Multiple Emmy-award-winning journalist and news veteran Byron Pitts recently presented a webinar titled “Media and Race: A Conversation with Byron Pitts, ABC Nightline.”
Assistant Professor of Communication Alan Buck led the session with Pitts, co-anchor of ABC’s Nightline, who spoke to students, alumnae, and other members of the Meredith community about his professional journey and issues of race in the industry.
Pitts was invited to speak as part of Meredith’s annual Communication (COM) Week. He came to Meredith through a connection with Buck; they met several years ago at the College Media Association conference in New York City and have stayed in touch ever since.
The presentation, held February 23, had an impact on students.
“I’ve been getting texts and emails ever since from students who are now more interested in news and him in particular, so that makes me very happy,” said Buck.
Born in Baltimore, Md., Pitts graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University. A first-generation college student, Pitts said his mother strongly supported his education because she believed in its power to change the trajectory of a person’s life.
“My mother believed there was nothing prayer and faith and hard work couldn’t overcome.”
Pitts said he learned to read later than most and worked hard to overcome a stutter. He always had clear goals that he was working toward, noting that successful people are not necessarily the most talented but the most deliberate.
His first job after graduating from college was as sports information director for Shaw University, but his goal was always to pursue a career in journalism. To that end he interned not once but twice at WTVD, where he met one of his first mentors, Larry Stogner, a venerable anchor for the ABC news channel. Because of that connection, Stogner put in a good word that helped Pitts get his start in journalism at WNCT in Greenville, N.C.
He spent 15 years in local TV before moving to a national position. Pitts said he always approached his career strategically. For example, he chose to be stationed in Norfolk, Va., because of its strong military presence. He knew that by working in that area he would develop connections with young officers that could pay off as he moved to a larger stage.
“Every person I admired had covered war at some point in their career,” he said.
He brought that same strategic mindset to his daily work, spending some of his on-camera time “winging it” rather than adhering to a script. That flexible approach honed his ability to speak on his feet and read the emotional climate, skills that became critical when covering 9/11.
“For me, 9/11 was the worst day of my professional life but also, it reaffirmed a lot of the work I had done in preparation for that moment,” he said.
When asked about the challenges he has overcome as a Black man working in the media world, he said he has always known that one of the things people saw when interacting with him professionally was the color of his skin. “It has cut both ways, but it has probably worked against me more than for me.”
He took the view that it was incumbent upon him to help others see his humanity.
“I am a Black man. I am unapologetically Black and I am proud of that,” he said. “But more than that, I’m a child of God and I am convinced that what God has for me no man can give it and no man can take it away.”
To his mind, there has never been a better time to be a journalist than right now because the pandemic and other challenges facing the U.S. mean legitimate journalists have to be even more serious.
“How do you earn trust? By telling the truth soberly and accurately as you can.”
In reflecting on Meredith’s mission statement, he told students integrity is part of being an educated person.“The most successful people have integrity,” he said. “Our nation needs your energy, your intellect, and your integrity.”
Pitts encouraged students to be deliberate about their approach to their careers, but to also have big dreams.
“Whatever your goal is, it should be so big people laugh out loud.”
Other COM Week events included an induction ceremony for Lambda Pi Eta honor society and a session with TV producer Susan LaSalla, who spoke with students and alumnae about her 43 year career at NBC news, including her role at The Today Show.