Bonnie Rollins, producer, NBC News Channel in Washington, D.C., is a former member of the Journalism and Women Symposium Board of Directors. She has worked for NBC News in Washington, DC over 28 years. Before joining NBC News, she was a news editor for AP Radio in Washington, DC.
Rollins decided in the Fall of 2007 to go to graduate school. She earned a master’s degree at Georgetown University in the summer of 2010. During the graduate program, she was a member of the Pearl Project, a faculty student investigation into the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Danny Pearl who was killed in Karachi, Pakistan, in 2002. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Indiana University in Radio/Television Journalism. She was news director of public radio station WBAA at Purdue University in the early ‘70’s — the only female public radio news director in the US. Rollins grew up in Russiaville, IN where she graduated from Western High School in 1966. She can be contacted at: rollinsbonnie(at)gmail.com.
Rollins was interviewed by Abbey Stanerson, a Journalism & Mass Communications/ Public Relations major and striving to get her Entrepreneurship certificate at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.
Abbey Stanerson: Why did you become involved in journalism?
Bonnie Rollins: I was always a voracious reader and interested in current events. I enjoyed writing and was copy editor of my high school yearbook. But my real introduction to journalism came in an unusual way. When I was 16 my hometown was destroyed by a series of tornadoes. My family and I survived the harrowing experience of our house being blown apart around us. Fortunately, our injuries were minor but almost all our possessions were gone. Three of our neighbors were killed and all our lives were altered forever. A radio reporter from a nearby city interviewed me as a “survivor” of the storm. I also talked to her about my interest in writing and reporting. She later made me co-host of a weekly radio show “Talk of the Teens” and recommended me for a scholarship to a high school broadcast institute at Indiana University. I attended the summer institute and then went to college to study broadcast journalism, theater and political science.
AS: How do you define journalism today?
BR: The basic core of journalism yesterday, today and tomorrow is the objective search for truth through gathering raw information from interviews, databases, eyewitness accounts, personal observation, documents and other sources of information. These tenets apply whether you’re reporting for a web-based operation or mainstream media.
As journalists we try to compress and translate this information to a format that readers, viewers and listeners understand. We’re almost drowning in information. The challenge is to sift through and verify what is accurate. You asked what is journalism today. The definition is much broader today than 40 years ago. Today journalism can be seen as everything from TMZ to 60 minutes. There’s no authoritative voice in journalism.
AS: How has technology influenced or affected your career?
BR: When I worked in radio in the early ‘70’s, we carried reel-to-reel recorders and edited audio tape with razor blades and splicing tape. I worked in television when we shot film and then TV news made the revolutionary transition to videotape. Today, it’s a digital world. I have had to adapt to many changes. When I was on the assignment desk in the late 70’s and early 80’s, I used a typewriter with carbon paper and we received AP and UPI wire by teletype. The switch to computers was daunting and a bit scary. Now I can hardly recall the world before the internet.
AS: How will technology affect the future of journalism?
BR: Technology has revolutionized journalism because it’s broadened the definition of who is a journalist. It’s also broadened the audience of who can receive information. Technology allows wide dissemination of information to previously closed societies like China and parts of the Middle East and Africa. One of the biggest changes is the impact of smart phones and the ability for anyone to transmit images of natural disasters, political upheaval, or celebrity screw-ups to the masses via YouTube, etc. and then are picked up by mainstream media.
One of my concerns is that so much attention is paid to technology and the capability to move things in real time, content and verification become marginalized. I believe the standards that applied to journalism in the days before cable and internet and TV reality shows should apply now. The delivery system may change dramatically but the rules regarding integrity, objectivity, balance and search for the truth should be our guides.
AS: What one word would you use to describe the status of women in journalism today?
BR: Climbing. Women have made tremendous strides but have not crashed through the glass ceiling enough to have the impact they deserve.
AS: What role(s) will women have in future journalism?
BR: Women will play an increasingly dominant role in journalism. Jill Abramson recently was named executive editor of The New York Times, an encouraging sign that more women are breaking through the glass ceiling. An important organization promoting the elevation of women in journalism is JAWS, Journalism and Women Symposium. I’m a former board member.
AS: What was it like working for such a large company like NBC? Were you ever intimated or was it just another step within your career you felt was necessary?
BR: Working for NBC was daunting at first. I had very little experience maneuvering in a large bureaucracy. I found my niche as a member of a small team within the larger organization. Working for NBC in the nation’s capitol had always been a career goal.
AS: How did the Pearl Project decide to report about past journalists literally dedicating their life for their career instead of being a more broad reporting project for students?
BR: The Pearl Project was created as a faculty-student investigation into the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan. Asra Nomani, Danny’s friend and colleague at the WSJ, was co-creator of the project. Danny and his wife Marianne were staying with Asra in Pakistan when he was abducted and subsequently murdered. Asra and Georgetown Professor Barbara Feinman Todd led the project. The Pearl Project was concluded under the auspices of the Center for Public Integrity. The final report was issued last January and received international attention. While the project focused on one journalist, it shed light on the potential dangers to journalists reporting in high risk areas and highlighted the need for intense preparation when a journalist is sent by his or her organization to such an area.
AS: As a woman in journalism or just a journalist in general what were the major struggles you obtained and how did you overcome them? Or did you?
BR: My biggest challenges in my career were – to be taken seriously, stand my ground and to believe in myself. It’s been a 40-plus years process.
AS: Did you ever feel as though you gave some things up to be a journalist and what?
BR: Being a journalist is never a 9 to 5 job. You have to be willing to work long hours, travel at a moment’s notice, eat lunch at your desk and sometimes work under very difficult conditions in the field. When I was in my 20’s and early 30’s and dating, I often had to call off dates at the last minute because a plane crashed or a politician got caught with his pants down. It was difficult to explain to friends and family why I was unavailable for many social gatherings.
AS: Since journalism is becoming more Internet based are you intimated by the new generation or by the Internet in general? Are all companies training their staff to be internet savvy?
I’m not intimidated by the internet or other digital challenges. I do find learning new skills challenging but at the same time rewarding. I’m in awe of our interns who edit on Final Cut and Avid and are proficient at all things digital. I have learned from some of them. But technology will not replace the need for good writing, intellectual curiosity, attention to detail and the basics of good grammar and spelling. I’m concerned content will take a backseat to the whizbang appeal of the latest technology. Journalism is a lifelong learning experience. I recently completed a master’s degree where I had to learn to embrace all things social media and new technology. I’m now comfortable with blogging, multimedia production, digital political campaigns and incorporating those into daily producing.
This is part of a series of profiles of JAWS members by University of Iowa students. For a complete listing, see this page.