When she was growing up in Baltimore, Maryland, journalist and author April Ryan often gathered with her family to hear popular CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite broadcast the news. When he did, he presented the facts — relaying the “five W’s” of who, what, where, when, and why — and presenting different sides to the story.
Today’s news reporting, said Ryan during her Nov. 1 visit to Yale, is often so biased that “you cannot discern what is fact and what is opinion because the line has been obscured” between the two.
Ryan’s talk on campus was sponsored by the Poynter Fellowship in Journalism and hosted by Vice President for Student Life Kimberly Goff-Crews as part of the university’s Belonging at Yale initiative, which seeks to foster diversity, equity, and inclusion on the campus. Ryan, the Washington D.C. bureau chief for American Urban Radio Networks and a CNN political analyst, took part in a conversation with Goff-Crews about her career in journalism, and then interviewed a panel of students who are engaged in efforts to bring a diversity of perspectives to campus life.
Ryan has covered four presidential administrations as a member of the White House press corps. She told her audience that she is as committed as ever to reporting the news in an unbiased manner despite the fact that she has recently received death threats for doing her job. She and White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders have had a highly publicized contentious relationship, and Ryan hired a bodyguard due to the threats against her.
The veteran journalist said she still believes in unbiased reporting “because the stakes are so high” in today’s politically divisive world.
“What I try to do is give you an understanding of what’s going on,” Ryan said. Despite accusations by the current presidential administration of “fake news” by the press, Ryan said, the majority of White House reporters take seriously their responsibility to accurately report the news.
“We don’t try to lie to anyone. We are earnestly going after the story so you can be informed,” Ryan said. “It’s not about us. When they say it’s fake or that we’re fake, it’s not about us. When they say we can’t ask a question or that we’re fake, it’s about you, because without us you don’t get the information. It’s been made to be about us, which is sad because now we are getting death threats. … It’s now deadly to do the job.”
Ryan said her interest in journalism began while producing a news show for a college radio station at Morgan State University and discovering that she enjoyed it. Growing up, her family had the news on constantly, particularly CBS News with Walter Cronkite, and Ryan said that her career was also influenced by that experience.
When she began reporting, the internet did not exist.
“Social media — for better or for worse — has revolutionized the news media,” Ryan told her audience. “It’s a great day when we can find out in a moment’s notice what’s happening around the world.” However, she added, social media has also been a “disservice” due to its fast and divisive politicalization of news.
Ryan noted how a comment — meant as a joke — she made questioning the authenticity of a picture of a pie that Huckabee Sanders posted on social media around Thanksgiving kicked off a firestorm of false reporting about the incident (which quickly became known as “piegate”). Had politics not entered into the issue, Ryan said, she and Huckabee Sanders might have been able to be friends.
“We [Ryan and Huckabee Sanders] could not be human-to-human people because she works for who she works for — someone who doesn’t like me,” Ryan said. “It’s sad. Politics has made us lose family members, lose friends, lose close relationships. … It’s hurtful.”
With the student panelists, Ryan spoke of the importance of presenting all sides of a story and different perspectives in news reporting. Sophomore Katherine Hu ’21, an editor of the Yale Daily News’ Opinion section, shared how she is trying to bring more diversity to the student newspaper, which is an “institution” on campus, she said. She described her work in that regard as “an emotional labor of love,” noting that only one editor in the Yale Daily News’ 141-year history has been a person of color.
Rachel Williams ’20, the former outreach director of the William F. Buckley Jr. Program at Yale, pointed out that the mission of that program is to promote intellectual diversity on the campus.
“If we don’t actively seek to hear other voices,” Williams said, students end up in an “echo chamber,” where they only hear the voices that conform to their own. She said that one of the most effective ways to hear other opinions is by attending the William F. Buckley Jr. Program’s speaker series. “There’s something different when you can be face to face with someone, such as going to a lecture … or meeting a person” with a different viewpoint, she added.
Azaria King ’20, editor in chief of DOWN Magazine, noted that the weekly online publication “for students of color by students of color” helps to “amplify the voices that were often left out of the discourse.”
“DOWN allows us to be our authentic selves,” King told the audience. “It’s important for us to have a space where we can be fully heard.” She added that a diversity of students, not just students of color, have attended events hosted by DOWN Magazine, which helps to promote further conversation.
J. Joseph ’19, a co-creator and filmmaker for the Yale docuseries “Now, In Color” said the series shows “the thriving community of black people here at Yale who are doing wonderful, truly astounding things in their lives as students.”
“The world doesn’t often get to see black students in Ivy League institutions,” he said, noting, however, that the featured students are defined more by their unique experiences than they are by the fact they attend Yale.
Ryan praised the students for their work to promote different voices on campus. Later, while taking questions from the audience, she offered some advice to audience members about their news-watching, reading, or listening. First, she said, “Consider the source. Make sure it’s not an editorial piece but a news piece.” Then, advised Ryan, “get the facts” and “look for the story.” After knowing the facts, it’s then okay to listen to others’ opinions, such as those of talking heads, she said.
Ryan, who was named Journalist of the Year by the National Association of Black Journalists in 2017, also signed copies of her most recent book, “Under Fire: Reporting From the Front Lines of the Trump White House.”