Journalism Lessons from Tim Russert

Journalism Lessons from Tim Russert

Recently I was reminiscing about a great experience I had hearing the late Tim Russert speak at Boston College back in 2005.  Tim Russert gave accounts of his most memorable interviews, his political ploys, and endearing tales of his father from his book, Big Russ.  His comments were very inspiring and helpful, as he dropped advice for good journalism throughout his stories.

He spoke about how it is extremely important in everything, but especially in journalism, to be prepared and knowledgeable about the issues and your guest, when conducting an interview.  Tim Russert commented on how many politicians have a set script that they recite to the media of their stance on the issues, but this script can also be vague and leave out important points.  Tim Russert’s job was to pick out these points and corner his guest into giving an answer, oftentimes, an answer he or she didn’t want to give.  This, he said, is part of a journalist’s responsibility to their audience.  A journalist must attempt to get all the facts and as much information as he or she can because knowledge is a power to which everyone has the right.

Among all these facts, however, it is sometimes hard to see the big picture.  Tim Russert acknowledged this difficulty, but said it is important to speak to the big issues and not get caught up in all the tiny details.  He said that law school really helped him acquire this skill, which he was able to use to help educate his audience.

In addition to seeing the main issue, Russert said it’s up to the journalist to determine which issues are news worthy.  Understanding your audience is an important factor in this decision because what may seem news worthy to you may not be as relevant to your viewers.  A journalist must show people why that subject is worth learning something about, all the while being completely objective.  It is not a journalist’s job to tell people what to believe, but rather, to tell people the facts and allow them to make up their own minds on the issue.

In dealing with politics and politicians on Meet the Press, Tim Russert had to not only be objective, but bipartisan as well, no matter which political party he represented.  Being objective and bipartisan are two limitations of a journalist that he talked a lot about, but there are ethical limitations as well.  A journalist must take into account how a story will affect his or her audience.  Based on good judgment, a journalist must decide if a story would negatively or positively affect the quality of life of the audience.

A journalist gains an audience based, in part, on his or her credibility and one would think that if a mistake is made, the journalist’s credibility would diminish.  However, Tim Russert assed that a mistake can only be detrimental to ones credibility if it is not dealt with properly.  He advised that journalists and networks should admit to their mistakes immediately and offer an apology saying it would never happen again and that this kind of statement can actually increase ones credibility by making them seem more human and humble.

Tim Russert’s insights into the world of journalism captivated his audience while providing information about his profession and all the things he has to take into consideration when preparing for an episode of Meet the Press.  He was a fabulous speaker and even better journalist, one I count myself lucky to have had the pleasure to meet while he was still living.

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