Jennifer Thomas, former CNN executive producer and current Assistant Professor of Broadcast Journalism at Howard University, Washington District of Columbia, United States is what you term beauty and brain. Dressed in a flowered gown and penciled heel shoes, you are amazed at her presentations to her audience and you want her to keep talking. At CNN, Professor Thomas played a vital role in the network coverage of major news stories. The National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences honoured her for her contributions to the network’s September 11 coverage and she received the Peabody Award for her contribution to CNN’s coverage of Hurricane Katrina.
On the invitation of US Consulate to Lagos in commemoration of World Press Freedom Day, which was organized by the Consulate in collaboration with the School of Media and Communication, Pan Atlantic University Lekki, she spoke in an interview with some journalists and journalism students of the university. She fielded some questions from EFFECTS at the event.
What are the take home lessons for journalists on this world press day?
The take home for all journalists will be to remain course and remember that journalism is a calling. They should re-ignite the passion for the calling of journalism. What we do as journalists is so important to the democracy for every nation around the world. So, I think it’s important that we have this day to recognize that fact and to serve as a reminder for those of us in it to fight a good fight and to stay the course, it’s not an easy job, but we are in a noble profession and we just have to remain and re-ignite the passion for that.
How does one detect fake news?
There are lots of things you can do, but I think the first thing is to consider the source. In life as well, consider the source. Check who is the writer, l mean the byline, does it look real? Oftentimes, it may be a satire type, that is something you find in someone who is trying to deliberately deceive with information, look at the photograph, these are some of the basic things I think we can do so as to identify if a story is fake or not. It might be hard sometimes, because social media is everywhere. And news is out instantaneously, so, sometimes it’s often hard to tell what is real or not.
Any challenge being a female journalist in the US?
After my graduation, l got a job in the newsroom, l was the youngest and the only black woman in my entire newsroom then. But, twenty years later, when I left CNN as an executive producer I wasn’t the youngest anymore. I was the only black woman who was an executive producer in the entire network. The challenges facing black women in the news media in US are very real, but I never let that stop me. I’m proud of who I am, I’m proud of my look, I’m proud of my hair. You don’t have to like me, you don’t have to like the dress I’m wearing, the heels I’m wearing, but you cannot discount my work. That is something that I tell my students all the time. People may hate you but, they can’t touch the credibility of the work. So, let the work speak for itself. That is how I train myself. I have thousands stories for being in male dominated business. My mother would say ten thousand times, never have a problem speaking up. In fact, black female journalists have been blatantly disrespected just for doing their fundamental role- as defenders of democracy and freedom fighters of the First Amendment. One of these journalists, Abby Philip, was a panelist at a forum at Howard University sponsored by the Association of Black Journalists, which took place before the most recent events. During this session, in which the journalists shared their experiences of covering the White House, Philip underscored her commitment to doing her job with integrity, while trying to block out the other “noise” from the naysayers.
Have you ever wanted to quit as a journalist?
Yes but, these were just for personal reasons. Like when I think of going on a vacation, I always think unduly, having to be on the women call of breaking news whether I’m on vacation or on holiday. So, those were the times that I was looking at my friends and colleagues from school who had typical 9-5 jobs and were doing much better things with their time, I thought at times when I’m being called up for work at bad weather, storms coming and they will come and pick us up and drive us to the station or the hotel to make sure we can get to work- those were the times I get reconsidered about the job. I never thought of leaving because of bad story or negative situation. We all have bad days and sometimes I think that in this issue some kind of care is so important. During September 11, we were working for days on air without days off. They have to bring counselors in, because it was affecting people so much. One of my associate producers ended up quitting because of the stress that it has caused her, she later came back to the business but she needed a break. I can see how people can get much stressed. Since I left CNN full time, everything seems to change, my hair started growing, my skin getting clearer, I started resting better, and I don’t recognize how much stress I have been carrying on regular basis.
If you weren’t a journalist what would you have been?
A Jazz singer. I actually sing a lot. I was a performer at the, 2003 Atlanta jazz festival. So I love to sing. If I weren’t a journalist, hopefully, I would have been a successful Jazz singer.
Who influenced you the more while growing up, your mum or dad?
Both of them of course. My mother is gentle and kind. My father always tells me to stand up and speak up. My father was actually active in civil rights in Mississippi, helping to register people of hope, I think I get my drive to speak up and push back from my father. My mother always encourages us to see the world and to explore, to be proud of who we are, and to look like a lady. So, I take that from her.
What would you say about your visit to Nigeria?
This is my first time. I must say I felt very welcome from the moment I arrived at the very busy airport. That was from the time a sister was guiding me to the passport counter, she said, go this way. It was the Nigerian passport corner and I had to correct her and said No, I’m in the other line. So, I felt very welcome that moment. So, from the airport I met other people who were very friendly exchanging pleasantries while saying good morning, good afternoon and good evening. The crazy traffic, also reminds me of New York City times two. The delicious cuisine that I have had since I have been here in Lagos. The moi-moi, vegetable soup and the different types of rice. I was told not to debate if the rice is better with Nigeria or from Ghana and I said I know where I am and I know which rice is best. I feel very welcomed and much honoured to be in Nigeria. When I first received the email and the call from the US State Department about the invitation, by the US consulate in Lagos, I must say I was surprised. I would say there are lots of notable people who can be here, but for some reasons they chose me. I want to say thank you.
How do you unwind?
Sometimes, I unwind with wine. I’m also into singing. I don’t sing as much as I used to. I used to sing jazz. I sing a lot in church. In just typical days, I like to have dinners, I like to go out with friends, when I was in news full time, my way of unwinding was coming home watching Reality TV, I watch project runway, top chef and other soft shows. I used to wonder, why am I watching all these? The day I talked to few of my friends and another friend of the same church and another classmate of mine who is now a judge , we all watch a lot of shows. When we realized, this, we all said, the reality could be so negative in life, why do I want to come home and watch a crime show. Where we try and solve someone murdered, we do that on air every day. I also like getting Spa treatments. I think that is very important.
You look stylish; do you wear heels all the time?
My colleagues who are with me can attest that the heels are in the bag and I walk around in my flats, when I get to where I am going the heels come on. I tell my students is fine to walk around those high heels now , because they will be limping by the time they get to my age(laughs) I actually wear heels to work and when I’m walking around the office, I wear flats all the time.