NBC’s Brian Williams reflects on journalism, technology

What does it take to be a good reporter? NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams has several thoughts, including: “Know your audience. Know your subject.” One of America’s most acclaimed journalists on Friday shared with Elon University students his views on the media, technology, and on balancing work and family in a Whitley Auditorium question-and-answer discussion sprinkled with wit and wisdom.

NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams answered questions from students on April 8 in a morning conversation in Whitley Auditorium.

Williams offered his remarks as part of his visit for the 2011 Convocation for Honors one day earlier, an event in which he moderated a conversation between five distinguished panelists who addressed great problems facing humanity.

On April 8, Williams turned his attention to students in the School of Communications. They quizzed the network anchor on his views of the future of TV news while seeking advice on finding success in practicing journalism.

“I have found, and this has been true of the Elon interns we’ve had in our newsroom, these are kids who want it,” he said of the dedication he sees from the top interns with NBC Nightly News. “They’re not from entitlement. They want it. They’re smart. They put themselves in a position where they’re going to make their own luck happen. That will do it for you. Become indispensable!”

Following on a theme that emerged in Convocation, Williams contemplated how some advances in communication technology may possibly be having a detrimental effect on people’s attention, and on their willingness to keep abreast of complex issues.

“We have so much competing for our time and attention,” Williams said.

“We have so much competing for our time and attention. It’s tough,” Williams said. “My worry as someone who gets to travel America and have regular conversations with Americans is that it’s eroding us somehow. I don’t quite know what I’m honing in on, but I hear it’s having a larger effect on society than we yet know, the pace of things, the number of things competing for our attention.”

Williams also reflected on the advances in technology that allow people to wall themselves off from collective activities such as watching popular television programs together. While such technology has definite benefits, such as allowing for the rapid spread of information as seen in several Middle East uprisings, he pondered what society may be sacrificing.

“The collective viewing experience was part of America. We’d all come in in the morning and say, ‘Wow, Carson’s monologue, boy did he kill it.’ And everyone would have seen it,” Williams said before citing some of the distractions found in social media and YouTube. “Now the president is competing with my iPad. He’s competing with a 4-year-old after dental work falling asleep in the back seat. He’s competing with ‘Friday.’”

Williams is the most highly decorated network evening news anchor of the modern era. He has received eleven Edward R. Murrow Awards, 12 Emmy Awards, the duPont-Columbia University Award, the Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence in Journalism and the industry’s highest honor, the George Foster Peabody Award.

Williams is a former NBC News chief White House correspondent and has traveled the world extensively. He has covered numerous nominating conventions and presidential campaigns and elections, and has moderated seven presidential debates. He is married to Jane Stoddard Williams, and together they have a daughter and son, Douglas, who is an Elon student.

Williams, who shared his regret at not finishing college, reminded the audience toward the end of the hour of how privileged students are for the education they receive at Elon, and how it sets them apart from most other people.

“You’re already so fortunate. Trust me. If you’re here in this audience, at this institution, you’re already so far ahead of the game,” he said. “Reflect on that. If you’re having a bad day, remember that. You’re already the recipient of great blessings with a big head start.”