ABC News Producer, Stephanie Wash, On Embracing The Rewarding Moments of Journalism

Stephanie Wash secured her dream job two weeks after graduating from NYU. The ABC News Producer started off as a intern in the Brian Ross Investigative Unit and cultivated her skills and expertise throughout her 10+ year tenure at ABC. Here, Stephanie details her experiences working in a constant “breaking news” atmosphere, being nominated and winning a Daytime Emmy, how she once worked a 32 hour day, and why you shouldn’t be afraid of your own ideas.

TO START, CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR PATH LEADING UP TO WHAT YOU ARE DOING NOW?

My path. I knew that I wanted to be a journalist when I was probably 11. My father would bring home newspapers, and I would go through them and read about things that were happening in the community and the world and I would write letters to the editor. At that point, I was very passionate about writing. So, I went to NYU for print journalism. When I was graduating, a lot of newspapers were folding and I saw that they were laying off employees, so my professors gave me the smart advice to go into television.

I got an internship at ABC news, which was actually my dream job because on my college application to NYU, on my entrance essay, all I talked about was how I wanted to be Barbara Walters. So when I actually got a job at ABC, it was kind of a dream come true. I interned there my final semester of college. They taught me everything–how to work with tapes, how to transcribe interviews, how to interview people, how to research — So, I interned there, graduated, and was hired on staff at ABC two weeks after graduating from NYU.

I started at the bottom of the totem pole in a now-nonexistent title, running scripts to the anchors and making photocopies. I worked the graveyard shift and I did that for years. I ended up catching one of the eyes of one of the executives at ABC, and he eventually gave me a trial period and promised that he would hire me at the first chance he had a role. I interviewed for the role and that’s how I made my way at ABC.

CONSIDERING WHERE YOU ARE NOW AND HEARING YOU SAY THAT YOU STARTED AT THE BOTTOM OF THE TOTEM POLE, CAN YOU NOW SEE THE GROWTH?

Oh, for sure! I have a lot more confidence going into situations and don’t feel like a beginner anymore. When you have that different air about you, you can enter into situations, especially when you’re out on the field or covering a news story, you walk like you belong there. I feel like I belong there. I also feel that my interview skills were nonexistent when I started. I may have thought I was Barbara Walters, but I was not. I have just grown as a person because of things I have seen, the things I have heard, and the stories I have covered.

Cleveland Police Chief, Calvin Williams, left, listens to protesters, Tuesday, July 19, 2016, in Cleveland on during the second day of the Republican convention. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

WHAT HAS BEEN THE MOST REWARDING PROJECT THAT YOU ‘VE PRODUCED OR WORKED ON?

There are many, but I would say the most rewarding project that I have worked on was a series called Hidden America. Diane Sawyer travels around the country and covers stories that are hidden from the public or something that you wouldn’t normally know about. So I got onto a project where they went into a high school in North Philadelphia that was considered one of the most dangerous. They had five principals in five years. It was my first exposure to something like that. We ended up embedded in the school for two years straight and I got to know the kids. I got to give some of those kids advice that I think helped them immensely. We were able to watch this high school transform under the guidance of this amazing principal. And it was rewarding to me because we were able to show that sometimes in urban communities, it’s not that the kids don’t want to have a future or that they don’t want to learn, it’s just that there are so many obstacles for them and we were able to show people that didn’t understand those obstacles what those may be.

“… one of the most rewarding things about journalism is when you go out into a space and you meet people and those people become a part of your journey and a part of your life.”

HOW DID IT MAKE YOU FEEL? WHAT WAS THE RESPONSE LIKE?

I was nervous at first because you never know how people are going to receive things. The response was incredible. People kept calling and writing in and saying that they wanted to donate money, asking how they could send these kids to college, and it was so overwhelming that they had to set up a fund because the principal could not handle the money and letters that were coming in. Drake (Aubrey Graham) saw the piece and he reached out to us and said that I want to do something for these kids. He came to Philadelphia and invited the entire school to his concert. He spoke to these kids one on one. They made polo shirts for the kids and he put a recording studio in the high school. That was amazing to see.

