By Donna Francavilla, RTDNA Contributor
"As we cover these events and personas that touch our lives, one thing remains paramount: ethics. If you strive to tell the story with an honest heart and mind, that will put you head and shoulders above the crowd," said long-time news anchor and former Associated Press Reporter of the Year Neal Vickers.
At the Alabama Media Professionals Awards Luncheon in April, Vickers served as the keynote speaker, addressing media pros including journalists, writers, and bloggers. His words touched those in attendance, and frankly, got us all thinking.
I asked Neal to share his speech with me, so that I can share his words of wisdom with you.
"Often, we lack all the facts and our experiences might indicate how we can fill in the unknown details leaving gaps in a story, but what seems obvious to us may be facts foreign to those whose story we tell. We need to keep our perceptions in check. Those labels we might want to use… might not fit at all,” said the journalist who began his career in the early ’70’s when he stuck a microphone in front of the Tennessee governor. “I was a high school kid who didn’t have a clue what I was doing.”
"Ethics and courage go hand in hand. Ethics are the moral high road in journalism. And that path can be a lonely trek. It is easier to tell a story that you like, instead of the one that exposes the ugly underbelly of an issue people often do not care to see or have told."
Vickers, a self-described dinosaur, quoted M. Scott Peck’s first words in the book, The Road Less Traveled: "'Life is difficult.' Those simplistic words precisely describe the challenge facing anyone reporting on the events of life. To do so accurately, you often must grasp the simplest nuance and seek the difficult things that lie underneath the story… effects that may profoundly shape those larger events being reported. It is not our place as journalists to condemn or congratulate; we are the middlemen - simply here to convey the message.”
Neal Vickers is best remembered for his work at WERC and the Birmingham-based Alabama Radio Network. He’s covered landmark stories including the hunt for the bomber of the Birmingham abortion clinic and Atlanta Olympics and the trials of the two klansmen convicted of bombing the 16th Street Church.
Said Vickers, "No words can describe the contempt and hate I saw, displayed in the eyes of Eric Rudolph, as he looked at Felicia Sanderson whose hand I was holding in the federal courtroom, as Rudolph turned to tell her he thought her husband, policeman Sande Sanderson deserved to die in the Birmingham abortion clinic bombing."
Vickers reflected back to his years in the military. "I truly am one of the luckiest people alive. The missile that chased our plane as we took off on one of our trips into Sarajevo reminded me… Our days can end at any second. Those ugly moments we experience in our lives can teach us valuable lessons and expose the dark truths of life."
Vickers, whose first assignment in the military took place in Spain, followed by assignments in Germany, Texas, Arkansas and Washington D.C., also worked in the Office of Secretary of Defense.
"I’ll tell you this… I feel like the luckiest guy in the world. I’ve been fortunate enough to travel the world, to live and experience things many only dream of doing. I feel truly lucky to have lived this life and to continue to experience it. I’ve often been in the right place at the right time to see history made… to give firsthand accounts… to stand face to face with the Presidents, paupers, princesses and protesters who were making it. I’ve seen war and love… depravation and decadence.”
Vickers worked in both radio and television, and has watched the broadcast world change and evolve.
"Still, I anxiously await what lies ahead. As important as history is and as much as I love it… our place is here in the present and in the future that we live and shape. A future where you as journalists are burdened with writing the history our descendants will read as they to try to understand why we did or didn’t do things they will think we should or should not have done."
Given all that’s changed, prompted Vickers to ask, "So, what is the job of a journalist?"
He said, "I see us as communicators… blank sheets of paper where society writes its stories for all to read. We paint pictures with words for those listening to us or reading our narratives. Do we write the truth? If we are honest, we only write the truth as we know it. The truth we know is based on our individual perceptions. My truth may not be the same as your truth, but could be just as valid. Perception; now there’s something I think is often misunderstood in our society today. In this world of Facebook, Twitter and text messages, we tend to label everything. It seems you can burp and it will be claimed it is because you’re either a conservative or a liberal. For some, everything is biased politically, culturally, and any other category you can imagine. Those labels can be very vivid, but still mean different things to different people."
Vickers has been recognized twice by the Associated Press as Reporter of the Year, Investigative Reporter of the Year, and by ABC Radio as a top field contributing reporter to their network. He also has been brought in as an instructor at state and federal workshops teaching media training to participants.