The journalism world lost a pioneer and the country lost a thoughtful voice Tuesday with the death of Cokie Roberts, who died at the age of 75 from complications of breast cancer. Her longtime colleagues at NPR and ABC News, her dedicated viewers and journalists across the country remembered her as a pioneer for political journalism and for women in news.
She shaped not only audiences’ understanding of the political landscape, but also the newsrooms where she worked. She made every newsroom she was a part of a better place to work.
Remember her by living these lessons from her life in your own newsroom.
Picture was taken at an @RTDNA ceremony, and somebody wanted a group photo of those with "KYW" in their history. I asked Cokie, "You?" She said she did a kids' show on KYW-TV, but I never learned more. (Brian Williams just wanted to be in the photo-LOL) @KYWNewsradio @CBSPhilly pic.twitter.com/xuXCEltDDs— Steve Butler (@ThisSteveButler) September 17, 2019
Don’t listen to people that say you can’t do something
When Cokie got her start in broadcast journalism, it was at a time when few women pursued careers in the field. “I heard, over and over and over again, ‘we don’t hire women to do that,'” she said in an interview with her alma mater, Wellesley College. But she kept at it until eventually, jobs came to her.
If you’re just starting out, or trying something new, don’t listen to the negative voices that categorically deny your idea. Keep at it, demonstrate your value and show how your idea works.
Four years ago, Cokie Roberts ’64 sat down with documentary filmmaker @MaryMazzio to talk about her years at Wellesley and her early career. She shares the origin of the nickname Cokie, and how she got her start in journalism despite being told “we don’t hire women to do that.” pic.twitter.com/d5b5TvOE5m— Wellesley College (@Wellesley) September 17, 2019
Look into good ideas and solutions, not just problems
In accepting RTDNF’s Leonard Zeidenberg First Amendment Award in March 2009, Roberts told the journalism leaders gathered to honor her, “We have to be ready to shine light on what’s going on…but we also have to be able to create some light.” The first question you ask yourself when putting together broadcasts shouldn’t be “where’s the argument?” but who has good ideas, she said.
Political journalists in particular cover both exciting and frightening times, and Cokie’s call rings even truer today, when “news fatigue” is growing. Is your newsroom covering not only problems facing your community, but also rigorously reporting on those working to solve them?
Be a mentor to and advocate for those less powerful in the newsroom
One of the most common reflections Cokie’s colleagues over the years have shared in remembering her is her practice of sending encouraging notes with positive feedback about others’ stories. A “Founding Mother” of NPR, she always took the time to support and encourage younger or newer reporters in the newsroom and advocate for those with less power. As one of the few women in newsrooms when her career began, she knew what it was like and, later in her career, she used her stature to support others.
Her example shows that you can shape the culture at your workplace. You can set a positive tone. You can be a leader and advocate for voices in your newsroom that often don’t get heard.
Work matters, but family comes first.
Cokie was a devoted mother, grandmother, daughter, wife, sister. She poured her energy into her work and believed it was truly important to democracy, but she also set an example of balance. She prioritized Sunday dinners with her family, for example, and wasn’t afraid to let an editor know that time was her own, one colleague recalled.
Especially for those who are leaders in newsrooms, make it a priority to take time for yourself: One evening a week where you leave a little early or one morning where you take some time outside the newsroom. Your team will see and appreciate your commitment to yourself as much as they appreciate your answering middle-of-the-night phone calls, staying through breaking news and being available all other days.
Be kind. Be human.
NPR colleague Nina Totenberg called Cokie “the embodiment of our better angels.” She was kind, generous and supportive of colleagues personally and professionally. It sounds simple, but kindness is too often forgotten. If you hold onto one piece of Cokie’s legacy, make it this: be kind.
Cokie Roberts accepts the 2019 RTDNF Leonard Zeidenberg First Amendment Award: