Surely he had a newscast to prepare for, but if he was going to ask for our questions, I was going to ask one I've wanted to know since December 14th, 2012.
In December of 2012, unimaginable tragedy struck locally in Newtown, CT and nationally in this country when a gunman entered Sandy Hook Elementary School and opened fire, killing 20 elementary school students and 6 faculty and staff in the second-deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. The day shocked the nation and started a movement of activism in regards to gun accessibility and violence in America. How do you report on this? I wondered. How do you get through it? I thought, as I sat watching the CBS News special report coverage and crying tears that I wasn't sure would end.
Scott Pelley knew the answers to the questions I had, having reported on Newtown many times. First in the special report coverage on December 14th, and next, for the evening news and 60 Minutes on December 17th, and in the most memorable report on April 7th, in which he spoke with Sandy Hook parents and relatives.
After that report, I started to ask follow up questions. How do you sit across from these parents who lost their children at age 6? I needed to know if Scott was removing Scott Pelley the person from Scott Pelley the reporter in that interview. If he did it, I needed to know how. It takes only a few seconds of watching Scott Pelley speak with the family members affected so closely by this tragedy before chills take over your body. It doesn't take long to notice the heaviness in their hearts and the sadness in their eyes - all politics aside. There is always a huge responsibility as a reporter, I think, but it's taken to a new level in a piece such as this.
So this summer at CBS, I asked Scott Pelley, "You don't want covering tragedy to make you cold, hard and desensitized but you have to let that happen to an extent to protect yourself and the integrity of the story. When talking to the parents, how did you do that?"
It is more than worth mentioning that CBS News received an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia Award for their breaking news coverage of the horrific event, which I've often cited as a motivating factor for my choice in pursuing journalism.
Scott Pelley answered my question by citing empathy, which is the ability to understand and share in the feelings of others. Though we are taught in journalism classes about being a reporter first and putting our own biases aside, Scott let us know it is healthy to let the human being inside of you feel every bit of the magnitude of the stories you cover. The importance and necessity of understanding and sharing those feelings. On stories like Newtown he said, "does it hurt you, does it change you, are you haunted?" and he answered his own question with a simple yes. But he said he wouldn't change that for the empathy that informs the writing.
Scott says getting hurt all of the time is an occupational hazard in this field, that you must be willing to have your heart broken, and that he worries for the writers that don't cry.
By that I think he meant that the more empathetic you allow yourself to be in the interview, in the editing and writing process and in the reporting, the more informed and responsible the piece will be. For more reasons than one, shutting off the human feelings is not the solution.
Scott Pelley believes in real, true journalism. It's clear as he speaks to the interns that he treats his work as a deep responsibility, which I think is one of the reasons he allows himself to empathize so easily. He actually says the quality of America is directly tied to the quality of American journalism -- that there is simply no democracy without journalism. Just to give you an idea of how strongly the man truly believes in what he's made his life's work.
Of course, our conversation shifted where every conversation today shifts: to the changing landscape of media. Scott acknowledges the revolution in the distribution of journalism but is quick to follow up with the fact that the rules of journalism are not changing.
"Whether it's a stone tablet or a glass tablet, the rules of storytelling haven't changed in 2000 years," he said. Well, what he really said after that was, "Don’t let anyone bullshit you into thinking the revolution changes the rules of journalism.” So there's that.
Then we talked about those rules, which beyond the fundamentals of journalism manage to be the pillars of CBS News as well: is the reporting right, fair and honest? I guess it's one rule with three parts. But it really really matters, says Scott, since "people's lives will be changed by what you write." Just look at Newtown, CT.
Some tips for sticking to the rule(s):
-don't believe anything… fact check and fact check again!
-represent all relevant viewpoints & drive down the middle
-let the audience decide what they think ("We don't want to close minds, we want to open them.")
-recognize your own bias, rise above it, keep it out of reporting
-do enough work to know the facts are straight and represent every viewpoint
Scott calls journalism the "antidote of gossip" and says in the age of the 24-hour news cycle, ethics and principle are more important than ever. To me, this raises another question about privacy and journalism. Recently, Marin County Sheriff's office came under fire for making public as many details as they did about Robin Williams' tragic suicide. I've always struggled and will always struggle with the thin line of privacy in a tragedy. Yes, Robin's family is grieving and requests privacy in this awful time, but Americans need the information for their own healing process, and simply because Robin Williams was a celebrity of an unimaginable level, and curiosity rarely slows in a time like this.
I am certain this is something Scott Pelley has experienced and probably did experience with the parents in a room in Newtown, CT.
In all reporting situations, there is a fine line between being invasive and doing your job. And according to Scott Pelley, in those of extreme tragedy, there seems to be no line between feeling it all as if it were your pain, and just doing your democratic duty.
You heard it here first,