Donna Rossi, TV and award winning journalist, on the power of news

Donna Rossi, TV journalist on her career and the power of news

In the light of the most recent news and the state of our world, my interview with TV Journalist and award-winner Donna Rossi could not have come at a better time. The media is going through a lot of scrutiny these days and as citizens, we don’t know what to believe to be true and what to be “alternative facts”. We tend to choose our media outlets because they echo our values and belief system but even then we should read/ listen with a more critical and inquisitive mind than ever.

In this interview, Donna Rossi shares her professional journey as well as obvious passion for journalism and the responsibilities that come with the job.

Donna has practiced her craft for the past 27 years with great pride and honor. She is the Chief Journalist at CBS5 News, a CBS affiliate of the national CBS News in Phoenix, AZ, the 6th largest city in the US. Donna has been stationed there for the past 22 years.

Interesting enough, prior to becoming a highly regarded and respected Journalist, Donna Rossi was a police officer!  


How did being a police officer help you with being a journalist?

A police officer and a journalist share many of the same characteristics. They are both adrenaline-filled jobs and the same approach is required for both when gathering the facts and talking with witnesses.

When you are an officer, you rush to the scene as soon as you hear of something happening, or an emergency calling. You find out all the details then you write a report – in the police world it’s the police report and in the journalism world it’s either for the written world (web or newspaper) or in my case for a TV station. 

Many times, as a journalist you have to cover tragedies or an incidence that involve police activity, therefore knowing the system, knowing the procedure, understanding what the police go through have really helped. It has also opened a lot of doors because those officers who know that I have a formal background know that I get it, so they are a little more free to give me information as opposed to other journalists. I have never broken their confidence which is key to my success.

Can you describe your job as a journalist and how it has evolved in the past 27 years?

I am a television journalist so my job is different every day, which I love. I’m not sitting behind a desk, cooped up in an office. Every day I get to be an expert on a new subject. I am saying that with tongue in cheek because I am not an expert on every subject but I have to study up, very quickly on whatever it is I am covering that day so I can ask intelligent questions and try to get to the bottom of what the real story is and also try to relate to the people whom I’m interviewing. That is a challenge but to me it is also very exciting.

The people I meet are just phenomenal. So many of them are in really horrible situations – they lost a loved one or have gone thru a really traumatic experience or witnessed something horrid. You can imagine how difficult it is for them to have a camera pointed at them and having someone firing questions. My challenge as a journalist is to respect them, make them feel comfortable and see if they are open to sharing their story. Most of the time, they open up but some don’t and I have to respect it.

But also, when I tell a story, I need to tell it authentically and ensure I am not mischaracterizing anything that they tell me. My story of 1-1.5 minutes has to be as authentic and true to their voice as possible. 

How can you stay impartial?

This may not be a politically correct thing to say as a journalist but I don’t believe that 100% impartiality is possible. We’re human beings and live in the community that we serve. I live in one of the communities that I report on and am quite involved in it. 

I, most likely, get more information about an incident than the general population because I get to read the entire police report or the entire bill. I know for example, if a law is on its way to our legislator. So I probably have more information than most people and am more equipped to make an educated decision and have an opinion.

Yet in reporting you have to try to keep it as middle of the road and as fair as possible. Is that difficult sometimes? Sure. When something is close to your heart, it’s difficult to remain impartial, but there are checks and balances. If I feel uneasy about an opinion that I hold, I will go to one of my fellow journalists and have them review my piece. I’ll go to my supervisors and have them look at it. I ask them to give me an accurate picture in a partial and fair way. 

Do you have any idols?

Journalism has changed a lot over the last years. I would say my job has changed more in the past five years than it did in the first twenty-two that I was in this business – the proliferation of the internet and Social Media is unbelievable.

For the past twelve months (and maybe longer), we have been dealing with a term that everyone has become familiar with – “fake news”. Sadly, it is a reality that exists and is out there. 

As far as Idols go, I think there are people who have tremendous interviewing skills which I appreciate tremendously. For example, even if she’s more ‘infotainment” than she is news, I think Barbara Walters is an exceptional interviewer. Same goes for Katie Couric. As far as News, in my own national shop, I look up to Scott Pelley. He is the epitome of a news man in his integrity. Every time he goes on air, he is cognizant of the power of the media. I think sometimes those in front of the camera forget how powerful our words and our images can be. That’s something that I try never to forget. 

Where do you see the future of journalism going?

I don’t think we are going to take any steps back. I don’t think there’s going to be less social media and I don’t think there will be less fake news. On the contrary, I believe it will keep proliferating our computers. People today get their news primary from their phone – they no longer make, what we used to call, “appointment TV” – “it’s 5 o’clock, News time!” That is a thing from the past and it is not coming back.

The true incredible journalistic entities, the entities that have been around forever – CBS News, NBC News, ABC News, are full with incredible journalists who will not allow social media to take over and become the primary source of news (although they are users of Social Media themselves and respect it). I believe that true journalists understand that we are needed today more than ever. I don’t think those primary tenants of journalism, for those of us who call ourselves journalists and practice our craft, will go away. 

