Covering the State of the Union

NBCU Academy Presents “Behind the Story”

Ever wonder how reporters and producers get ready to cover a State of the Union speech? NBC News’ White House correspondent Mike Memoli and Capitol Hill producer/reporter Julie Tsirkin talked about the preparation needed to cover Joe Biden’s first SOTU as president.

Julie and Mike talked about how they cover the White House and Capitol Hill, tips for young reporters who want to cover politics and why Twitter is just “one tool in the toolkit” when covering an SOTU address.

Watch our Instagram livestream recording here or check out some of their career conversation below. The following transcript has been lightly edited for length.


Julie Tsirkin: What’s it’s like to cover an event that has been flying at you from every direction, and how do you turn around to a camera and concisely say everything in two minutes?

Mike Memoli: It’s a challenge. When I was working at the Los Angeles Times, especially when you’re working for a West Coast paper, you have multiple editions. You’re constantly rewriting the lead, updating in real time. And the best thing you can do in that situation as a print reporter or a broadcast journalist is to be prepared.

For instance, we talked about how much Ukraine is going to be a focal point. Also, is Biden going to use the word “inflation”? The best way you can respond quickly is to be as prepared as possible, to know what you’re looking for, and to be ready to think through how you’re going to deal with it once it comes, or when something happens that you weren’t expecting.

Tsirkin: Let’s talk a little bit about what it takes to become a Mike Memoli. What does it take for journalism students to become somebody who covers the White House or the Hill?

Memoli: Whenever I am asked for advice from students who want to go into journalism, I always tell them there’s no such thing as a plan. I went to college to be a sportswriter. I ended up getting involved in my college paper and became the editor. I was a politics junkie who wanted to be a baseball writer, and now I’m a politics writer who’s still a baseball junkie.

Be ready for anything and accept all the assignments you get, especially in a competitive job market like journalism. You’ve got to be willing to get outside of your comfort zone and take assignments that might not necessarily seem like what you want to do at first.

I’ve now been in Washington for almost 18 years, which is crazy to me. While it’s been great to be in Washington and covering Congress and the White House, I can’t stress enough that if you’re interested in a career in political journalism, spend some time out in the country. I think the most valuable time I’ve had as a reporter is when I’m not in Washington.

Tsirkin: What is the most important thing for aspiring reporters and producers to keep in mind?

Memoli: It’s a really great question. I’m glad you asked it, because we have this discussion all the time as a unit and as a news organization.

Twitter is important. Social media is important. We use it as a news gathering tool, especially when you think about what we’re covering with Ukraine — trying to find where people are, what they’re seeing on the ground, it’s such a valuable resource. But Twitter is just that — it’s one tool in the toolkit that we use as reporters, but we shouldn’t focus on it too much.

If you’re following a speech like Biden’s first SOTU, you’ll see the reaction of a lot of people you follow on social media, right? Reporters especially may influence each other to view something a different way than maybe you would have on your own.

Leading progressive or conservative voices on Twitter are important, but they’re not the full story. This was something I would talk about with the Biden campaign, and now the White House all the time. Think about what’s going to be the front page headline tomorrow.

The State of the Union will have moments that will light up Twitter — funny things, controversial things — but I think most people are consuming Biden’s speech in a very different way. Don’t put too much emphasis on what you’re seeing on social media.