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Al Jazeera America President Visits Monmouth

The inaugural #coMmtalks launched as the University hosted Kate O’Brian, the President of Al Jazeera America, on Monday, March 30.

O’Brian’s campus visit included an interview recorded by Hawk TV with representatives from each University news outlet: Hawk TV, The Outlook, and WMCX. Afterwards, she spoke to a few classes and culminated her trip with a conversation organized by the Monmouth Oral Communication Center (MOCC).

A graduate of Smith College in 1980, O’Brian spent over 30 years with ABC News, notably as Senior Vice President of Newsgathering Operations, which includes all ABC News bureaus worldwide. She also served as general manager for ABC News Radio, as well as in production roles in Rome, London, Washington DC, Atlanta, Los Angeles and New York.

Dr. Datta Naik, Vice Provost and Dean of the Graduate School said that the #coMmtalks are part of the University’s strategic plan initiatives, incorporating “transformative learning” that “extends beyond the classroom” on the campus. “#coMmtalks is a perfect example of one such experience,” said Naik.

Jim Hickey, a veteran of ABC News, former National correspondent for ABC News Radio, and personal friend and colleague of O’Brian, hosted the conversation. When #coMmtalks was in its infancy, he said that the communication council originated it as “The Master’s Lectures Series.”

When the council introduced it to the students, Hickey said, “They [changed it to] Comm Talks. But it’s not just Comm Talks. In keeping with today’s social media, it’s ‘hashtag’ Comm Talks, and I am very pleased this is part of a really relevant part of our world today.”

O’Brian’s conversation spanned topics including the mission of Al Jazeera America, advice to students, women in the workforce, among other things.

al jazeera 2Only 20 months into its existence on network television, O’Brian was sure to differentiate Al Jazeera America from other major organizations like CNN, Fox or MSNBC. “We don’t do talk shows, we don’t do pundits, we don’t do entertainment, and we don’t do celebrities. That’s because what we do, we believe nobody else is doing, which is to produce the deep dive, investigative content that you are not seeing anyplace else.”

O’Brian added that she does not think of other networks like CNN as Al Jazeera America’s competitors, rather, the idea of competitors is the creation of the marketplace. “Al Jazeera America is based on the BBC model which is funded by the British Government. There is a complete firewall between the government (of Qatar) and the editorial product. We are an entirely independent journalism organization,” said O’Brian.

Questions about connections to the Qatari monarchy and impacts on coverage various world events were among frequent questions to O’Brian, especially considering the prevalence of terrorism emanating from the Middle East. With the prevalence of Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State) producing propaganda videos, O’Brian said that it was of the utmost importance for Al Jazeera “not to be a part of the propaganda.” As such, the station refrained from showing any footage from Daesh, going as far as to ban still images from display through their news conglomerate.

Julian Garcia, a freshman communication student and member of Hawk TV was part of the team that produced both the interview with the campus media interview as well as recording the #coMmtalks event in Wilson Auditorium.

Hawk TV’s role was mostly dealing with her (O’Brian’s) interaction with campus media.” He added, “She came to our organization when there were representatives from each of the campus news outlets to help interview her and gave us a serious interview.”

Continuing through the conversation, O’Brian talked about the changing face of the news media, both as it pertains to the role of social media and technology, as well as changes to diversity in the workplace. While Al Jazeera America is dedicated to “old-school, high quality journalism,” O’Brian said that they embrace social media and the internet wholeheartedly, commenting on Al Jazeera America’s presence in the mobile app game, as well as on outlets like Twitter and Facebook.

Regarding the gender gap in the journalism industry, O’Brian recalled a story from her career in the mid-1980s, when she and a male colleague received the same positions. “He got the same job I did the same day and he was paid a considerable amount of money more than I was. When I questioned it the response was, ‘he has a wife he has to support and you have a husband.’”

O’Brian continued, “Things like that weren’t long ago. There has been a lot of change since then, and I think there’s been a heightened sense of fairness, bringing diversity numbers, both racial diversity and gender diversity up, but there is still a long way to go.”

O’Brian ended her talk with advice to aspiring journalists. She said, “It doesn’t matter what the platform is, it doesn’t matter what the distribution is, what matters is creating the content. Learn how to write. Writing is the foundation of everything whether it’s television, radio, print or social media. It’s all based in writing because that helps you learn how to tell a story.”

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