Jill Abramson on the 'Calling' of Journalism

April 20, 2016
Jill Abramson
Jill Abramson delivered the keynote address at the HDS Dean's Leadership Forum in April. / Photo: Justin Knight

"Journalism is a public service, a calling," said Jill Abramson, AB '76, journalist and former executive editor of The New York Times, during the keynote address at the annual HDS Dean's Leadership Forum. 

It was the unfolding of the Watergate scandal on television while a student at Harvard that awakened Abramson to the power journalists have to keep government accountable. Her 40-year career is characterized by investigative and often intricately researched political pieces. Now, as a lecturer at Harvard, she teaches aspiring journalists who likewise see it as a calling. 

In front of HDS alumni, faculty, students, and supporters, Abramson spoke about the future of journalism, her groundbreaking career as a female reporter, and her conviction in the moral obligation of journalists to probe the world around them. 

Throughout her talk, Abramson stressed the power of media in guiding national conversations around politics and money, along with the responsibility that comes with that power. 

"There is a little bit of soul-searching in the press" over the coverage of the current election, said Abramson. She referenced the initial decision by the Huffington Post to report on candidate Donald Trump only in its "Entertainment" section and not the "Political" section, and a recent op-ed by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff on how the media gave, by one analysis, $1.9 billion in free publicity to the Trump campaign. 

For Abramson, some of these media missteps are due to the way that even great journalists can be out of touch with various parts America. 

"The media was late to Trump,"” she said, "in part because most of the reporters don’t know many voters" who support him. 

She also critiqued the way that the rapidly changing landscape of journalism today prioritizes a constant stream of content, or what she deemed "scooplets," meaning small hits of interesting information that—while generating clicks—don't have enough substance or sustained analysis to be relevant for more than a day or two. 

"The Internet has democratized the field in a lot of ways," she said. "But it has also made the type of journalism I used to do—investigative journalism—much more difficult." 

She added that the focus on quick content is another reason reporters can miss out on emerging but subtle trends. 

In addition to addressing issues in media, Abramson also discussed the trajectory of her own career. While her appointment as the first woman to hold the position of executive editor at The New York Times, that newspaper's highest position, was widely noted, it was hardly the first time that Abramson broke a glass ceiling. 

Especially early in her career, Abramson often found herself as either the only woman or one of very few female reporters. She has only had one female boss throughout her entire career. When asked by the audience whether the position of women in journalism has improved, she was cautiously positive. 

"If the question is, 'Have we made improvements at all?' Then the answer is a resounding yes." 

However, she added, there remains different standards for men and women regarding the seemliness of ambition: being "likeable" remains much more critical to the advancement of a women's career than a man's.  

Abramson spoke candidly about her sudden dismissal from the Times in 2014. While a time of uncertainty, she reflected on the ways that leaving the Times opened up new opportunities and positions. It wasn't an immediate process. She recalled how, just weeks after being fired, she was supposed to deliver a commencement address at Wake Forest University graduation. Drawing on her natural honesty, she told the students, "I’m also scared."

But if Abramson is wary of some of the modern trends in journalism, she is excited about the emerging journalists. Throughout her talk, she emphasized how "journalism is the only profession that has constitutional protection," and it is a right that should be nourished by the media through the support of long-term investigative stories. 

When asked about whether young journalists still see their profession as a "calling," and would still be interested in that type of research, Abramson said she is amazed by how many of her current students want to be journalists, and said that most—especially those interested in foreign correspondence—definitely still saw it as a calling. 

"I am so fortunate to be training the next generation of journalists," she said. 

—by Shira Telushkin