MONICA MILLER is an independent reporter and producer who covers current events, politics, culture and breaking news for various news organizations across New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Her work has been heard on the CBS Radio Network, NPR, WCBS 880 and WBGO 88.3 FM. She’s also worked as a reporter for CNN affiliate News 12 New Jersey, and written for The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Times of Trenton. Monica received an Ippies Award from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism for an enterprising feature about a Newark community policing program in one of the city’s most notorious housing projects. She also received a fellowship in 2003 from RIAS Berlin and RTNDF that took her to Europe. Monica was also honored by the North Hudson Islamic Educational Center and the Muslim and Arab Communities of New Jersey for her work covering the Islamic community after the 9/11 attacks. Her work has been recognized by the Associated Press, Public Radio News Directors, The New York Association of Black Journalists, and has contributed to work honored with Edward R. Murrow Awards by the RTNDA. She joined the teaching staff at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism as a part-time adjunct professor in 2012.
1. What do you like about covering breaking news and what are the challenges? The adrenaline rush. Whether I’m covering a natural disaster or a parade, I find it exhilarating to be the audiences’ eyes and ears on the scene. It’s a responsibility I don’t take lightly. However, live reporting definitely has its challenges. In a fluid situation you don’t have all the answers. A lot of speculation and rumor can be thrown your way from a variety of sources. With the immediacy and pervasiveness of social media, it seems like there’s more pressure than ever to get the story first. CBS Evening News Anchor Scott Pelly was recently talking about the rash of mistakes many major news organizations have made, particularly during the Boston bombing coverage. He said something like, if you’re first, no one will remember. If you’re wrong, no one will forget. It’s not always a perfect system, but I usually write down what has been confirmed at the scene on my note pad in bullet points. Once the anchor introduces the story, I usually begin by painting a picture of what I see with words and then get right to the facts.
2. What are some pitching tips for freelance radio reporters? Tip #1: It’s important to understand the news organization or program to which you want to pitch stories. If it’s a specific program like This American Life, I know they get inundated with quirky stories on topics like finding the meaning of life. (Yes. This information has been verified by one of their producers.) I suggest combing through their archives to see if your story idea offers anything new that might catch their attention. Tip #2: If you’re interested in selling stories to a particular program or news organization, follow their reporters, producers and writers on social media. They’ll sometimes give a shout out when they’re looking for something specific. The information they share might also shed light on stories they’re already working on.
3. What lessons do you carry over from your acting career into broadcast journalism? Ah, my days as an Annie orphan have been exposed. I actually learned a lot during my years as a kid in show business. Having to juggle school and some sort of social life in conjunction with travel and rehearsals taught me to compartmentalize my responsibilities. I think the experience gave me the tools to juggle covering several stories, producing and editing them under deadline and planning ahead for the next day. It also taught me how to survive in a competitive environment and be a professional. Like show business, there are no guarantees in the news industry when it comes to job security or having control over the final product. There are days when I might feel burned out or angered by a particular story. But when it comes to being a journalist, my opinion is irrelevant. It’s my job to tell a fair story and give it the attention it deserves.
4. What was the hardest assignment you’ve had and how did you work through it? I did a story about a decorated Muslim Marine Sergeant who was abused by members of the US military because of his religion. While he was cleared of the charges brought against him, he developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in the process. He lost his wife, some of his friends and became obsessed with suing the government. In order to tell his story, I had to gain his trust. It was the first time I worked that closely with someone who suffered from PTSD. It took me a year to sort through hundreds of pages of his paperwork, file FOIA requests and convince his ex-wife to sit down for an interview. At times, I would lose contact with him for weeks because he would shut down emotionally. When asked why he wasn’t returning my phone calls or emails, he told me it was for my protection because the government was monitoring our communication. However, the end result was incredibly satisfying. After listening to the story, he was pleased with it. He reconnected with some of the people in the story who he hadn’t spoken to in years. There’s a veteran’s organization in northern New Jersey I later suggested he contact for assistance. Its organizer told me the Marine said he became tired of telling his story himself, so he played my report instead.
5. What do you wish you knew when you started out in journalism? The industry has changed so much since I first started. I remember one of my biggest challenges starting out was dealing with a slow dial-up Internet connection. Of course, I wish I knew about the peaks and valleys journalism would face and the creation of social media. But I try not to dwell on the past. It’s a fruitless endeavor. What I tell people starting out in this industry is to focus on good storytelling and trust their instincts. That was good advice handed down to me from a mentor. I think it still holds true.
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