Gwen Ifill’s Talk at the Special Libraries Association 2006 Annual Conference

06/16/06, by j

I think the most surprising part of Gwen Ifill’s talk at the Special Libraries Association Annual Conference on Sunday, June 11, 2006, was when she talked about how she thought about becoming a librarian for a while. Many of us news librarians weren’t surprised by her outline of similarities between librarians and journalists. How different would the world of news be with Gwen working behind the scenes instead of infront of the camera?

Gwen talked about how she spent a lot of time at the library while she was growing up. Mostly, she admitted, it was an easy place for her to meet friends and talk to boys, since her parents would allow her to go to the library, but not to other places where she might hang out.

Three days a week, she works at the NewsHour and two she works for Washington Week. She talked more about the NewsHour than Washington Week.

She relies on the NewsHour’s researchers quite a bit to educate her about unfamiliar topics. At a morning editorial meeting, she’ll learn what the day’s topics are.

The NewsHour knows their audience is highly educated people who demand a good, strong, balanced newscast. Sometimes, partisans complain that they don’t take sides.

She mentioned the situation with the government trying to get Jack Anderson’s papers. (Anderson was a reporter who covered Washington, DC, for many years. The government fears secrets might be in his notes, which could be donated to an archive soon.) She wonders why they didn’t worry about what was in his notes when he was alive.

Gwen cautions that on the Internet, people often reach conclusions before all of the facts come to light.

Despite recent attacks on journalism from the government, partisans, and the public, Gwen still holds romantic notions about the work. She recognizes, however, that the ‘newspaper at your doorstep, three network world’ is gone.

She also reminded us that the best lessons aren’t learned from those people with the most power. It’s a good idea to write everything down and keep our eyes open.

While watching cabs recently, she noticed many now have scrolling displays on top showing news headlines. As she read the headlines, she realized most were pop news. Perhaps many headlines were in the system just because they make good, short, tabloid headlines. She noticed no headlines from her newscast and remarked that their stories probably don’t break down into nice tabloidy headines.

Journalists need to take greater responsibility to get viewers the kind of information they need, she says. Journalists are responsible for making things connect.

Fallout from the war in Iraq is making us ask big questions. Washington seemed to have faded from people’s lives before 9/11. After that, everything changed. There are more and more questions post 9/11 it seems. But more people understand the importance of Washington Week now. Gwen doesn’t need to explain her job all the time anymore.

The temptation for sensation brings news organizations down.

But journalists also bring good things: Pulitzer Prize winners; revealing issues like the secret domestic eavesdropping and Abu Gahrib prison situation; and the voices of Hurricane Katrina. Many of these stories reveal what the government is doing and how they’re failing. Some journalists are not willing to sit back and swallow anything whole.

Gwen wants to be able to shed light in dark corners. We do, too, but not without problems, like what the Conneticut librarians went through with the recent request for records about which they were not allowed to speak.

People asked a number of questions I’m not going to repeat here. Many were more relevant to her job and experience than her talk. The one that’s the best to include here is the one about where Gwen finds information she doesn’t know and how she figures out what to ask during interviews. Good library research leads her to more questions, she says. She reads two newspapers and scans or reads two or three others. She also might look at Internet sources, political places online, including some weblogs, like those from the networks. After the morning meeting at 10 am where she gets her assignment from Jim Lehrer, the research staff kicks in if it’s something new. They track clippings and stuff all along. She’ll get a binder from the research library, then she spends the rest of the day reading the research. Reporters pre-interview a number of guests in order to select people who might be good for Gwen to talk to on the program and to find out if there are two sides to the debate and if they’re missing something. “I’m a great cocktail party guest because I know a little about a lot,” she quips.

It was fabulous to be able to go to her speech, especially since I had just heard Jim Lehrer talk last week.

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