CBS News’ Byron Pitts discusses role of journalists with Elon students

By Kassondra Cloos

Byron Pitts discussed the roles of journalism and journalists Wednesday night at Elon University. Photo by Kassondra Cloos.

Byron Pitts has seen a lot during his years as a journalist. He was in New York City during the Sept. 11 attacks, and covered the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina for CBS News. Still, despite telling the stories that tug at the heartstrings of his viewers, his job is just that: to tell the story.

Instead of reciting a speech to the sold-out theater Thursday night at Elon University—which he claimed has the best school of communications in the country—Pitts held a discussion.

Several students asked him about covering death, war and tragedy, and where the line should be drawn between seeking information and becoming part of it. But even in the face of catastrophes, Pitts was firm in that the role of a journalist is to find the facts and tell the truth.

“I don’t think my job is to make the world a better place,” he said.

That’s not to say that Pitts has no emotional reactions to his job, which has involved covering so much human turmoil that he opened by saying he makes his living by covering death. He assured the audience that he is affected by what he sees, and that he has observed other journalists’ internal torment, too.

“I’m OK with that because that’s the choice I made professionally,” he said. “What I’m not OK with is indifference.”

As a journalist, Pitts said his job is to be a witness, not a participant. But he urged the Elon community to take an interest in what happens around them, and to strive to be a service to the United States.

“You are citizens of the world and I hope you take that responsibility seriously,” he said. “We see what happens in the world when good and decent people stand on the side, when the best of us isn’t utilized. Certainly, we saw this during Hurricane Katrina.”

Pitts said he was surprised by the lack of attention people gave to those who died in the disaster. He arrived on the second day after the hurricane and saw bodies littering the interstate. At that point, many of them had been there for more than a full day.

Not long before heading to New Orleans, Pitts had covered the 2004 tsunami that ravaged Indonesia. But there, survivors tended to their dead almost immediately after disaster struck.

“How odd, that in a developing nation, people pause long enough to deal with the dead in a dignified way,” he said. “But in our country, the most powerful nation on Earth, we allowed our fellow Americans to be left out on the highway.”

Pitts allows himself to be an optimist, he said, but he also believes everyone—even those in his audience—is capable of doing bad things. Everyone, under the wrong circumstances, has the capacity to take a life.

It’s society’s responsibility to prevent another Hurricane Katrina, Pitts said. It’s society’s job to refuse to be indifferent.

“My job,” he said, “is to seek the truth the best I can, and to report it the best I can.”

Where do you think journalists should draw the line between objective reporting and actively assisting humanity? Take a look at this Storify compilation and share your thoughts, too.

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