By Becky Budds
NBC’s Rehema Ellis wasn’t born knowing how to cover stories like Hurricane Katrina and 9/11 though her poise and skill make it seem like that. What prepared her is something she learned from legendary broadcaster Roger Mudd who said, “report what you know. And if you don’t know something, don’t pretend like you do.”
This advice has served her well during her 40 years in the business. After graduating college, Ellis got her start at KDKA TV and radio in Pittsburgh, eventually moving to WHDH-TV in Boston, and finally landing at NBC News in 1994. In 2010, she was named the chief education correspondent on NBC’s Nightly News where I’ve watched her countless times on my TV.
I always thought there was a special secret to becoming a wildly successful journalist like Rehema Ellis. Something professors don’t tell you in JOUR 101 and 102, a code you can only crack by being the best. But through my conversation with her I realized that simplicity and adherence to fundamental principles is all you need. They call it “going back to basics”—a return to a simpler way of doing something or thinking about something.
In journalism that means asking those 5 W’s and an H. “Who, what, when, where, how and why. If those questions are asked, every single time you will get to the truth,” said Ellis. And getting to the truth, she says, has never been more important.
As media literacy falls and the lines between opinion and facts are blurred every day, it’s a journalist’s job and duty to be as unbiased and accurate as possible. “It’s not my job to speculate, it’s not my job to imagine, it’s not my job. I’m not a pundit, I’m not a columnist. I am a reporter,” she said. “So, I want to report on what I know. What I see. And I leave it to other people to draw conclusions about the information that they have been given.”
What may seem obvious, can be easy to forget. Everyday there are journalists who voice their opinions online or forget to verify information. There are journalists who aren’t asking the right questions. That’s why Ellis says it’s important to “read, read, read, and read some more.” Politicians will constantly try to spin you and inflate the truth, so “it’s important to exhaust yourself with material and be prepared to almost know the answer to the questions you’re asking,” she said.
Stressing again how important it is to stay unbiased, she says it’s important to read things you like and things you don’t agree with. Read everything and read it often. In order to better be a better reporter, “it’s important to know the opinions that are out there,” she said. The viewers will thank you for it.
Ellis says her days at NBC differ greatly from those at KDKA and WHDH-TV. At local stations, there are morning shifts and night shifts. But “when you get on to the network, you are the shift. From the beginning until the story is over,” she said. “It’s very tiring. It’s very taxing. But it can be very rewarding because you feel like you own that story. And so, at the end of the day, no one is more tuned into that story than you.”
Ellis’ experiences covering Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, the Haiti earthquake and more, taught her that journalism is a lot like fighting fires. “We go where there is a fire. We put the fire out and then we leave, she said. “We never tell you what it takes to rebuild. We never tell you the long lasting and sustained agony and pain and anguish, that’s day to day. We don’t do that because the definition of news is what’s happening now.”
It’s a reminder that we don’t always have the answers to every problem and that behind the headlines are human beings.
If you watch any of Ellis’ stories, it’s no surprise that her trophy shelf is stocked full. Throughout her career she’s received many awards for her storytelling such as local and national Emmys, Edward R. Murrow Awards, Associated Press awards and awards from the National Association of Black Journalists. She’s also a recipient of an Honorary Doctorate Degree in Journalism. Awards that an aspiring journalist like me could only dream of.
At the end of our call. She cautioned me about success and left me with this, “Awards and accolades are wonderful, but they just are not very comfortable to sleep with,” she said. “At the end of the day, I hope that you make certain that you have a full life. Because the fullness of your life will enhance the intensity of your reporting.”
But they don’t teach you how to have a full life in a textbook or a classroom. That’s something we as young journalists must find out on our own. And in an industry filled with long hours, strict deadlines, and a never-ending news cycle, that can be hard to do.
But no matter where I’m at in my career, I’ll always remember to go back to basics: stick to the facts, report what you know, and read constantly.