The response was overwhelming and when it was over for me, I was upset because I missed the principal and the kids. I still keep in touch with the principal, but I think that is one of the most rewarding things about journalism is when you go out into a space and you meet people and those people become a part of your journey and a part of your life. It doesn’t end with the story and that is what happened at Strawberry Mansion.

Source: Stephanie Wash

FOR THE PIECES THAT YOU CREATE NOW, ARE THEY ORIGINAL TOPICS THAT YOU WOULD LIKE TO EXPLORE OR ARE THEY CENTERED AROUND CURRENT EVENTS?

Most of the time, what I cover is basically just what’s happening in the world. If I get an alert on my phone that something is happening and I want to go and cover it, I usually send an email and say, “Hey can I go?” and I’m usually given the opportunity.

We are able to pitch our own content. I’m a sneaker-head. I love sneakers, so recently I pitched a story to Nightline (click link to view story) because the thing about counterfeit sneakers is that people go out and buy Yeezy’s and get ripped off for thousands of dollars, but people don’t understand that when you’re buying these counterfeit sneakers that’s it’s actually trickling down into terrorism.  For instance in France, Charlie Hebdo, the terrorists that carried out that horrible attack, partly funded that attack selling fake Nike and Adidas sneakers. That’s just a fact that the government has put out there. I wanted to cover something that was interesting to me with sneaker culture and I also wanted to put this spin on on it, this is hard news. This is a real problem. So we are definitely able to pitch our own stories. If I read an article on Twitter that I think is interesting, I pitch it in hopes that the show will cover it.

CAN YOU DESCRIBE A DAY IN THE LIFE OF STEPHANIE WASH?

There is no day in the life. I am a crab. I am literally in my office, thinking about what I am going to cook for dinner. Then, the breaking news comes on the TV and you just know everything is out the window that you had planned for that day. I’ve left my office with just the clothes on my back and my purse and gone places for a week with no clothes, nothing. You just have to make due, buy clothes when you get there.  

My normal schedule is a 9 to 6:30PM job. We have a morning meeting every day at 9AM. We go over the big news stories and pitch story ideas. Then, we go from there.  We’re monitoring the news 24/7. If I don’t have a Good Morning America piece that I’m working on or some sort of special project, I’m looking for story ideas, cultivating story ideas, calling people, drafting up pitches. There’s really no down time in journalism, so we don’t have set days of what we’re doing and what’s going to happen. You just know that you’re going to be working the entire day. The longest day that I have ever had was a 32 hour day.

Source: Stephanie Wash

WOW. 32 HOURS, AND HERE WE ARE DRAGGING AFTER A 8 HOUR WORK DAY! DOES THAT MOTIVATE YOU?

You are running on E, but then you’re also running on your adrenaline. I like being in the field, because things are constantly changing and evolving. So if I’m out on the field and we’re chasing something, we’re chasing a fact or someone to get an interview from. When you get that, it’s on to the next thing in the story. There’s never a lag in what we’re trying to do when we’re on the ground. You don’t really think about how tired you are until you get into your apartment and you’re like, “I had a long day.” You just don’t think about it.

HAVE THERE EVER BEEN ANY STORIES THAT YOU’VE BEEN CONFLICTED WITH FAR AS THE TOPICS, SCENARIO OR THE PEOPLE THAT YOU MAY HAVE BEEN REPORTING ON?

It’s interesting because, when you’re covering breaking news, bad things can happen to anybody, so you might be interviewing somebody who has a completely different political view than you do, or you might be interviewing someone who may have some sort of prejudice against you. But, my job is to look beyond that and not put any bias into the story.

Another thing is, I was also the court reporter for the George Zimmerman trial. I sat through that trial day in and day out. While I was trying to get interviews with Trayvon Martin’s family, we were also trying to get interviews with George Zimmerman, and that’s conflicting because you’re sitting in the courtroom all day long and whatever my take on that case may have been, there is no way that I can let people know. You can’t let your feelings get in the way of the story. You have to be factual; whatever was said in court that day is the story. Whatever was said in these interviews is the story. It’s not about whether I thought George Zimmerman killed/murdered Trayvon Martin and should have been held accountable for it. That’s not the job. It is difficult sometimes to hold back your personal opinions.  

