It’s not often that a journalist receives the highest honor the Society of Professional Journalists has to offer.
Soledad O’Brien is known for her years of work on Hearst Television, HBO, MSNBC, NBC, and CNN. She created the four-part docuseries, “Black and Missing”, executive produced the first full-length documentary on Rosa Parks, and wrote “Latino in America” and her own memoir, “The Next Big Story.”
Now, she’s been inducted as one of this year’s Fellows of the Society.
And it’s bittersweet.
“I’ve tried to spend the last 10 years of my life thinking of the ways that I think journalism could be better for myself and everybody else,” O’Brien said. “It feels just like an amazing endorsement of all that I’ve tried to do in my work over the last 35 years.”
While O’Brien said she is excited and overwhelmed to be named a 2023 Fellow, she remains concerned and critical about the state of the journalism industry – not just what journalists are doing, but what they’re not.
“Sometimes, you see ways in which journalists platform liars,” she said.
O’Brien described seeing an interviewee speak for four or five minutes on live TV before the journalists ran a fact-check on them. She described the incident as a failure journalists haven’t learned their lesson from.
“It literally is the journalistic equivalent of closing the barn door after the horses run out,” she said, laughing. “Sometimes, I think people make honest mistakes but more often today, there’s lots of very intentional inaccuracies. I think there’s misinformation. I think there’s disinformation.”
O’Brien said that the conflict that often takes up space on TV news is not good for viewers. But, she adds, that conflict is what sells.
“The truth is,” she said, “you’re not going to get booked on a cable newscast if you say, ‘well, the story is kind of nuanced,’ or ‘well, I think my colleague here has an interesting point.’ No one will ever book you again. I think it (conflict) cannibalizes your audience, I think people eventually get tired and exhausted from it.”
That exhaustion can be seen in the numbers: only 32% of Americans trust mass media outlets to report full, accurate, and fair information, an all-time low, according to a 2022 Gallup poll.
O’Brien has learned her lessons too. When she was a young journalist in local news, she would film “perp walks” where police officers would parade people they arrested before news cameras before leading them to a police car. Having not covered much crime, she used to use this footage as b-roll to start video stories before she decided that the practice of perp walks itself was inappropriate.
“I put them into perpetuity and [did] not ever follow up on their story,” O’Brien said. “I’ve tried to get smarter about the ways in which [I] think about serving [my] audience. And not just ‘how do I get on TV fast?’ and ‘how do I get the big story?’ but actually educating people, which is really a lot less sexy, but I think maybe more important.”
She wants journalists to be witnesses to what is happening around them.
“I think, sometimes, we forget about the power we have,” O’Brien said. “Instead, we think about, ‘how do I compete with this social media story? How do I get clicks? How do we get eyeballs on this?’ We have to stop giving live, hot mics to racists, Nazis and known liars.”
While O’Brien is not done telling stories yet, she is done traveling as much as she used to.
“When I was at CNN, I really did so many international stories,” O’Brien said.
She wants to cover more complicated stories in communities across the country.
“[I’d like to] dig into systems that I think are really failing people right now,” O’Brien said, “to help to explain those systems and maybe help to figure out how they could be better.”