It would seem that to work at the network level as a television news correspondent an individual would need at least a Bachelor’s degree from an accredited University, preferably one with a renowned school of Journalism, and at least a few years of experience reporting in a small market.
Today, it appears that if you’ve been on a reality show, a soap opera, a network drama, or you’ve got a famous dad, you’re in.
This seems to have all started earlier this decade when an actress named Andrea Thompson began anchoring CNN’s nightly news block.
Thompson, who had appeared in several television shows including “JAG” and “NYPD Blue”, left acting to pursue journalism. To her credit, she started in a small market at KRQE in Albuquerque, New Mexico, as a general assignment reporter, earning an entry level salary. After just one year there, she was hired by CNN in June of 2001 to be a ‘news reader’. Controversy arose when it was revealed that CNN had laid off approximately 400 employees, many with a good deal more journalistic experience than Thompson, shortly before hiring her.
Thompson only lasted on air a few months before resigning to, as she claimed, focus on raising her young son.
Today, ABC News employs not one but two ‘celebrities’ with virtually no journalism experience. Reality star Melissa Rycroft who appeared on “The Bachelor” and “Dancing with the Stars”, and Cameron Mathison, who also competed on “Dancing with the Stars” and continues to work on the soap opera, “All My Children”. Both work as Special Correspondents for “Good Morning America”. Admittedly, neither work on hard news stories, only feature pieces. Both are adequate in their on-air reporting, but one can’t help wonder how much of their stories are actually put together by others, namely experienced producers who have training in journalist story-telling.
CBS’ newest “Early Show” Special Contributor, Ayla Brown, got her start on the reality show juggernaut “American Idol”. She placed in the top 16 on season 5 in 2005/2006. Brown, who enjoyed modest success as a singer after “Idol”, seemed to be off the national radar until her father, Scott Brown, won a seat earlier this year in the United States senate, representing Massachusetts.
The elder Brown famously referred to his daughter as ‘available’ in his victory speech. Shortly thereafter she was hired by CBS.
Brown, who has been pursuing a degree in communications from Boston College, is listed as being in her Senior year.
If she doesn’t have the academic training, as least Brown has a good role model in her mother Gail Huff. Huff has a graduate degree in Broadcast Journalism and has been a general assignment reporter in several different markets since 1984. She currently works for WCVB-TV, the ABC affiliate in Boston, Massachusetts. Huff showed excellent moral and ethical judgment during her husband’s recent campaign, never crossing the journalistic line by reporting anything about the campaign and by not attending any campaign related events.
To her credit, Brown does have an easy on-air style and will do well if she continues to learn and grow as a journalist.
Recent NBC “Today” show new hire, Jenna Bush Hager, daughter of former President George W. Bush, on the other hand, clearly needs a veteran reporter to assist her in interviewing and voice-over work.
Hager seems uncomfortable in her question and answer sessions and her voice-over work lacks proper inflection and emotion.
Hager’s background lacks any journalistic training, having worked primary in education, as a teacher and an author. She has not, however, appeared on any reality show.
Her recent features during the 2010 Winter Olympics and an interview with former President Bill Clinton were disjointed. Even with Clinton, who has become a notoriously easy interview due to the fact that he’s morphed into a kind of rapid-fire sound bite machine, Hager seemed cold and nervous.
It’s hard to be critical of someone who is obviously trying to do a good job. But there is something to be said for hiring someone who doesn’t have the proper training for the job. Something like this wouldn’t happen in other areas of business, why should it happen so frequently in television journalism?
It is also a curious fact that none of these special morning show correspondents have biographies on their respective network homepages. Is this on purpose? Possibly to keep attention away from the obviously lacking credentials of these reporters?
When asked about the trend to hire personalities rather than trained journalists, Shay Whittington, a recent graduate from the prestigious School of Journalism at the University of Missouri in Columbia, Missouri, had this to say.
“I can see why networks do it. They want the name. But, it’s usually pretty clear that the reports these people file aren’t really very thought-provoking. They’re mostly puff pieces. But that’s not to say I wouldn’t want that job or any reporting job at the network level. So, yeah, I guess it bugs me that with no training they get a job that I would love to have.”
Whittington went on to say that although she is a bit jealous, she wouldn’t wish any ill-will on anyone who’s simply trying to do well at his or her job. And, that as long as these novices don’t try to report on hard news, she can live with these reporters appearing on network television.
It is important to note here that some of the greatest reporters of our generation where not graduates with journalism degrees.
Tom Brokaw dropped out of one college, but later received a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from another University.
Diane Sawyer, a former “America’s Junior Miss”, has a degree in English.
And, the perfect, shining example of how a reporter can in fact learn on the job is best explained by a look at the career of Peter Jennings.
Jennings was a high school dropout who was prematurely promoted to the position of news anchor with disastrous results. Jennings felt he was far too inexperienced for the job. He begged to become a correspondent, essentially considered a career step backwards for a journalist. After being granted a correspondence spot, Jennings hone his reporting skills by first working embedded in the Middle East and then as a political reporter in Washington. In 1983, Jennings became the sole anchor of “ABC’s World News Tonight”, some 18 years after his shaky start in that role. He would remain on the air, and as a driving force in the ABC news department, until his death in 2005.
Whatever the educational background, the key to success in the news industry seems to be, as with any other industry, the willingness of each and every employee to work hard and learn the skills needed to succeed in their particular role.