NBCU Academy Presents “Behind the Story”
NBC Nightly News senior producer Janelle Richards sat down with NBC News’ Chief Education correspondent Rehema Ellis to talk about reporting at the intersection of race and education for NBC Nightly News.
This week, our “Behind the Story” looks at Ellis’ career and how she brings her passion to her storytelling.
Here she talks about what inspired her to become a journalist as well as the trials and tribulations of a life in news:
Janelle Richards: Rehema, let’s start by you talking about your career. How did you get to where you are today and what led you to journalism?
Rehema Ellis: Well, as is true of so many folks, mine started with having a great professor who encouraged me to write. My English professor was a Black woman who was outstanding, and she sparked my interest in writing. I was a Sociology major but started taking courses in journalism shortly after that English class. I knew I wanted to tell stories. Sociology is about examining the history of society and in many respects that is what we do as journalists. I started writing for my local newspaper in Boston. I hosted two radio programs at college stations, and I was interning like crazy. It was the one time in my life that I could afford not to get paid because I didn’t have a mortgage. I didn’t have a car. I didn’t have kids.
After college, I took a trip to Africa, I decided I wanted to go to the motherland. And I stayed there for two years. When I came home one Christmas some friends said, you know, you’re applying to Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. And I did. And I filled out the application while I was on the plane going back to Africa and when I arrived in Africa I learned I had been accepted — that’s how I ended up in journalism school. I got a scholarship from Westinghouse, which was a part of CBS at the time, and the rest is history. I ended up in Pittsburgh, did radio, did television, went back to my hometown, Boston, and the next thing I knew I was working for the Peacock.
Richards: I love that. You know, landing a network correspondent gig is a big deal. How did you navigate that? How did you manage to land your first network job at NBC News?
Ellis: I had an agent back then who was able to open some doors for me in terms of getting interviews at a variety of different places, ABC, NBC, CBS. There were two networks interested in hiring me but the Peacock appealed to me. And perhaps it was because of Tom Brokaw who was there – and I just had spent so much of my time watching him on television, and John Chancellor before him. I just thought this would be a dream to be able to work at this place where I had grown up watching these folks.
Now, navigating my career at NBC, however, was a little more difficult. It was hard at first, because I’ll be honest with you, I thought I’d died and gone to hell. At network, you get a story, and you’re on it from morning to night, and then late into the night. And then very early the next morning, you become the correspondent who does that story. And that was very different from my work on local television.
Richards: I want to know; how do you deal with negative comments about a story? I think we all work so hard on these pieces and we know our teams work extra hard to get it right, but sometimes there’s a negative response. How do you handle that?
Ellis: Years ago, I used to get very upset about negative comments because I thought what I had done was perfect. I just thought, you know, I was the cat’s meow. The longer that I’m doing this, the more I realize, that not everybody’s going to love what you do, and you’ve really got to have a thicker skin than being wounded every time somebody says, “I didn’t like what you did.”
One of the things I find helpful is to remind my interview subject that my final story will be a total of a minute and a half or two minutes – and while I’ve talked to a person much longer than that, they get a little snippet. I try to be more forthcoming with people whom I’m interviewing to let them know what the process is.
And I also developed a thicker skin. I used to respond to people when I first started, particularly at the network, and then I realized that was not a good use of my time.