There are so many times that I wanted to tweet something, but I would have gotten a call from HR. Let me sit back, drink some water, and go about my day without getting in trouble. We all have opinions, it’s human nature and we feel things about what we read and hear about and it’s automatic. You just have to go with it. I can have my opinion all I want, but I can’t let it blind my judgment.

Source: Associated Press

WHAT ARE THREE TOP LESSONS YOU’VE LEARNED THROUGHOUT YOUR CAREER? AND WHAT INSIGHT WOULD YOU OFFER SOMEONE WHO’S LOOKING TO DEVELOP THEIR CAREER IN JOURNALISM? 

I will say that the most important thing in life is that if you don’t know the answer to something, the answer should never be I don’t know. The answer should be I will go and find out. People are always going to respect you if you take initiative and you don’t have to be the smartest person in the room, you just have to want to be smart and be able to find the information. Having that drive to get people information, having that drive to get people what they want is a very important part of any industry.

I would also tell people in journalism, you can’t say no. You can say no, but it’s not to your benefit to say no. Within our news division, it doesn’t matter what area of news you are in, there are periods and stories where everybody in that building is working day in and day out. People are sacrificing, we don’t see our families, we leave vacation, we cancel vacations. If you really want it, you have to sacrifice and sometimes, you just can’t say no. It sucks, but some of the greatest experiences and biggest stories I’ve worked on at ABC are because I chose not to say no. I could have, but I didn’t say no. I was in Turks and Caicos when Michael Brown got killed. I didn’t fly back, but as soon as I got back, I got to work. I was in Miami, when the attack happened in Las Vegas recently and the phone rang three times, while I was out enjoying a night out. I got back to the Airbnb and was in Las Vegas in less than 12 hours. You just can’t say no to some things. And you look back at it and it’s the worst mass shooting in modern day history. You can sacrifice a lot, but you cannot be afraid to sacrifice. If you cannot make sacrifices, then this might not be the right industry for you.

The third thing I would say is to not be afraid of your own ideas. Don’t set yourself back by being afraid to step back. If you hear something and you think you can make that idea better or you think the idea is silly for a certain reason, you have to realize that you have a seat at the table or a space in the room for a reason. They wouldn’t have you there if they didn’t think you were able minded and able to contribute, so don’t ever be afraid to speak up or give an opinion or give an idea based on where you are within the company or how many years you have been in the company or your title, because everyone has good ideas. Sometimes it’s our own fear and our second guessing ourselves that keeps things or ideas from coming into fruition.

Source: Stephanie Wash

“You can’t let your feelings get in the way of the story. You have to be factual; whatever was said in court that day is the story. Whatever was said in these interviews is the story.”

COULD YOU DESCRIBE THE MOMENT WHEN YOU RECEIVED NEWS OF YOUR EMMY NOMINATIONS AND WINNING THE AWARDS?

Wow. The first Emmy I was nominated for was the follow-up special we did on Strawberry Mansion. We didn’t win, but I couldn’t even describe what it was like just being there and being honored for our work.

The first Emmy I won in 2017 was a Daytime Emmy, as a producer on Good Morning America. I just remember feeling so accomplished, elated, and proud. I had a good time unboxing that thing.

I later was nominated four more times that same year, for my work on our coverage on the Pulse Nightclub Shooting in Orlando – and a Townhall special we did on race and policing with President Obama. I was up for 4 Emmy’s and won 2. Those wins were bittersweet.

Last summer, after a long news cycle of police shootings and then the 5 Dallas officers who were killed in cold blood – I was depleted. After the attack, I flew with civilian survivors to DC, so that they could speak with President Obama at our town hall. At the end of the town hall, I was speaking with a guest in the audience, who didn’t have a chance to speak. I inquired about the photo he held, of a young man in a police uniform. He began to tell me the story of his son – who had been robbed and murdered. His only son. I literally started balling right there in that room. For him. For his son. For the irreplaceable loss. I was heartbroken – especially more so after reporting on so much senseless loss that summer.

