If you want a passionate explanation of “fake news,” just ask Yevette Brown. According to the Emmy Award-winning television producer and professor of media studies at Governors State University, “The truth is the truth. You have gray areas sometimes but facts are facts. There is no such thing as alternative facts. There’s no such thing as fake news.”
Over 22 years, Brown’s career took her from CBS Television Chicago newsroom of legendary reporters Bill Curtis and Walter Jacobson to NBC, then to WTTW public television, on to Johnson Communications, and then to a successful career as a freelance writer and producer. Joining the GSU faculty 20 years ago enabled her to keep working at a profession she loved, but also to share her considerable passion and train the next generation.
The combination is a natural fit. “You’re a lifelong learner as a producer. It’s always about updating and changing,” she said. “That’s also what you do as a professor. And a class is a production. I have to research it, write it and deliver it.”
Brown has seen significant change in her profession as technology … including the emergence of “citizen journalists” whose cell phone videos vastly expanded reporting and forever changed the medium. But, she says, “It’s always about the story and telling it well. You’re still a journalist. You still have to get the story, vet it and deliver it to your audience. It’s still the same job.”
Her most recent project is Respond to Violence, a multimedia initiative designed to help and empower people affected by violence, including members of the GSU community.
GSU Newsroom: Why did you go into journalism?
Brown: I’ve always loved to write and I was looking for a way to write and make a career at it. In the early 1970s, I was part of the first generation of producers who were going to universities to learn TV instead of working as reporters and broadcasters when they were in the army or navy.
Women were just starting to enter TV in a big way. I decided this degree in broadcasting from the University of Illinois at Chicago would be fun. But I wanted to be overqualified because it was very competitive, so I got my master’s in television and film from Northwestern University.
GSU Newsroom: Has it been hard to keep up with changing technology?
Brown: I had a professor, Dr. Joel Sternberg, who knew the three-quarter-inch videotape we were using was just the beginning. We had started with the very heavy reel to reel two-inch tape, and the tapes were getting smaller and smaller until today tape has simply disappeared with cameras becoming tapeless. Smaller tape made for smaller cameras making video crews more mobile. Sternberg, said one day, everyone would have the ability to be a reporter/TV producer. He was saying technology would become accessible to the everyday person who would have stories to report. Change is normal. What you do is learn, retool, and move to the next thing. That’s what I try to teach my students.
GSU Newsroom: How has social media impacted traditional media?
Brown: Everyone has a camera on their phone and that has changed the way journalism can be reported. Now you have eyes and ears all over the world. Being able to shoot a video and say, “Look what I saw,” is the beginning of a story. It’s not the story but it’s the beginning. Citizens can be part of it. I don’t think that’s bad. I don’t feel threatened by it. I hope they call me first with their video.
We have a social media class to teach students how use and understand social media. Today this technology is important to storytelling. During a recent refugee crisis, people at the scene were broadcasting through apps such as Periscope. Other journalists picked it up and did their due diligence. We used it as a case study to ask, what is journalism? What does it mean? Who’s a journalist? What’s a story? How do you vet it?
GSU Newsroom: How do you talk to students about “fake news?”
Brown: It comes under ethics in every Media class. With technology, unfortunately, everybody’s trying to scoop their competition and sometimes they move too fast for the story to fully unfold. As media producers, and journalists, we accept the fact that sometimes we get it wrong. And if you are truly honoring the journalistic tenets, you know to retract, correct and apologize quickly. But we get it right a lot more than we get it wrong. A lot more.
I talk about the Constitution. There’s a reason why a free press is important to democracy. It’s your right as a citizen to hear the truth as we find it, and to vet it. When did we decide one person would be the one to tell you that your media is not just fake but dangerous? Who is this person and why do you give that authority to them? The reason you have a free press is so no one person or entity would ever have that power.
GSU Newsroom: Why did you create the Respond to Violence project?
Brown: I became part of the story of gun violence in Chicago. In 2012 my son was driving home from the grocery store when he was shot in the arm by a stray bullet, one of 19 people shot that weekend. When one person isn’t safe, nobody’s safe. I thought, what could we do? Is there anything one voice could add? I’m a journalist, producer, writer, academic. I put together a multimedia project to pull together all the things the GSU community does to combat violence, to help prevent it, to give voice to victims. This year we’re going to have more short video pieces done by student reporters in our media studies production classes. You will be able to view the content on the Respond to Violence.com website.
It’s always about the story, no matter what I’m telling, including Respond to Violence. I’m passionate about it because as a media professor it’s my job to inspire future reporters, producers and writers to ask the hard questions and tell the important stories. It is one of the greatest joys of my work.