SLIPPERY ROCK – Slippery Rock University students got up close and personal with journalist Soledad O'Brien, who has covered world news including Hurricane Katrina and the Thailand tsunami.
Before her lecture last week at the Robert M. Smith Student Center, she met with several student groups and members of the media to share career advice, her experience in the news business, and her take on the state of journalism.
"I think local news is incredibly important," said O'Brien, who has her own show, "Matter of Fact," is chief executive officer of Starfish Media Group, and has worked for outlets including CNN and NBC.
National news companies get a lot of story ideas from local media outlets, which means that budget cuts and layoffs for the smaller organizations are "terrifying."
"You start with the local reporters because they're the experts," she said.
O'Brien, whose career started at one of those smaller organizations, said that one of the most challenging parts of her job is traveling.
Her home base is New York, and she has four children with husband Brad. While it's sometimes hard to be on the road, they make it work, because she knows that she has to get out there and meet people in order to share their stories.
"I like to go to communities...You kind of end up learning a lot about each other," she said of one-on-one interviews.
O'Brien said that she enjoys visiting colleges and universities and talking to students, especially the ones studying communications.
"I find them very gutsy," she said.
Journalists have to get used to asking tough questions because they're the voice of the people, O'Brien said.
One student asked O'Brien which assignment shaped her career. When she covered Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the death toll numbers were off, and she realized that the authorities reporting those figures were personally trying to cope with the devastation.
That disaster also taught her about social justice and reporting as a service. Her team was challenging people, and it was the first time she felt like her job could really help others.
"I just remember walking through the airport and we got a standing ovation," she said.
Another student asked about CNN – O'Brien and the network parted ways in 2013. O'Brien said she loves CNN, but called it "a bit of mess."
They bring in lots of "talking heads" with opposing views, and it ends with people just yelling at each other, essentially elevating "non-experts" who debate topics like climate change.
"I don't want to hear from my congressman about that," she said, adding that her show walks viewers through the issues.
When asked about which story personally impacted her, O'Brien talked about the tsunami that devastated Thailand in 2004, killing thousands of people.
She remembers seeing the bodies of children who had drowned being laid out in temples, something that she tried to describe to her husband over the phone.
Their four children were all under the age of four at that time, so it was very hard to process.
She encountered one man who had been trying to make his way to safety with his three-year-old son. A wave came, and as the man shifted his grip to get a better hold of his son – who was covered in sunscreen – the child slipped away.
"And he kept saying to me, 'but he has water wings,'" O'Brien recalled of the man's desperation. "I don't think they ever found the boy."
O'Brien has seen tragedy in her own backyard. She was living in New York City when the town was hit by the Sept. 11, 2001, terroristic attacks.
She was going to the dry cleaners when it happened, and she was soon surrounded by people asking for help and looking for loved ones.
"It was just so emotional," she said.
The last question focused on current events like the presidential election. O'Brien said she's interested to see how it plays out.
She's learned that Bernie Sanders supporters are aggressive online, and she wonders why Elizabeth Warren is being left out of the conversation.
Coverage should focus on policies that could help people instead of throwing out zingers and criticisms about the candidates' appearances; it shouldn't be covered like a horse race, she said.
Haley Potter, a senior majoring in broadcast journalism who is part of WSRU-TV, said that meeting with O'Brien was a great opportunity for students.
She was very open to conversation, and down-to-earth, said Potter, who plans to work for Erie News Now after graduation.