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Michelle Millman on Journalism, Social Media and Being a Survivor

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What makes a great journalist? Someone who works hard to uncover the truth, stays on top of trends and issues, frames the discussion, and turns their personal struggles into teachable moments for viewers and/or readers? Yes, all of that and more. In my youth, Linda Ellerbee, Max Robinson and Cecilia Alvear were three outstanding journalists who stood out. Not just for what they reported, but for what they gave to their profession.

When you observe the stellar career of Seattle's Michelle Millman, you come to the very same conclusion. She's a veteran journalist who thinks globally about topics, and can brilliantly conceptualize and present them for "local consumption." Her intellect and command of topics is as impressive as her ability to connect with an expansive and diverse region of viewers. But what has endeared Michelle to an international audience is how she looked adversity in the face, and beat breast cancer.

When one goes through something of this magnitude, they lean on their family and friends the most. But when you are a media personality known for your uncommon generosity, tens of thousands of viewers become supporters you can lean on, too. So the power is not just in how Michelle speaks to the news camera or a teleprompter. It is also in her inspiring story of courage and triumph. I was happy when she agreed to share her thoughts about the state of her profession, and how her life has been transformed.

Photo Courtesy of Michelle Millman

In recent years, we have seen reporting that integrates traditional media with social media. How effective do you believe this has been?

Michelle Millman: I think social media, together with traditional media gathering, can be effective. Through Twitter and/or Facebook I am able to reach people who have a story to tell or have some connection to a story I am covering. I have to admit, this is a little harder to accomplish the traditional way. Don't get me wrong, the "old school" way of making calls, finding addresses or knocking on doors still works, but it's amazing how fast you can reach people through social media. Also through Twitter and Facebook I can tell my followers what story I am working on or when I'm anchoring a newscast what compelling stories are coming up -- it is my hope that immediacy drives more viewers to our newscast.

Also, with the popularity of social media traditional journalists are now competing with bloggers who live right in the community they are blogging about -- who knows an issue better than someone who lives in that neighborhood or community? At times we work with these bloggers but they are still adding more competition to the mix. There's a plus side to this added competition: they make us all better, harder working journalists: they "up" our game.

 You've covered a lot of stories -- national security, domestic politics, foreign policy, and many others. What issues do you like to cover most, and what specific issues do believe the media should be covering more?

MM: I am passionate about a story when the people I am interviewing are passionate -- whether it's a story about a loss they've suffered or a journey they've been on -- if they are passionate, I love telling their story. This storytelling comes in many forms: From teachers' strikes to Boeing strikes or from dealing with an ice storm commute to 95 degree weather, nearly everyone has a story to tell.

If I had to pick one subject though it would have to be telling the story of troops returning home from war. These stories are both heartbreaking and heartwarming. I've watched as my photographer takes video of a father holding his baby for the very first time, kissing his wife for the first time in months and then as the family walks off together, holding it together for the cameras even though you can tell they're really not sure what's ahead of them. This leads right into what story I wish media covered more: the toll war takes on families. Local media does a great job covering those 'homecomings' but what about the transition for those troops and their spouses and children once they're home? Those are the stories we need to tell.

  Let's talk media accuracy. There is a lot of pressure to be the first to break a story. How do you ensure that you're "getting it right," so to speak, before you broadcast it?

MM: I've always been competitive and have worked very hard as a journalist to be the "first" with breaking news or developments on a story I am working on, but social media has taken that to a whole new level. We need to be extremely careful as journalists with what we tweet or put on Facebook. The immediacy of social media and the fact we have the potential to reach thousands of people in seconds is somewhat daunting. We need to respect that part of it by making sure we have the facts straight before worrying about being first with the tweet or posting.

My tweets or postings on my Facebook fan page are generally about a story I am covering at the time (a verdict in the courtroom or a news conference with the governor). Where journalists, or news stations, can get into trouble is seeing a tweet from someone else and repeating it on air or retweeting before checking the facts. I'm glad I don't see a lot of this happening! I've also found because of my competitive nature if I'm the only reporter on a breaking news story I want to tweet it or post it to Facebook right away. I then realize I'd be alerting the competition to a story they are missing! It's definitely a balance I have to strike every day on the job.

 Where do you see media 10 years from now?

MM: Traditional news viewing and news gathering is changing right before our eyes and 10 years from now it's hard to say exactly what it'll look like. I do think "24 hour news" -- and now social media -- are working to build an informed society but at the same time a society with people who have a hunger for news right now and seem to want "new" stories all the time. It's a little disheartening when a massive front page story or lead story in a newscast one day is so quickly relegated to "section B" the next.

Over the next decade I believe we will see even more bloggers, citizen journalists and contributors added to the mix (along with traditional journalists). That can only lead to even more news -- whether it's on YouTube, an iPad, or a blackberry -- breaking news stories will be everywhere. Even though viewers are already watching newscasts streamed "live" on computers and iPhones I still think turning on the television for the 11 p.m. news or in the morning before you head to work will be how most people get their news. In my opinion this "habit" for millions of us will take years to break.

 I know you've covered breast cancer stories over the years. Many of them. As a breast cancer survivor, how has the experience shaped your perspective on life?

MM: I do see situations differently now because of my experience with breast cancer. After going through diagnosis, surgery and then months of treatment I've learned to not "stress out" over things. When I do get a little 'stressed' at life, whether it's meeting deadline or juggling two boys and a husband, I tell myself it's nothing compared to cancer. It keeps life and challenges that come with it in perspective. If I received any 'gift' from cancer it's knowing first hand life is too short to spend it worried about things you cannot change.

I will say going through a double mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation helped me see the health care debate in a different light. I now know early detection is the key to survival. I hope whatever direction the debate goes it will be in the best interest of everyone. Access to great health care means the millions of people diagnosed with cancer every year will have a better chance of survival because they will have (hopefully) been diagnosed in the early stages.

 To read more about Michelle Millman, click here. You can also follow her on Twitter, and friend her on Facebook.