When I found out we had won an award for that Townhall, I was en route to the memorial service for the Las Vegas Metro officer killed in the country music festival shooting. Where I would later shed tears for yet another man – a husband & father – again killed without cause or reason.

Leaving that memorial, I learned I had won a second Emmy for our team’s coverage of the Pulse Nightclub attack. It didn’t sit well with me in that moment because I was winning an award for covering what was the largest mass shooting in modern history, while standing at a memorial for what was now the largest mass shooting in modern history. It was hard to find celebration in that. I cried waiting for my Lyft back to The Strip.

I got to Orlando 5 hours after the Pulse attack ended. I watched survivors leave the hospital with others’ blood still on them, asking us about their missing friends. That was a traumatic event for many of us journalists down there; for many of us, these were our peers who were targeted.

So while there was nothing to really “celebrate,” I was proud of myself in that moment. You have to have the tenacity to cover tragedy again and again – and do right by the victims and their families, tell their stories, and honor their lives. I was proud that we had done that in Orlando. As we were doing the same in Vegas.

It’s not so much the actual Emmy statue that’s valuable to me. It’s the reminder that our character and compassion make the difference in doing our jobs in an honorable way.

WHERE DO YOU SEE YOURSELF IN THE NEXT FIVE TO TEN YEARS?

I see myself still producing; I love what I do. I love covering breaking news. I hope to break into possibly some on-air opportunities, whether that be just supporting digital breaking news or not. I want to help shape what news looks like from a company like ABC that is set in its values and standards and has a strong brand and drive our content for millennials and how they’re consuming news. I want to be a part of that transformation and how we produce our news for the younger generation in a period where there is so much distrust in media and the information that we’re putting forth.

Source: Stephanie Wash
Source: Stephanie Wash

WHAT IS ONE PIECE OF ADVICE YOU WOULD GIVE YOUR PAST SELF? 

I am somebody who loves to travel. I don’t care if it’s traveling around the world or a different part of New York, I just like to be in foreign places that I’m not familiar with, eat food and talk with people. I like my job at ABC, because I can be in a place like Casper, Wyoming and find out that it’s one of the most amazing places in the world.

Now knowing how much traveling has fueled me, pushed me, taught me how to communicate with diverse people, how to accept different cultures and use that in my craft. When I was at NYU, I should have gone abroad, because I feel like I would have had a broader understanding of another country; I could have learned another language. I could have used my knowledge of that city in my job now. I think that is my one thing. I traveled in high school, my parents sent me on trips to Europe, but that was three weeks and you come right back. When you have to fend for yourself somewhere in a different country, it’s a completely different thing. When I speak to my friends who traveled abroad with some of the college programs, it was some of the best moments of their life. And some places they consider a second home on another continent, that’s crazy to me.

My advice to myself would have been to travel more before I leaped into a career because I think it would have given me a lot more perspective.

I would also say that the thing I mentioned earlier about fear, that was me when I first got to ABC. I started at ABC when I was 20; I’m now 30 and it was my 10 year anniversary in December. I think if I would have had the confidence I have now 10 years later who knows where I could have been or what I could have done. I work for a company that is incredible where we are part of this large group where if you have show ideas, you can potentially get a show on ABC. You can ask for a sit down with the executives and a week later, your idea can be happening. You just have to take leaps of faith at some point and have confidence in yourself and you have to have good ideas.

WHAT IS THE LEGACY THAT YOU HOPE TO LEAVE BEHIND?

I want people to say that Stephanie was an amazing journalist and that you can tell from her stories that she cares about people. She actually cared about what she was talking about, she cared about making things better.

It’s never just something that we jump into and get out. It can be a month out of the story, and we’re asking, “How’re you doing? Is there anything that you need? Is there anything that’s not being reported on, that we should be? What would you want to put out there? And we’ll do what we can by helping people find resources that they need for some of these devastating stories – whether it be a “call-a-thon” or just sharing a GoFundMe page on our site.

CONTINUE THE CONVERSATION

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