By Hafsa Quraishi
Before coming to Tampa in 1999, Mary Shedden was a graduate of the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communications program. Now, she’s the news director at WUSF Public Media, the local NPR member station.
There are few journalists who have as diverse a background as Shedden. Even before coming to WUSF in 2013, Shedden had a long resume filled with her experiences in the journalism field. During her years at UF, she was on the staff of the daily student newspaper, The Independent Florida Alligator. Following her graduation in 1990, Shedden went on to work as a reporter at the Gainesville Sun. From there she took on many roles, as an education reporter at Florida Today, a contributor for Tampa’s NBC station, WFLA, and a health reporter for the Tampa Tribune. She even briefly served as an adjunct professor at the University of South Florida’s St. Pete campus, teaching a couple introductory classes to budding journalists.
During her nearly 20 years at these different media outlets, she has covered every topic a journalist can cover, from retired pro athletes in chronic pain to children poisoned through toxic toys. Shedden has won acclaim from a myriad of organizations, such as the Society of Professional Journalists, the Associated Press Sports Editors, and the Florida Society of News Editors.
Most recently, Shedden has been working at WUSF 89.7, the local NPR affiliate located in the center of the University of South Florida’s main Tampa campus. She has risen through the ranks, starting off as a general reporter, to becoming editor for Health News Florida, to now being the news director. She’s covered important topics, such as the rising tide of HIV infections in Florida, and even interviewed former President of the United States Barack Obama.
Her work at WUSF and Health News Florida has won Shedden numerous awards, including the 2016 national Edward R. Murrow Award from the Radio and Television Digital News Association. Her work has also been honored by SPJ and Florida Associated Press Broadcasters.
Shedden has specific lessons she’s learned from her experiences as a journalist for the past 30 years. She answered some questions every student journalist should know the answer to early in their career.
1. What do you like about your job?
Being a news director is a lot like being a ship captain. You’re helping guide reporters in creating stories, and helping hosts communicate the stories to the audience. I like how I have to pay attention to both the big picture and little details at the same time. Editing’s a blast too – I love brainstorming ideas, challenging reporters to try new things and the fine tuning that comes during the editing process.
2. What do you see as the skills most important to succeed in your job as the news director at WUSF?
Critical thinking is essential for all journalists, but more so as news director as I’m making decisions affecting our audience all day, every day. It’s also important that I’m paying attention to the team and making sure they’re doing their best. If someone loses their focus on a story, or is trying to do too much, it’s my job to redirect them so they’re doing their best.
3. What advice do you have for young journalists? Specifically, what advice do you have for them in covering/responding to Trump’s presidency?
My first bit of advice is that young journalists should know their beat and their audience. Who lives there? What are the important issues? Understand the recent history so you have context on issues you’re covering. The second thing you should do is get to know people – and become a student of your beat, whether it’s a town or a topic, such as education. The more you learn – from as many sources as possible – makes you a more informed reporter. As a result, your stories provide more context and serve the public better.
Yes, President Trump is the President of the United States, but ask how his comments and actions affect your responsibilities as a reporter? He’s not the first – nor the last person – critical of the media and their opinions about the coverage should only inspire you to do your job better. Journalists who cover the president are no different than any other journalist, the responsibility is to report by asking questions, obtaining records and telling the truth.
So what does that mean? It means triple check your facts. It means talking to more sources – and requesting and obtaining more documents that allow you to tell better stories. If you are confident in the news you are reporting, your audience (the people who matter most) will be more informed and trust you and your organization more.
And also, it means not engaging with people who bait you – especially on social media. Journalists are professional communicators and you should be able to communicate at all times with respect and without anger.
4. What is the most important lesson(s) you’ve learned as a journalist?
Three things come immediately to mind. One, respect all sources and to treat them as you wish to be treated. That does not mean avoid asking uncomfortable questions. It means being honest with them – be a decent person in the process of an interview.
Two, you will make mistakes. Be honest and transparent when that happens with your editors, and with the audience.
The third is critical: understand that journalism is about taking snapshots of life in a single moment in time. You will NEVER be able to tell the whole story. Instead, understand your focus with each assignment and do your best in telling that story for today.
5. Which are the most beneficial and worthy journalism organizations for students to join?
I’ve learned the most from beat-specific groups, particularly the Association for Health Care Journalists, which offers students reduced rates and scholarships to conferences. The Education Writers of America is also really good.
I’ve seen mixed results with the standard bearers – the Society of Professional Journalists and Online News Association. But if you’re proactive in seeking out information from these groups, they’re great.
For journalists of color, the NABJ, NAHJ and NAAJ all are really helpful.
Lastly, I’m a huge fan of Poynter’s News U, which offers a lot of online courses for free. It lets you dip your feet in a lot of different areas, allowing you to explore and learn.
Featured image used courtesy of WUSF Public Media.