Marian Porges, a Senior Producer at NBC News, came to speak at Tufts on November 9th. She is a Tufts alum herself, having graduated in 1982 with a degree in political science. She formerly worked at ABC News, and has over thirty years of media experience. Over the course of two separate presentations and discussions, Porges opened up about her path to a career in broadcast news, the role of ethics in the media, and how the face of journalism is changing in our technological age.
Porges works for the News Standards and Practices division of NBC News, so much of her work involves keeping journalistic and ethical standards in check. She emphasized the importance of being aware of potential biases in the media, and stressed that information must be confirmed by multiple independent sources to be considered correct. “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion,” she said, “but you can’t be entitled to your own fact.” Porges also reiterated the crucial point of keeping information in context, and conducting as much original reporting as possible. “If you have a gut feeling to double-check something,” she insisted, “Go with your gut. Even if you’re on a tight deadline.”
Another critical part of acknowledging biases and considering sources is understanding what is unknown about a given piece of news. “It’s really okay to say what you don’t know,” Porges said. “Otherwise it’s only half the story.” Many reporters can be tempted to conceal what they don’t know, but by recognizing a degree of ignorance, this leaves room for developments in information. “Reputation is really important,” Porges explained. “Believability will suffer otherwise. And once our viewers stop believing us, we’ve lost it all.”
Given her extensive experience working in media, Porges is well aware of how the industry is transforming. She explained that since news organizations, NBC included, are ultimately businesses and are owned by non-news organizations, there can be a lot of pressure to simply give the audience what they want. She cited the widespread American disinterest in international news as a significant contributor to why the American media is very nationally focused. Despite this, she asserted that no one except NBC themselves has editorial control over their content, even as journalism becomes more and more about money.
It goes without saying that social media is another huge influence on the world of journalism, and Porges explained both the positives and negatives of this shift. She said that, “While social media can make everything better, it makes [things] a whole lot harder.” Since social media isn’t monitored well, it is much easier for inaccurate or unconfirmed information to be disseminated to many people very quickly. This is especially dangerous, she said, when someone who is affiliated with a news organization unofficially posts something on Twitter, for example, and many viewers interpret that as official reporting from the news outlet. “Everyone needs an editor,” she said. “And that’s the problem with social media.”
Porges reflected specifically on the recent election coverage. Every news outlet wanted to break the news without jumping to incorrect conclusions and being held accountable for misinformation. NBC, she explained, was using every control room available and ran five simultaneous broadcasts. The station’s ‘decision desk’ couldn’t call the election until after statisticians had done so, and even then, it’s a high-stress decision. In situations like these, she advised, “It is always better to be right than first.”
Porges may have experienced a lot of success in her career, but that doesn’t make her oblivious to the hordes of college students hoping to ‘make it’ in journalism. She offered a lot of advice for those looking to follow in her footsteps, and much of it was surprisingly simple. “Read a lot,” she started off. “Even read things that don’t interest you. And write as much as possible. It’s embarrassing how few journalists know how to write well, and that’s a huge problem.” She encouraged all aspiring reporters to hone their craft as much as possible, and practice many different types of writing. However, in today’s media landscape, it takes a lot more than reading and writing. She explained how news organizations now look to hire people who can ‘do it all,’ rather than those who boast a small set of particular skills. “Learn to shoot and edit,” she said. “If you know the technology and are familiar with it, then you can focus on the fundamentals of storytelling.”
Perhaps most important was Porges’ reminder to ask questions. She urged her student audience to find mentors and seek guidance. She said that while journalism school may prove useful for some, a solid liberal arts education should be adequate for many. She didn’t glorify the news industry or ignore its difficulties, but rather warned: “You have to really want to do this. You’re going to miss holidays.” She highlighted the importance of starting small and working up, and recognized how challenging it can be to break into working in the media. “It’s not an easy job,” she said. “But I’ve never wanted to do anything else.”