Gwen Ifill, co-anchor and co-managing editor of PBS NewsHour and the College of William and Mary’s 2015 Hunter B. Andrews Distinguished Fellow in American Politics, met with the College community March 30 and 31.
In addition to working with PBS NewsHour, Ifill serves as a moderator for PBS’ “Washington Week,” a 30-minute roundtable discussion of current, major stories in politics that airs every Friday.
During her visit to the College, Ifill visited multiple classes, including “Media and Society,” fielding students’ questions as well as making inquiries of her own.
Sydney MaHan ’16 was intrigued to learn how Ifill handles politicians while maintaining objectivity.
“[Learning about] how she does her reporting is interesting just because it gives us a new perspective from someone within the industry,” MaHan said. “I think it was a good idea [that she came to campus] just because through engagement we learn more about not only what the school’s initiatives are, but what other people in the profession are doing.”
Ifill enjoyed the student meetings as well, she said.
Ifill also said one of her favorite aspects of visiting the College is that she gets to learn something. By listening to and interacting with students in a casual setting, she can hear their observations so that she may better connect with them as a journalist.
“I am very keenly aware of the fact that what I do every day doesn’t always necessarily trickle down to college student-aged people,” Ifill said. “I also know it’s important that I figure a way to speak to them so I get that by gauging what they’re interested in and what they respond to about what I say and what kind of questions they have and it invigorates me, it gives me something to take back.”
Ifill is often recognized for her contribution to journalism. She recently won the American News Women’s Club “Excellence in Journalism” Award and has visited many colleges and universities, usually as a commencement speaker. Ifill has also received more than 20 honorary doctorates.
Andrews Fellows are chosen for their contribution to American politics through journalism, academics or politics.
“I’m really quite honored. It’s one thing to be invited to come and speak on a college campus, but it’s another thing to get the opportunity to actually get involved and engaged on many different levels,” Ifill said. “I speak on a lot of college campuses, but I don’t get to spend time, so this is really a nice little break.”
Ifill not only impressed students, but also Associate Vice President of Communications and University Relations Brian Whitson. Whitson said he has been a fan of Ifill for years and was excited to bring her to campus.
“She is such a respected journalist and someone we can all learn from. The Hunter Andrews Fellowship allows our students to interact directly with journalists, politicians and scholars who are at the very top of their fields,” Whitson said in an email. “What an honor to be able to spend some time with her. It has been a great opportunity for everyone on campus.”
In addition to her contribution to the craft as a journalist and editor, Ifill is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and serves on the advisory board of the Committee to Protect Journalists, as well as on the board of the News Literacy Project.
According to Ifill, the News Literacy Project targets high school-aged students who are just forming their opinions about journalism. It aims to teach them what to expect from the media and features professionals who practice strong journalism.
Ifill said that she joined the project because the public didn’t seem to know what “real facts” were anymore, and it was the journalists’ responsibility to correct that.
“I’m not sure anyone ever loved journalists because nobody ever loves anyone who asks hard questions, but I do think we have contributed to our own bad view because we’ve allowed what true journalism is to get confused with faux journalism — people who just talk of people who just express an opinion, who don’t necessarily do anything to actually make a real difference,” Ifill said. “Real journalism is supposed to shed light and not just create heat, and as a result, people can be forgiven for thinking that we’ve lost our way, so it’s our responsibility to find our way back.”
Freelance journalist Stephanie Hanes was on campus over the weekend to speak at the College’s TEDx event. Her talk focused on public fear caused by the media and the responsibility she believes the journalism business has to correct it.
Like Hanes, Ifill has several ideas about what the media could be doing better.
“I want us to focus on the reason we’re there, the reason they let us in the room, the reason we have the privilege of having the ear of the American public and to tell stories that don’t get told, tell them well, [and] to try to hear unheard voices,” Ifill said. “How do we expose, and listen to, the voices of people who won’t get heard otherwise?”
Ifill believes the consumer bears some of the responsibility for the news they choose to consume and the way they opt to view it — exactly what the News Literary Project aims to address.
Past journalists honored as Andrews Fellows are former Washington Post columnist David Broder and journalist, author and Supreme Court scholar Linda Greenhouse. The 2014 recipient was former U.S. Senator Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.).