It’s once again graduation season, and hundreds of thousands of newly minted degree holders are donning their mortarboards for commencement ceremonies across the country, made memorable, often, by celebrity speakers. Among the well-known speakers this year have been a few recognizable journalists, and, among their witticisms and words of wisdom for new graduates were a few lessons for the rest of us, too.
‘Degradation of discourse’
Unsurprisingly, several commencement speakers with front-row seats to the “fake news” slugfest in Washington and beyond began by decrying the state of discourse in our country today.
CBS’ “Face the Nation” moderator Margaret Brennan told graduates of Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, “I fear sometimes that all of us have lost the ability to listen to each other, have civil conversations, and to really educate and inform.”
“Political norms are under attack from all sides,” NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell told University of Pennsylvania graduates. “Facts are described as alternative and truths are relative.”
Empirical fact itself is corroding, University of Massachusetts Amherst graduates heard from CNN’s Jake Tapper. We’re living in “a world of social media where every bad impulse, every negative nasty thought, every shallow, glib cut-down can be shared the very moment it’s conceived,” he said.
Increasing divisions affect everyone, but are a particular challenge for those of us in the news business as the furious pace of news cycles makes it increasingly difficult to separate “the substance from the shiny object,” and the fundamental issues from political personalities, according to Brennan.
“We all fall victim to believing what we want to believe and ignoring the evidence, but the truth is seldom as stark as we want it to be.” – Jake Tapper
While journalists are struggling to keep up with the pace of information, the larger threat of an untrusting public looms.
“If the public feels it cannot trust us to provide accurate and impartial information that means the state of journalism – of basic fact gathering – has become a national security issue.” – Margaret Brennan
“More than ever we need people to be guided by their own senses of principle—and not the whims of a culture that prizes ambition, and sensationalism, and celebrity, and vulgarity, and doing whatever it takes to win,” Ronan Farrow, who shares a Pulitzer Prize for reporting on Harvey Weinstein, told Loyola Marymount grads.
Tapper put it a bit more succinctly: “When the indecent becomes commonplace is not the time for good people like you to follow suit.”
That means seeking truth, and not just journalists, but in all disciplines, David Muir told University of Wisconsin Madison’s commencement goers.
“You’ve got to know who you are and whose you are and walk boldly into the light sometimes.” - April Ryan
It means standing up and speaking out when things are wrong in the world, said White House correspondent April Ryan to Claflin University.
It means never sacrificing your most valuable asset: your integrity, Brennan said.
“Embrace the Fear”
That’s what David Muir told graduates, echoing a familiar commencement theme. With enormous expectations and perhaps uncertain futures, graduates’ journeys – and our own – can be uncertain.
There will be moments of fear, and moments of self-doubt.
“Trying to do work you believe in before the moment of impact,” is a challenge we all face, Farrow said.
There will be wrong turns, said Tapper, but also serendipitous moments, said Mitchell.
Be ready for adventure, Bob Priddy, 2-time RTDNA chair and 27-year board member told the University of Missouri, Columbia College of Arts and Sciences, reflecting on the many hats we may wear throughout life and the adventures they reflect through their wear and tear.
“You will remember the diems that you did not carpe.” – Jake Tapper
Advice for journalism & for life
Speeches wouldn’t be graduation addresses without some tried-and-true advice for anxious graduates. CBS Evening News Anchor Jeff Glor kept it positive at the Syracuse University Newhouse School’s Convocation with lessons that we’d all do well to remember:
“A marathon is not easy. The final step is what captures attention. Every step before it is what counts.” – Jeff Glor
- “Good ideas always start as bad copy.”
- “Make every story, every interview, every line of copy your best.”
- “Put respect and truth into every story assigned to you.”
- “Write as much as you possibly can. It is the only way you get better at it.”
- Believe in yourself and believe in the path
Other journalists followed suit with advice for journalists:
“I urge you to resist the temptation to subject yourself only to that which reaffirms what you already think” – Jake Tapper
- “Stick to our core mission: providing a reality check.” - Mitchell
- Don’t forget that we’re not the story, we’re the storytellers. - Brennan
- Aim your cameras on people in your communities to emphasize small victories. – Muir
- “Avoid the masses, love what you do, love who you are, be nice to each other, embrace the humanity of everyone -- especially those you don’t understand.” - Tapper
- Have the confidence to take chances and take advantage of unexpected opportunities - Mitchell
Learning Never Stops
“Do not presume to know who you might become, because you never finish becoming” – Andrea Mitchell
The most resounding lesson: learning never stops. That’s one lesson two slightly more “senior” graduating seniors make clear this year.
Larry Johnson, 66, just graduated from Georgia State University, 49 years and several careers after first enrolling. He has some advice for the rest of us: "We've all got a finite number of years, and a person should ask themselves, 'What else am I going to do?' Say I've got five years left to go," he said. "I want to spend it doing journalism."
Marijo Vik, 72, received a multi-media journalism degree from Minnesota State University – Moorhead this year. She also started college once many years ago before life and work got in the way. She found her journalism career later in life after her detailed notes on a community meeting made their way to a local paper’s editor.
She had to embrace her fear to complete the required multi-media classes following a few false starts, but in the end, she says, “I just love to tell stories with the visual as well as the written!”
She said of her fellow graduates: “They’ve got the whole world in front of them, and so do I!”
And so do you – if you embrace your fear, hold true to yourself and your ethical compass and persist even in challenging times.
So toss that hat – mortarboard, thinking cap, or several hats you may be wearing at once – to how far you’ve come and where you’ve yet to go.