Ask an Expert: Neil Foote, UNT

Thursday, February 10, 2022

Neil Foote, UNTUNT System HR brings you UNT World experts with this periodic and always timely installation called "Ask An Expert." So, let's ask...

EXPERT: Neil Foote, principal lecturer in the Mayborn School of Journalism, has worked at The Miami Herald, The Washington Post, The Dallas Morning News, the Belo Corporation and at the Tom Joyner Morning Show. He also worked for The American Society of Newspaper Editors. Last December, Foote was inducted into the National Association of Black Journalists Hall of Fame. He also serves as president of Foote Communications LLC, a media consulting firm. We came to our journalism expert to address a few critical issues about the current state of the industry in an era of wide public mistrust of the media as whole, the rise of partisan news outlets and the infectious spread of disinformation. And during Black History Month, we explore why in America's newsrooms there is a comparative lack of Black journalists, particularly at a time when issues of race such as police violence and voting rights are of such critical importance across the nation. This is an interesting read so please take a few moments and dig in.  

Q: What influenced you to pursue a career in journalism?
Foote: I’ve always loved to read and write since I was a kid, growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y. I read every sports and science magazine I could get my hands on as well as all sorts of books. I was a newspaper boy, of sorts, delivering the New York Daily News during the week and the Sunday New York Times – if I could find it at the stores in my neighborhood of Bed-Stuy. In high school, I was sports editor for “The Life,” a monthly newspaper. That fueled my desire to want to pursue a career in journalism. I wrote to local newspapers, TV stations, radio stations looking for any kind of opportunity. Well, that didn’t work out. Maybe I got one response. That didn’t deter me. As an undergrad at Wesleyan University, I followed through on my passion. I ended up the lead writer for a major story for the Wesleyan Argus, a twice-weekly newspaper. An anonymous racist letter was sent to the campus’ Malcolm X House. I chronicled the campus reaction that included protests and demands from the president to do better in recruiting more diverse students, faculty and members of the administration.

Between junior and senior year, I interned at the MacNeil/Lehrer News Report that was produced at WNET in New York. I got a chance to work with the legendary journalists Robin MacNeil, Texas’ Jim Lehrer, and Charlayne Hunter-Gault. By senior year, I was co-editor of the newspaper, and when I graduated, I launched my career at The Miami Herald. This was the early 80s – a time when there were cultural tensions fueled by racial division, drug wars and an influx of immigrants from Cuba, Haiti and Central America. Oh, yeah, I got a chance to work with some of the best journalists in the country – Dave Barry, Carl Hiaasen, Edna Buchanan and so many more. That got me hooked. 

Q: What does it mean to you to be have been inducted into the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) Hall of Fame?
Foote: This is quite a humbling honor. To know that my peers have recognized my work of more than 40 years in this business as a journalist, diversity advocate, public relations professional, educator and author. Over the years, I worked through NABJ to get aspiring journalists scholarships and co-directed a program with my buddy, veteran journalist, Duchesne Drew, to run a mid-career leadership development program that took place during the NABJ annual conference. I also participated in countless panels and webinars. What a great thrill it is to know that I am now sharing “the hall” with so many of the people who were my mentors and who laid the groundwork in journalism, folks like Chuck Stone, Les Payne, Dori Maynard, Gil Noble and Gwen Ifill. 

Q: There is a comparative lack of Black journalists in America’s newsrooms. Why is this and how should it be addressed, particularly at a time when issues of race such as police violence and voting rights are of such critical importance across the nation?
Foote: I’ve been passionate about diversity in newsrooms ever since I started my career. A year into the business, I organized the South Florida Association of Black Journalists to serve as a forum for my peers to network and organize local panels and conferences addressing race and media coverage. We led a series of “How to Get in the Media Without Shooting Someone” seminar for community organizations to help them understand how to pitch stories and get coverage for their activities. Later, I was elected as a regional director for the National Association of Black Journalists where I worked with my colleagues to set up a national office, organize the national conference. I spent four years working for the American Society of Newspaper Editors (now, Newsroom Leaders Association) as minority affairs director organizing job fairs, giving away scholarships and advice to editors and publishers. I pushed for executive leadership in media companies as chair of the National Association of Multicultural Media Executives and in the public relations industry as president of the National Black Public Relations Society. Even with all these efforts, media companies are still struggling to recruit, retain and promote diverse journalists.  

The rapid decline of newsroom employment has not helped this issue, but the bigger issue is the lack of commitment to ensure that newsrooms are as diverse as possible to cover their increasingly diverse communities. Sure, there are some signs of progress as there are folks like Dean Baquet (New York Times), Kevin Merida (L.A. Times), Katrice Hardy (Dallas Morning News) and Monica Richardson (Miami Herald) are leading several of the nation’s largest newsrooms. With social justice and equality as ongoing components of everyday life now, newsrooms of all kinds have every opportunity to drive change to offer its readers, viewers and listeners better, more informed coverage.

Q: What is your opinion of the state of journalism at a time when disinformation can be intentionally spread quickly and easily, more people turn to partisan news outlets and there is a general mistrust of media as a whole?
Foote: We live in a world where “confirmation bias” is the norm. Folks are only reading what they want to believe in and confirm their beliefs. Add to this to the trend that more than a third of Americans get their news on Facebook, according to Pew Research, only confirms that the information people are getting is only as good as their friends and followers. The result: blurred lines eroding the fundamentals of quality journalism. The ultimate responsibility lies on journalists to lean into producing content that is grounded in the fundamentals: thorough reporting, talking to as many sources on as many sides of the issues and reviewing as many documents as possible and analyzing data with a curious, introspective eye. 

My belief is that most people, when asked if they would prefer that local news or national news organizations shut down, that they would be dreadfully concerned that the primary sources of news would come from government or people basing their reporting on rumor and unsubstantiated reports or research. When it gets down to real news, fake news and the truth, I ask people to 1) Go beyond social media and read, watch or listen to as many resources as possible that may offer all points of view; 2) question the source of the content -- who is the person sharing the story? What’s their angle? Does this website have any bylines? Are there lots of ads on the page? Are you clicking on stories that lead you to endless links where you never get to the story you thought you were looking for? 3) Think before you share. Is that post in your social media feed really true? 

Q: What is your vision of the future of journalism as you see it through your UNT journalism students?
Foote: I’m really encouraged. Every semester, I’m energized to see students who are very passionate about pursuing a career in journalism in all forms of media – newspaper, magazine, websites, podcasts, public relations and advertising. What we’re working on at the Mayborn School of Journalism is to prepare future storytellers by offering the traditional theoretical fundamentals, but also provide them as much practical and hands-on experience through our student media outlets –, ntTV (North Texas Television), KNTU radio, SWOOP (student run ad agency), AGenZ (student-run PR ad agency), UNT AdClub (student run ad team) and Hatch Visuals (student-run visuals agency). We have an enormously experienced faculty who are truly passionate about sharing their knowledge and expertise to students. 

Q: Being a journalist is not easy work and, in some respects, has never been tougher. What advice do you give a young person who is considering a college degree and career in journalism?
Foote: What I encourage my students to do is 1) Read, read, read. I don’t care if it’s on your smart phone, tablet or laptop. You need to know what’s going on – no matter what kind of journalism you end up doing. 2) Write. Then write some more. With digital devices glued to most of our students’ hands 24/7, there’s every opportunity to capture scenes and sounds wherever you are. 3) Be digitally savvy. Start your own website, blog, YouTube channel or podcast. Use social media to tell stories. 4) Have fun. This is an exciting time where the news cycle is never ending. It’s a great time to be a journalist and storyteller!