From 7-8 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 14 at the UH Student Center Theater, White House correspondent Tamara Keith will be giving a speech in “Evening with NPR White House Correspondent Tamara Keith” in conjunction with the UH Symposium “Collaboration: Women Re-making American Political Culture.”
Tamara Keith has covered topics from the American economy to the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake. She’s a journalism role model who prioritizes asking questions and respecting the emotional core of each topic.
In a recent Q&A, Keith shared her journalism roots with Cooglife.
Cooglife: Considering you possess a Bachelor in Philosophy from Berkeley, how has your philosophy education helped you as a journalist?
Keith: “Majoring in philosophy was one of the hardest things I have ever done. Contrary to popular belief, it isn’t a joke major like underwater basket weaving or something. It taught me how to think critically and how to break an argument apart. In journalism digging into what someone is saying and keying in on the flaws in the logic can be a very big part of the job, especially covering politics.
In the White House press briefings, I spend a lot of time listening to other people’s questions, looking for what the press secretary is purposely leaving out and then I try to craft a set of questions of my own that will dig into the soft spot he is trying to hide.”
Cooglife: In your journalism career, what was probably the most challenging topic to cover? Were there topics that were emotionally devastating to cover?
Keith: “Throughout my career, I’ve covered a lot of disasters. Earthquakes, fires, more fires…I’ve been with people when they discovered their home burned to the ground. That is always incredibly hard. I mean, the last thing people need is a reporter putting a microphone in their face while they are experiencing a terrible loss.
But when we are weak, we are most human and I feel like it is important for listeners to experience that right along with the people I am interviewing. It is what makes a disaster real for the audience. It is what makes people drop what they are doing and help out.
The Haiti earthquake was probably the most difficult thing I have ever covered. In particular, this story (about the Montana Hotel in Haiti) left me shaking.
But I also did this story (about the Haitian eatery that distributed food to the earthquake victims) which really highlights the good people do. People heard the story and started sending in money, meaning more people got meals. That is incredibly rewarding.”
Cooglife: How do you see journalism evolving years from now? Although you have received much acclaim, what ways do you seek to improve yourself and keep evolving?
Keith: “I am not much of a fortuneteller. I certainly wouldn’t have predicted the social media revolution that has reshaped the way we do our jobs. Whatever the medium, I think good stories will win out.
To me the best stories involve the lives and passions of regular people. We all want to hear about people who are navigating the complexities of life looking for similarities or differences. Emotion is what makes a good story. That could be sadness, or joy or surprise.
I try to stay up on the latest social platforms. I love radio but I am willing to try just about every medium. I’m constantly trying to improve, constantly scrutinizing my writing and presentation and thinking about how I could do better next time. I think the best way to keep improving is to keep looking for ways to improve.
The moment you think you know it all or have no room for improvement is when you’re really in trouble.”
Cooglife: What wise words of ambition do you have for the aspiring journalists of UH, including the UH writers of The Cougar and CoogLife magazine?
Keith: “You don’t have to major in journalism. Actually, I would suggest that you major in something else. Practice as much journalism as you can. Just do it all the time, because it takes much longer to get good at the craft than you could possibly imagine.
Just like weight lifting or something, being a good journalist requires a whole lot of reps. It essentially requires doing a whole bunch of mediocre stories, to get the mechanics down, and then slowly work the mediocrity out of your system.
All of this is to say, you really have to stick with it, don’t give up, don’t expect success to strike overnight. It takes forever, but it is worth it.
Oh, and also try to have fun. Doing journalism is awesome.”