CNN’s Abby Phillip discusses honesty and authenticity in political journalism at annual Amanpour Lecture

KINGSTON, R.I. – Nov. 16, 2021 – When she started her journalism career about a decade ago at POLITICO and The Washington Post, Abby Phillip was taught that, as a reporter, her job was to “disappear from the story.”

“There’s a bit of an old school model of understanding in the news business that seeks to treat journalists as blank slates, as if we are just simply megaphones for information that divinely passes through us to the audience,” said Phillip, delivering the University of Rhode Island’s 2021 Christiane Amanpour Lecture to a virtual audience of more than 4,300 viewers, including journalism students, URI community members and the public. “And frankly, that’s never been the case … None of us are without our biases and our perspectives.”

In her virtual lecture, hosted by the Harrington School of Communication and Media, Phillip, CNN chief political correspondent and anchor of “Inside Politics Sunday,” explored how journalists move beyond objectivity to fulfill the responsibility political journalists have to their audience and communities. The discussion was moderated by Ammina Kothari, director of the Harrington School.

While objectivity still has a great importance in journalism, Phillip said, it’s becoming more understood that who a journalist is affects how they report a story. “Objectivity is also about honesty and leveling with your audience,” she said. “You cannot be honest with your audience without being transparent with them about who you are and how that might impact the lens with which you look at the world and report on the world.”

For the last decade, Phillip, who joined CNN from The Washington Post in 2017, has covered national politics while also serving as White House correspondent during the Donald Trump and Barack Obama administrations. She has also covered such national stories as the church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, and the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California.

As a journalist, she said she prefers the words honesty and truthfulness to objectivity as a reporter’s chief aim.

While a student at Harvard University, she was inspired to become a journalist by the struggles of Black people and those who fought beside them during the civil rights movement in the 1950s and ’60s. “When we look back on that time, it’s really easy to see the line that divides what is right and what is wrong, what is true and what is false,” she explained. “It’s obvious to us now, segregation was evil and Jim Crow was oppressive and evil. But the truth is that those things were obvious then, too.” She added that there is still much work to be done.

For her, the importance of truth and honesty were solidified by the work of Amanpour – now her CNN colleague – and another war correspondent who impressed upon her the importance of “ground truth” – the truth that is clear to those physically at the scene of the action. That lesson is no less important in covering politics.

“In today’s world, you can easily see why these parallels are important,” she said. “Politicians are literally saying out loud that people should not believe what they see and hear with their own eyes and ears.”

In reply to a question from Kothari about objectivity, Phillip added, “It is natural, normal and important to understand how to separate your own feelings from the story … [but] journalism is all about relationships. It’s all about whether the people you are covering and your audience trust you. So, you have to learn how to identify with people.”

After joining CNN, the impact of her identity became more obvious, she said. As a Black woman on television, her identity was inescapable, and she asked herself daily if she were relating to her audience authentically.

It also influenced how she was perceived by both Republicans and Democrats, she said. In 2018, Republican President Trump very publicly lashed out at Phillip as she questioned him in the aftermath of his party being routed in the midterm elections.

“I’ve reflected a lot on that moment,” she said in Wednesday’s lecture. “If I’m being truthful, I didn’t take it too personally. As a Black woman covering politics, I am used to people making assumptions. I found that sources in the [Trump] administration didn’t trust me in some ways by default, not because of anything I said, but because of who I was.”

At the same time, Democrats became angry if she failed to be interested in covering certain stories, feeling she would be more sympathetic.

“All of these experiences over the years have made me cognizant of how my whole self is involved with the work that I do, whether I like it or not,” she said.

From her vantage point as a national political correspondent, she said the U.S. is in the midst of a political realignment – amid attempts to undermine the nation’s democratic institutions and the uncontrollable spread of false information. Journalists are on the “front lines of truth,” she said.

“Journalism on its own is not going to solve the problem, but we can be a part of the solution,” she said. “It starts with an unflinching commitment to the truth, which includes calling out the lies. … [It] requires us to build trust with our audience through authenticity. We have to be people that the world can trust to give it to them straight.”

In reply to a question about how she stays optimistic in the face of so much misinformation, Phillip said it can be very demoralizing, but it also keeps her “mission-oriented.”

“I think at the heart of what we do as journalists is we hold people in power accountable because we work on behalf of all the rest of the people in the world who don’t have the access and the proximity of power that we do,” she said.

Asked how journalists of color should handle accusations of bias, Phillip said she doesn’t think people know the degree to which journalists of color are accused of bias in political reporting, simply because of the color of their skin. “It’s something that I just advise young journalists of color to be prepared for because it’s something that you will encounter,” she said. “I don’t want it to discourage anyone.”

Defense from such accusation comes in doing “the due diligence,” getting the facts to back up the story, she said.

Prompted by questions from several Harrington School students, Phillip provided pointers for young journalists – whether seeking careers in print, online, television or radio.

Number one? Hone your writing skills. “I frankly tell journalism students all the time … It’s about understanding that writing is a skill that is incredibly important and valuable no matter what platform you are working in. … You need to be diligent about improving your writing skills because it is a foundational skill that helps you communicate effectively. And that’s ultimately what journalism is all about.”

Number two? Volunteer for everything. “Wherever you are in your journalism journey, raise your hand, volunteer, ask how can I help?”

As an intern at POLITICO, Phillip reminisced, she took on a thankless, tedious task of finding a story from a thick book of spreadsheets of congressional office spending. That effort led to a story on how U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer’s office was spending “exorbitant amounts” on private flights.

“It was a big story that made Senator Schumer very mad at me, but it was an important lesson in how sometimes these mundane tasks [are important] … [and] can put you in a position where you’re working with more senior journalists and can teach you something about how to be a reporter.”

The Christiane Amanpour Lecture Series was endowed in 2008 by Amanpour ’83, Hon. 95, the longtime CNN chief international anchor and global correspondent, and brings national and international journalists to the URI campus each fall. To view a video of Abby Phillip’s lecture, go to the series webpage. To donate to the Amanpour Lecture fund, click here.