When the president of the United States disparages journalists and calls their work “fake news,” how should the Fourth Estate respond?
Shawna Thomas, who is in the eye of the presidential storm as Washington, D.C., bureau chief of VICE News and senior producer for VICE News Tonight, said there is no winning for journalists who try to hit back.
The best way to react, said Thomas, who earned her M.A. in journalism in 2006, is to focus on the job at hand.
“We have to be right,” she said. “We have to check everything three times and make sure our sourcing is correct. And when we get it wrong, we very clearly have to say it’s wrong, get it right and move on.”
It’s a difficult situation, she acknowledged, because journalists have a low approval rating among Americans. “Number one, we have jobs. Number two, they seem like elitist jobs. Complaining only makes us look more elite. I don’t know that we can win the optics on that situation.” That said, Thomas firmly believes that “if our leaders continue to attack the Fourth Estate, they are eroding the basis for our democracy.”
In 2016 she left a top-of-the-journalism-ladder position at NBC’s Meet the Press, where she was the senior producer of the live show as well as senior digital editor, to jump to VICE News. She arrived a few months before Election Day to help get their new HBO show, VICE News Tonight, off the ground. People said she was crazy to leave NBC News to go to what many consider a startup, even though VICE, in some form or fashion, has been around since 1994.
Why the jump?
“They were looking for a D.C. bureau chief, and I was curious,” Thomas said. “One of the great things about VICE News is that we are trying our hardest to do something new, and we are not afraid to try.”
Last summer, VICE News Tonight had a breakout moment with its coverage of the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Thomas was coordinating senior producer, and the pitch came from her team. Correspondent Elle Reeve embedded herself with a white nationalist, revealing a surprising level of organization among the nationalist groups through horrifying interviews that shocked audiences. Going in, the piece was budgeted for 5 to 7 minutes. But after viewing the footage, VICE News devoted its entire show to Reeve’s report, “Charlottesville: Race and Terror.” The episode and the team behind it won multiple awards, including a Peabody.
“We allow people to look at the camera and say complete sentences,” said Thomas. “There’s no narration track. We ask people to talk from their informed point of view.”
Her time at USC working on Annenberg TV News (ATVN) equipped her with the technical skills to be a shooter-producer- writer-editor-director. “You learn how to produce a half-hour of news every single day,” she said. “It was all about getting that experience in a safe space.”
After graduating from USC, Thomas landed a job with NBC in New York, where she worked her way up from news associate to political assignment editor to digital associate producer to Capitol Hill producer to White House producer, where she mastered “the logistical nightmare that is coordinating television coverage of the president day-to-day,” she wrote in her résumé. An Emmy Award came in 2009, for election night coverage the year before.
Three more Emmy nominations came for Decision 2010 coverage, the 2013 federal government shutdown and an interview with former Vice President Dick Cheney after Thomas had moved to Meet the Press.
Thomas said her current job involves trying to stay relevant and creative and coming up with interesting ways to cover issues. “We can do explainers like Sesame Street does, and turn dry topics into something interesting with graphics that add a level of research and detail,” she said. “We can be funny and write with personality — as long as its factual.”