Open Your Ears
Meredith Vieira talks about covering politics
NBC Today Show anchor Meredith Vieira in her dressing room at Rockefeller Center in New York City with Scholastic Kid Reporter Emma Huibregtse. (Photo by Suzanne Freeman)
As a Kid Reporter, I wanted to learn more about the journalism business, especially with the presidential election heating up. I wanted to learn from a real pro how to follow a candidate on the campaign trail.
For that I went to Today Show host Meredith Vieira, who recently spent a day with Democratic candidate and Illinois Senator Barack Obama.
Vieira has worked as a journalist since the 1970s. Her resume includes reporting for the biggest names in the business: 60 Minutes, The View, and Intimate Portrait. She also has some less serious job experience. She was host for the daytime version of the show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
She’s not all about her work, either. Vieira and husband Richard Cohen have three children and a busy home life. Cohen is also a journalist.
So how did she become such an amazing reporter? And what did she learn about reporting on election campaigns that might help me out? Here’s what Vieira had to say about her life and work experience.
"Well my dad would have said it was in my blood," she told me. Her grandfather was a priest in Portugal before moving to Massachusetts, where he started the first Portuguese-American newspaper in the country.
As a child, Vieira said she and her brother would sneak around listening in on other people’s conversations. They wrote up everything they learned in their own self-published newspaper. It wasn’t until she was a senior at Tufts University, however, that she began to take the idea of becoming a journalist seriously.
"I happened to take a class in broadcast journalism and the teacher asked me what I thought I was going to do with the rest of my life and I said I have no idea. He said, 'I do. You’re going to be in this business, you have a future,'" she said. The professor was right!
Over the course of her career, Vieira has worked in the three main news media: radio, print, and TV. Which medium does she find most effective?
"I really love radio," she said. "But I guess it really depends on how important you think pictures are." From her boss at 60 Minutes, Don Hewitt, she learned that while pictures are important, the words are what really count. "You should be able to watch television without really watching the pictures," Vieira said. "You should be focusing on good writing and story telling . . . words matter . . . every word matters."
In other words, if you can’t write, you can’t be a good journalist whether you’re medium is on the air or off.
How to Interview World Leaders
Is interviewing a celebrity or presidential candidate different from interviewing a regular person on the street?
"You try to look at every person just as a person," Vieira said. "You try to find some way of interacting with them as one person to another and sometimes people [celebrities] have walls up. To get through those layers can often be tricky and difficult. Your job as a journalist is to try to so that whatever you get from the person is as real as possible."
Toward the end of the interview, I realized that I had only a few minutes left and lots of questions unasked. What was I going to do? I ask Vieira what she does in a similar situation.
"Try to get to the point as fast as you can," she said. "Think about the most important questions you want to ask. But—I can’t emphasize enough—listen in an interview. Listen. Because sometimes people will take you places you didn’t know you were going to go and you’ll have a much more interesting interview because of it."
"The answer to a prepared question can lead to another question," she told me. "Be flexible and pay attention."
That reminded me of my one last question: What do you think makes a good journalist?
"Learn to listen, and develop your writing skills," she said. "It’s really important to be able to write as much as you can and read as much as you can, because that’s your best way of communicating. And listen to the stories. Every single person has a story to tell and every single person has a compelling story to tell. And it’s your job, if you choose it, to find those stories. Most of them will come to you if you open your ears."
Scholastic Kid Reporters are on the campaign trail. Keep up with the latest election news in this special report.
Emma Huibregtse is a member of the Scholastic Kids Press Corps.