Ann Curry, Emmy-winning former NBC co-anchor and reporter-at-large who is currently developing her own media start-up, delivered a message of encouragement and optimism to the Stony Brook University journalism students that were among the crowd filling the Staller Center Tuesday night.
“The willingness to stand up and fight for stories that matter to the world is a fundamental ethic of journalism,” said Curry.
Before Curry left her full-time position at NBC News to report for a variety of outlets, and before she was summarily axed from her co-hosting gig at The Today Show, she spent years covering international atrocities. Curry took to the podium in a presentation hosted by the Stony Brook School of Journalism and the Marie Colvin Center for International Reporting.
Foreign correspondents, like Marie Colvin, a Long Island native who was killed in 2012 while reporting from Syria, are a “truly committed,” “ancient tribe,” of a “continuum of truth seekers,” said Curry. Marie Colvin’s mother, Rosemarie; sister, Cathleen; niece, Jennifer; brother William; and a family friend, sat listening close to the stage.
Curry remembered that at age 12, she asked her father, a career Navy man, what she should be when she grows up. “Do something that is of service to other people so you will know on your last day that it mattered that you were here.”
Curry, 58, grew up during Watergate, the women’s rights movement, the civil rights movement, and Vietnam. She remembers being affected by the impact of Walter Cronkite.
“Giving people information was a kind of service,” said Curry. “Are you willing to take on the burden of someone else’s story and not get it wrong?”
A career in journalism, Curry said, is a noble pursuit and worthwhile ambition. She spoke of the virtue of giving “a voice to the voiceless” but acknowledged the industry is in a state of flux.
The advent of the web and the rapid shift in the media landscape have upended traditional business models, and funding for investigative and international reporting has often borne the brunt of budget cuts at many news organizations. For Curry, however, the essentials of quality reporting remain unaffected—telling an accurate story that matters.
The web is “unpredictable and intoxicating” said Curry as she urged students to prioritize quality of information before “page views, downloads, or retweets.” Although it’s “always good when stories that matter are also popular.”
Curry told the audience of a conversation she had that was emblematic of the struggle to tell a potentially unpopular story.
Before one of Curry’s six trips to Darfur, Sudan, a country embroiled in a Civil War that would lead to genocide, a friend told Curry she was brave. Curry shrugged off the comment replying that the Janjaweed, the notorious Sudanese militia that were terrorizing the region, weren’t interested in attacking reporters. She realized that it wasn’t her life, but her career that she was putting at risk when her friend replied, “No, I mean you are brave because no one cares about a story in Africa.”
Curry would go on to interview world leaders like Bashar al-Assad, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, and Benazir Bhutto. Long before those encounters though, Curry was a student at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism.
“J-School taught me why we do it,” said Curry, speaking privately to a group of student journalists after her presentation. “That is the most fundamental most important realization you need to have.”
Though she graduated with a degree in journalism, Curry did not immediately find a job in the field. She worked as a cocktail waitress before landing an internship at a local TV station, becoming the station’s first female news anchor, joining NBC Chicago, and rising to co-anchor of Dateline NBC.
Curry remembers constantly studying on lunch breaks, before work and after work. “I would not allow myself to not be smart enough,” said Curry. “I was willing to work really really hard.”
Now, Curry is working independently. Instead of reporting for a single media outlet she is free to fight for the stories she cares about while being able to share those stories with any outlet as an independent journalist.
Her independence comes after a highly publicized and controversial departure from NBC’s Today Show. Rumors swirled about Curry’s tearful exit from the show and whether co-anchor, Matt Lauer, was to blame.
She said it’s a “sort of” departure from NBC News. Her new position “allows her the freedom to report on any platform and on any network, including NBC News,” according to a news release.
Separately, according to the release, her media startup, backed by NBCUniversal will focus on “producing content of national and global importance.”
“The struggle to find the truth is hard,” said Curry. She acknowledged the importance of humility. Television “does seem to attract people who want to be famous,” but “the news is not about us—it’s not about your byline. It’s about giving a voice to people.”
“The comments she made to fight for stories that matter is terrific,” said Howard Schneider, Dean of the School of Journalism, calling the pursuit an “ethical imperative.”
Steven Reiner, a former producer for 60 Minutes and a broadcast journalism professor said he was struck by the fact that Curry “really, truly believes in this point in her life and career that journalism is a higher calling.” She sees people’s stories are “precious commodities” to handle with the highest care.
Curry said, “Gombaru!” to Stony Brook journalism students. The Japanese saying she learned from her immigrant mother means to “never ever ever ever” give up.
“More often than not you will see that your work has not made a difference—do it anyway.” Become one of the “greats like Marie Colvin,” said Curry.
“Go to those dark places where no one is looking and shine a light that might awaken the world.”
Reported by Jessica Opatich
Photographs by Ji Min Kim and Alida Almonte
Video by Jaclyn Lattanza