passionate about TV news and that’s just a part of it. David’s not going to wake up and just not work on a Sunday.

David: It’s about discipline. What you want to cultivate is a discipline about not falling into these sinkholes. If you want to be mission-driven, help clients understand what the consequences of those decisions are. Being fast and nimble, acknowledging where you erred is important. 

Shana: If we want to be storytellers and get attention in today’s news cycle, we have to push clients outside of our comfort zone. We need leaders to come out as individuals so it’s not just a logo speaking. 

David: Manipulation is the most effective tool. You have to know how to talk to journalists and manipulate them. There’s learning how to engage and learning how it operates. The more you swim in that pond the better you get. When I got in muddy water leaving NBC, my friend in crisis comms said I was getting killed. I learned from her and how she managed stuff related to me. She learned how to manipulate people who were responsible for these stories. What I mean is try to shape and get in the middle of things. Back journalists down and tell them what is what. I think it can be very effective. 

Shawna: Help journalists understand things. If you call up a trade organization about a bill, just talk them through that. As a journalist, you remember the people who are willing to talk to you and help you understand things. That helps you cultivate relationships. 

It is important to get to know people. It helps you place your story. Might not mean you get the coverage you want to get. 

David: A lot of times reporters do just want to get smarter about something. You don’t want to bury your head in the sand, it’s much better to know and then learn how journalists are approaching stories, they will show you and tell you.

  • What is the impetus for you to say or do something slightly different? Is it a self-fulfilling prophecy of tribalism? Are we only hardening ourselves because of the financial side of it?

David: I think that touching that nerve all the time is what is good for business generally. It’s where you gather an audience. It’s not agenda-driven in terms of the money. In the cable world after 9/11 you had one story, which is what cable news was built on, the Monica Lewinsky story. Anytime you get into these dips, that’s what Fox figured out, and then MSNBC: how do you do everything through a political lens? My view is it’s not how Balkanized and narrow we are. It’s more about amplification.

Shawna: Waay I see it is it’s a balance. Yes, do I think this story could be interesting to a 34-year-old woman in Alabama? Yeah, I might greenlight that. But I also get to illuminate really interesting stories abroad that I think it is important to show you, but the audience might not love as much. It’s good for me to know who my audience is, but I also make other decisions that I make enough money that I can cover these groups that are interesting to smaller groups of people. 

David: You can tell at Fox, they will cover protests in Portland, or specific stories that are very much targeted to their audience because they are not a passive audience. A morning news show viewer, conversely, maybe more passive. 

  • There has been a re-examination of the tradition of covering the other side in journalism. People are now more comfortable saying people lied. Is this trend of journalists becoming a referee here to stick?

Shawna: I question whether we are the referee. What our job is, if someone is telling a bold-faced lie, I don’t think it is unethical to point out what the lie is and why it is a lie. Someone can’t lie and then run out of the room. You need to know the information well enough. If we don’t back it up properly, you’re not doing your job. 

David: Figures like Bob Woodward are really instructive. We can over-complicate this. What are the facts of the matter, what are people hiding? This is complicated by how you have different voices in journalism where some are very ideological, and that is different from tried-and-true journalism. 

The landscape in journalism is a lot more diverse and equitable than it has ever been. This leads to more voices and helps us know more and learn more from different perspectives and voices. 




October 27
9:50 am - 11:15 am
Event Category: