University of St. Thomas alumna and journalist Georgia Fort ’11, host of the CW’s “Here’s the Truth,” interviewed nationally recognized journalist, documentarian and philanthropist Soledad O’Brien for the last First Friday Speaker Series of the 2022-23 academic year.
In the conversation, which took place when O’Brien was in the Twin Cities for the ThreeSixty Journalism Homecoming celebration and annual fundraising gala, the two discussed courage, working in today’s media environment and making a difference in the world.
Here are five observations from the First Friday Speaker Series conversation.
Courage and resilience can be learned.
When it comes to having courage in journalism, O’Brien revealed many different aspects, from making sure that one is doing the right thing to holding people accountable.
O’Brien recalled a particular instance when she had to be courageous: working on the CNN “Black in America” series in 2012.
“I remember the first version of that doc was dark and depressing, and I didn’t know what to do because I felt like Black people are not depressing,” O’Brien said.
As the anchor of the series, O’Brien knew that she would receive any credit and any blame. She said she rewrote a lot of the series with the president of CNN’s news division.
“I really learned that as cheesy as it sounds, the buck stops here,” O’Brien said. “I would rather go down in flames around a mistake that I made … but I will never go down in flames because so-and-so told me to say it. I don’t mind being wrong.”
Independent media outlets can lead.
In 2013, O’Brien left CNN to start the production and distribution company Starfish Media Group (now Soledad O’Brien Productions). She said she had a boss who no longer wanted her to anchor, so O’Brien felt that the time was right to branch out on her own.
“I had the financial wherewithal to be able to rent space, hire people, build a company and figure it out,” she said.
CNN became Starfish Media Group’s first client, hiring O’Brien to do several documentaries.
Her approach to storytelling is to go straight to the source for interviews. For instance, O’Brien shared that, rather than interviewing a politician about proposed legislation related to housing, she will interview homeless mothers.
O’Brien talked about the impact that her HBO documentary series “Black and Missing” had. After the series aired, other media outlets started doing stories on Black and brown missing people.
“Independent media gets to tell people there are important stories they are missing,” O’Brien said. “There’s a lot of stuff we don’t chase because we don’t have to do what everybody else does.”
Trust is important in the state of today’s media environment.
Reflecting on the state of the journalism industry, O’Brien said, “We have a lot of misinformation and disinformation. Social media has made everybody – even the most staid legacy organizations – feel like they have to compete for eyeballs. That means headlines become a little more deceptive and over-the-top sensationalized.”
She said that trust is about continuing to serve and represent a community. As the host of a top-rated public affairs program “Matter of Fact with Soledad O’Brien,” she finds that people are open to sharing their lives and experiences with her and her team.
The show has grown from reaching an audience of 195,000 households at its start in 2015 to an audience of 2 million today.
Your reputation and integrity are all that you have.
On advice to aspiring journalists, O’Brien said, “Write, write, write. … Just write all the time.”
She added that one’s reputation travels with a person throughout his or her career.
“It’s one of the reasons that you have to constantly care about if something is accurate and if it’s a mistake, is it your mistake?” O’Brien said.
Tying back to courage and resilience, she said that college is a good time to develop one’s skills by exploring, learning and doing.
“You’re immediately above everybody else who is just talking about doing it,” O’Brien said. “If you want to do a podcast, do a podcast and send it out to your mom, your dad, two cousins and a friend. You can do a podcast about anything.”
It’s not that hard to have a diverse team.
At O’Brien’s company, all her directors are diverse. She aims to increase opportunities for Black female directors.
“Clearly, if I can do it with my itty-bitty little company, it’s not that hard,” she said. “There’s no magic in it – you just have to decide.”
O’Brien and her husband, Bradley Raymond, also proactively aim to eliminate disparities through their foundation, the PowHERful Foundation, with a mission to get young women to, and through, college.