During her life, journalist and Simmons alumna Gwen Ifill ‘77 ‘93HD was committed to not only asking important questions but also truly listening to the answers. That sentiment was front and center during the first annual Ifill Forum on October 19 at Simmons University.
Approximately 300 alumnae, community members, students, faculty, staff, and friends of Gwen Ifill attended the Forum to experience what Dean Brian Norman described as an event that invited “important national voices for a conversation of a pressing issue. The Ifill Forum seeks to ask the questions that Gwen herself would be asking of our world today.”
The issue of the day was “Race, Media, and Democracy,” and those national voices consisted of Yamiche Alcindor, White House Correspondent, PBS NewsHour; Asma Khalid, Political Correspondent, NPR; Maya Valentine '19, Press Assistant, U.S. House of Representatives; and Judy Woodruff, Anchor and Managing Editor, PBS NewsHour.
Before the conversation began, the first Gwen Ifill Next Generation Award was presented to Alcindor by Woodruff. The newly created award recognizes a professional who exhibits the promise to carry on the work of fostering civic dialogue and an informed, diverse citizenry.
In addition to her work as a White House Correspondent, Alcindor is also a political contributor for NBC News and MSNBC and formerly reported for The New York Times and USA Today. She was named the “Emerging Journalist of the Year” in 2013 by the National Association of Black Journalists.
Woodruff and Alcindor both share a special connection to Ifill: Woodruff and Ifill were the first two women to co-anchor a national news broadcast when they took the helm of PBS NewsHour in 2013, and Ifill served as a mentor to Alcindor early in her career. In her reflections about Ifill, Alcindor remembered her saying, “Never let them give you a nickname. Be proud of who you are. Own who you are.”
In presenting the award, Woodruff stated that Alcindor brings a passion for news and a focus on Americans of all backgrounds. “If Gwen were alive, she’d be swelling with pride.”
Ifill College Assistant Professor of Practice Rachel Gans-Boriskin moderated the discussion, which touched on several topics, including the ongoing need to diversify our media outlets. As Valentine pointed out, “This lack of diversity is systemic…we haven’t been allowed in these spaces. We’re the most diverse congress in history. There was a deliberate intent behind that.”
Panelists noted that the numbers still don’t reflect the diversity of the country at large and we’re not keeping pace. Khalid observed that in fact, people of color are leaving the industry.
Alcindor made the point that it’s difficult being a credible news organization if you don’t look like your audience. Woodruff added that it’s important to cultivate journalists who reflect socioeconomic diversity as well.
Gans-Boriskin asked the panel to discuss the voices we don’t hear, and the issue of responsibility when it comes to discussing race.
Khalid observed that many stories just don’t get covered, and there is such a strong focus on the office of the president. Woodruff commented that this focus didn’t start with the Trump administration and has been the norm for the last 40 years.
Woodruff also stated that it’s up to all journalists to ask difficult questions about race. Alcindor commented that “Black journalists shouldn’t be forced to cover Black issues if they don’t want to, but they shouldn’t be ashamed if they do.” She further noted that it’s a delicate balance of recognizing that someone has a lot of experience while also not saddling them with this burden.
Khalid echoed Woodruff and explained that white journalists must look at stories through a lens that stretches beyond their own experiences in order to better understand the dynamic.
Inevitably the topic of labeling was addressed, specifically in relation to how some in the media have described Trump as a racist. Woodruff was firm in her belief that it’s not the role of journalists to label people: “We report, we describe and we share as much as detail, to let the public decide.”
Alcindor agreed: “Judy reminds us what journalism is — describing what happened.”
As Dean Norman closed the program, he reminded the audience that these types of conversations are essential for a healthy democracy and civil society. Similarly, following the discussion, Khalid tweeted her appreciation for the opportunity to discuss these timely topics and her appreciation for this Forum’s namesake:
“I don’t think there's a journalist of color on air these days who doesn’t owe a debt of gratitude to the inimitable Gwen Ifill.”