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Soledad O'Brien visits SRU

Journalist shares career highlights, stresses local news

February 19, 2020 Digital Media Exclusive

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Longtime journalist Soledad O'Brien shares some of her favorite and most important stories — from covering Hurricane Katrina to 9/11 — with students at Slippery Rock University on Tuesday evening.

SLIPPERY ROCK — Soledad O'Brien created a career for herself by shaping the stories of others for a viewer's consumption.

Tuesday night, O'Brien gave her own story to students in the ballroom of the Smith Student Center at Slippery Rock University.

In 2013, O'Brien founded Starfish Media Group, a multiplatform media company, for which she is chairwoman. She has been an anchor for national news and continues as a correspondent on HBO's “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel.”

O'Brien shared some of her favorite and most important stories, but she also shared the flaws she saw in her reporting and those of her peers.

She shared a story about her first time going live on television. She was in a bar in San Francisco where patrons and fans of baseball's Giants were watching the game remotely.

“Just as I'm about to speak, someone reaches out from behind me and pinches my butt,” O'Brien said. “That was my first time on live television, and it was terrifying.”

Seasoned journalist

O'Brien worked through the ranks of television and eventually covered some of the most important news events in recent history.

She was in New Orleans for Hurricane Katrina. She was in southeast Asia for the tsunami in 2004. And she was walking in her New York City neighborhood when planes struck the World Trade Center.

Journalist Soledad O’Brien speaks to Slippery Rock University students and the wider community Tuesday in the final installment in a lecture series at the school. photo courtesy of Slippery Rock University

O'Brien talked about her good experiences and the terrible. She also talked about the problems that arise in framing a story and the effects of biases from those who have the most control, the producers.

“If you allow other people to dictate the narrative, then don't be shocked when you don't recognize the narrative in your story,” O'Brien said.

O'Brien spoke to students and members of the community. The students, with pads and pens, included communications majors trying to soak in the experiences that someday their own careers might mirror.

Willie Brown, an SRU senior from Delmare, Del., attended a media availability session before the public event.

“It's very inspiring because we have these types of opportunities on our campus because we get to meet someone in our field and hear their kind of stories,” Brown said.

Brown wants to pursue a career in video production. He said the best piece of advice he heard from O'Brien was the importance of networking.

“She has the same type of education we have, so to see her doing so successful in her career, it inspires me and lets me know that I can make a name for myself, too,” he said.

During media availability, O'Brien talked with young journalists waiting for their chance to ask the tough questions.

“I really like talking to students because I find them very gutsy. They're not afraid to ask questions. Administrators will be very polite, but the students will kill you and grill you, and I like that. Right. That's the point,” O'Brien said.

Budget cuts on local news

O'Brien also addressed the importance of local news. She said good national news starts with local reporters breaking a story and becoming resources for national media.

“I think local news is incredibly important, and it scares the absolute crap out of me that local news is being impacted by budget cuts and layoffs. It's terrifying,” she said.

Mark Zeltner, associate professor of journalism at SRU, said O'Brien touched on a lot of important issues for future journalists.

“I think they need to hear from someone who's been in the business a long time and give them perspective beyond the professors about how the real world works,” Zeltner said. “It's important for them to see someone who's worked their way up the ranks.”

Zeltner said O'Brien also gave the community a perspective on how journalism works and the effort put into the news they consume every day.

He said it's important for the community to remember that one of the core responsibilities of the media is to watch the government and protect the people.

“A lot of people have forgotten that because of the turmoil the last three or four years,” Zeltner said.

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