The Gwen Ifill College of Media, Arts, and Humanities Hosts Ifill Forum "Truth, Resilience, and Democracy"
We are beacons of truth, not beliefs.
— Robin Roberts
The Gwen Ifill College of Media, Arts, and Humanities hosted the third annual Ifill Forum on Saturday, November 6. A model of intellectual curiosity and truth-seeking, Gwen Ifill '77, '93HD inspired this annual event aimed at bringing together national voices for an eye-opening and dynamic discussion on the important issues of our time.
The issue of the day was “Truth, Resilience, and Democracy,” and those national voices consisted of Robin Roberts, co-anchor of the nation’s top-rated morning news program Good Morning America, and Kevin Merida, editor of the Los Angeles Times. The panel discussion was moderated by former journalist and Simmons University Associate Professor Traci Griffith and included two student panelists, Kate Farrell ‘23 and Kylie Collins ‘23.
Over 800 participants across the nation registered for the virtual Forum to experience what Dean Brian Norman described as “a conversation that asks the hard questions about resilience — both personal and in our democratic institutions — and the possibilities for community, racial justice, and civic life in a profoundly divided nation.”
Before the conversation began, the Gwen Ifill Next Generation Award was presented to Roberts by Washington Post columnist Michele Norris. The award recognizes someone who embodies Gwen Ifill’s legacy through professional excellence, civic engagement and mentoring the diversity and talents of the next generation in their field.
Under Roberts’ leadership, ABC’s Good Morning America has won numerous Emmy Awards for Outstanding Morning Program and the 2017 People’s Choice Award for Favorite Daytime TV Hosting Team.
In presenting the award, Norris discussed how Ifill’s legacy lives on in Roberts’ work and spirit. She went on to explain that even though Ifill is no longer with us, her legacy "is like a mighty river with many tributaries." Every time the Gwen Ifill Next Generation Award is presented, a new tributary flows in another direction that “continues in the work of standing as a beacon for truth, justice and journalism with a capital ‘J.’”
[Gwen's] legacy is like a mighty river with many tributaries.
“Gwen talked about being a beacon of trust, and I know that you represent that in such an elegant way,” said Norris of Roberts. “...it’s about the statement you make in the questions you ask, through the role that you play in deciding what is important and what is going to be in that first segment. We know that you shape that broadcast and you stand as a beacon of trust in doing that.”
Roberts accepted the award and discussed the many commonalities she shared with Ifill, from their childhoods to cancer. In her journalistic efforts, Roberts quoted Ifill in saying, “we are beacons of truth, not beliefs.” She continued by asserting that she always strives to have the story "cause a reaction that leads to action,” just like Gwen Ifill used to do.
Simmons University President Lynn Perry Wooten echoed those words as she introduced the panel discussion. She outlined how this year has been a battle between truth and beliefs associated with the pandemic, politics, and racial, social, and economic injustices in the nation.
“As we engage in this important conversation,” said Wooten, “I encourage each of us to consider how we can use our skills, talents, and passion to foster truth and resilience so we can drive meaningful change.”
Associate Professor Traci Griffith kicked off the discussion with questions involving truth and neutrality in the journalistic profession. She reported that according to recent surveys, many Americans believe that news sources are biased and asked panelists to comment on how to correct this impression.
Merida began by stating that some of this is out of their control, but what is in their control is how they represent themselves. Today journalists must engage in debates and discussions about their work, and show how they came to a conclusion.
“The best journalism does guide people,” said Merida. “You’re leading people to consume the story based on the reporting, the facts, and the information you have… Generally, the best journalism helps you think.”
Generally, the best journalism helps you think.
Roberts agreed — “My job is to present the facts and leave it up to the person who consumes those facts.”
Inevitably the January 6 insurrection on the Capitol was addressed as the conversation transitioned from news bias to the topic of democracy. Griffith remarked that some political scientists are asking if irreparable damage was done to the US democracy because of this event.
Although the panelists all agreed that the insurrection did not shake the fabric of democracy, Farrell noted that she was not altogether surprised that an insurrection occurred, as she grew up in a deeply divided, post 9/11 society.
“It’s something we should continually look back on to remind ourselves to move forward,” Farrell advised.
Collins commented on the resilience of democracy, noting that the Constitution was created so a singular person or event could not up-end an entire institution.
“If this causes more people to engage with democracy,” said Collins, “then it is not wasted. It was a dark day, but not irreparable.”
Roberts and Merida also took time to give Simmons students advice on entering the workforce. Merida discussed how much the media landscape has changed — now the digital era has many new entry points and opportunities. He encouraged new graduates to take these opportunities and learn from the successes of people they admire.
“The best way to go about it is to be your absolute best,” said Roberts, expanding on Merida’s advice.
Griffith wrapped up the conversation by asking panelists to consider Ifill’s legacy today. Merida reflected on the immensity of Ifill’s ambition but noted that it was never at the expense of others. He remembers that she made herself accessible to those who wanted to achieve what she had already done. Ifill always had time for other people.
“No matter how big she got, she’s the same person I met at the very beginning,” concluded Merida. “If you can live through the world like that, you have accomplished something really important.”
Roberts also urged attendees to remain resilient in the face of adversity, just like Ifill: “Don’t let fear keep you from your destiny.”