We are needed to stay ethical, to ask tough questions, to hold people accountable and to be the voice of the voiceless.

What are the personalities who touched you the most?

I have had the opportunity to interview so many people in my 27 year career – from Vice Presidents to first and second ladies to celebrities. I think the people who touched me the most are the everyday people who are courageous enough to allow me into their homes, to tell their stories of triumph or tragedy, to share what’s in their heart, their struggles and their happiness and their guts. The people who are willing to speak out in a situation when others are afraid to because of retaliatory concerns. I think those are the people who stick with me the most. Event though I have had the opportunity to interview some really high-caliber, charismatic people. 

Do you have any regrets?

Probably that I didn’t get into this business sooner! My first day on TV I was 29-30 years old. And that because I had a prior career. As a woman, starting on TV at 30 is a little rough! had I started a little earlier, I would have tried to go on National level.

This career is a perfect fit for me and perhaps had I figured that out sooner I would have had a larger voice on a national level but I also know that what I’m doing here, hopefully makes a difference in someone’s life, and that to me is very fulfilling.

What does aging mean in your industry as a woman?

It means that I have to stay on top of my game! It means that I have to stay on top of my game as a journalist, especially with these 25-27 year olds that are walking into my newsroom – they are much younger, thinner and may have more camera appeal than me. I have to keep an open mind and be willing to learn from them.

I have become somewhat of a Mentor in my newsroom having been there so long.  When young people come in – those who are hungry and want to learn, I am happy to take them under my wing. There’s nothing more fulfilling than being part of molding the next generation of journalists. 

If I stay on top of my game and continue to strive for integrity and ethics, authenticity to myself and my craft, I think I’ll be ok 🙂

Are you scared of anything?

Sure! I still get nervous when I’m about to go on air!

I’m scared of making mistakes, of not getting the story right. I’m scared of someone else beating me on another network. I don’t like to be beat! I want the story first and I want it accurate! 

Have you ever failed?

I’m sure I have! I’ve probably made a few mistakes over the years on the air – factual mistakes (those are the worst) which you can’t take back once it’s out there. I always try to correct those.

Failure to me has always been kind of unacceptable so I always try not to fail. But have I let people down when the story wasn’t as complete and complex as it should have been after they spilled their guts to me? Sure! 

I always tried to learn from the times I failed and make sure it doesn’t happen again. 

How is the Donna of today different from the Donna of 27 years ago?

I’m a much more compassionate and well-rounded individual. I have had the opportunity to meet so many people, cover so many events and so many stories, and life changing situations. I have learned to listen so much more than I used to when I was younger and thought I knew everything. I know nothing! I know a spec of sand as compared to what’s on the beach. I really learned to listen and understand that it is ok to be silent because in the silence, in the listening, that’s when people are more willing to talk.

While I have a reputation of being a very hard-chore, hard-nose journalist in my town, as well as being an ex officer, I am also a very compassionate woman. And people who only know me through what I do on TV, sometimes find it surprising! I think I learned to be more compassionate over the years. I think of myself as “a toasted marshmallow” – I’m crusty on the outside but I’m mush on the inside! I’m appreciative of people helping me become more humble and more compassionate.

What do you think our world would be like without stories / news?

A world without story tellers, a world without stories, without News, would be a much different place. It would be like a world without music. Stories are a key component of our civility. When you tell somebody a story, there are a million more people out there that can relate to that story and can find hope in that story or at least know that they’re not alone. They can relate to it and can learn from it.

I think without news, without asking the tough questions, holding the powerful accountable, we would be in a very different place in our country. Certainly, with this new administration, the news are crucial because there are so many questions about many things that are being said. And because some things are being repeated over and over again, it doesn’t mean they’re true. We are going to have to strip out the truth in these statements, then present them to the world.

What advice would you give the young people out there who want to follow your footstep? 

I would say get a broad range of knowledge in a lot of different areas. Study the true tenants of journalism. Become an artist in the english language and how to use it. Know that, especially in TV, that you’re not in TV to be on TV, you are in TV to get the word out, to get the truth out, to be a voice for the voiceless. It’s not about you as a journalist. It’s about the story you’re telling, the people you talk to and the images that you’re going to portray. 

Where would you suggest we get our news?

Go with the people who have been around for a very long time. Go to tried networks so you know that they have ethics policies in place. Don’t just look in one place, get your news and information from a myriad of sources and then try to research on your own the topics that really matter to you. Don’t just take the headline but go and research the reports, read through them entirely so you know that what is being characterised in the headline is true and accurate.

Don’t just take the headlines, the Tweets, go to the source. Be a critical consumer of news. And find out who paid and commissioned to get a survey or a report done. 

Closing statement

I love my craft and have a passion for what I do. They say “If you love what you do, you won’t have to work a day in your life”. In the same breath, stay true to who you are as a person in what you do. I have been so incredibly blessed in my career. Not because of the awards I won, the accolades I have gotten but because of the interactions that I’ve had with people and the friendships and camaraderie that I have gained. All of that makes me a better person and all of that, hopefully, makes our universe a little better. 

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