CNN’s Pamela Brown ’06: from UNC’s MJ-school to senior White House correspondent

UNC School of Media and Journalism alumna Pamela Brown ’06 grew up in Lexington, Kentucky, the daughter of former Governor John Y. Brown and former NFL sportscaster and CBS Morning News co-host Phyllis George. Early in her career, Brown gained national prominence as a weekend anchor at ABC affiliate WJLA-TV in Washington, D.C. Seven years later, she joined CNN, most recently as CNN’s senior White House correspondent and a fill-in anchor for “CNN Newsroom.”

Brown spoke with us recently about growing up around television cameras at home and carrying them around campus for “Carolina Week” stories. She talked about the fast-paced dynamic of reporting from the White House and shared advice with current MJ-school students about staying nimble and persistent.

Were there family, friends or public figures who influenced your decision to major in broadcast journalism at UNC?

My mom played a big role in my decision to major in broadcast journalism and pursue this career path. She exposed me at a very young age to the world of broadcasting when she hosted television shows. There would be times when cameras were in our home for various shoots she was involved in, so being in front of the camera seemed like a natural thing in my family. Both of my parents encouraged my curiosity growing up even though I would wear them out with the one word question “why?” Another big influence on me was Tom Johnson who is the former president of CNN. He helped give me the confidence at a young age that I could be a successful journalist through maintaining integrity and hard work. He has been there for me since the beginning of my career and I still lean on him for career advice.

I remember when I was in high school I was telling one of our family friends about my desire to go to the best journalism school possible and this person said “well then you need to go to UNC.” From that point on I pretty much became obsessed with going there. After I visited campus I just knew it was the place for me and fortunately UNC agreed!

What was it like to work on “Carolina Week [the student television news program broadcast from the MJ-school] as a student at UNC? 

I enjoyed my work on “Carolina Week” and learned some valuable skills I've used as a journalist in Washington. I remember lugging my camera around Chapel Hill by myself for interviews and then spending hours in the edit bay putting my piece together while all my friends were out having fun. That prepared me for starting out at the local ABC affiliate in Washington when I would drive to my early morning weekend shift while others my age were getting their late night pizza. It was well worth the sacrifice!

We recently featured a number of UNC alumnae in this story, including Kat Downs at The Washington Post, who graduated with you in 2006; and Tarini Parti ’12, who is White House correspondent for Buzzfeed. Did you and Kat Downs cross paths at the MJ-school; do you and Tarini cross paths as White House correspondents? Are there other UNC alums or faculty/staff members whom you’ve stayed in touch with over time?

I haven’t met Kat or Tarini but I hope I will soon! I love working with UNC alum Brooke Baldwin. We met in DC before we both moved over to CNN. How life has changed for both of us! I also enjoy keeping up with Dr. T in the MJ-school. I received a lovely note from Dean Susan King this past summer and found it so touching. I appreciate that she keeps in touch with former MJ-school students.
What about your student and professional life has most prepared you for your new role as senior White House correspondent, and how?

I think learning the basics outside of the classroom of enterprising story ideas, shooting, editing and writing my stories certainly helped prepare me early on. I always say the best classroom is real life experience. My 12 years as a journalist and covering many different types of stories certainly helped prepare me but truth be told nothing can fully prepare you for a role like this. The basics of source building and reporting are the same, but the day-to-day, fast-paced dynamic of constant news is certainly an adjustment. 

There has been some animosity about CNN in particular from the White House via Twitter. Does this influence how you will approach the job? 

My approach to the job is the same no matter what. Twitter certainly adds a different dimension but at the end of the day our job is to report the facts and hold those in power accountable. Nothing anyone can say will change that.
You've done in-depth reporting on the fight against sex trafficking in the U.S. and abroad. What can you share with students and fellow alums about finding subjects that you are deeply committed to and incorporating that commitment into your professional life?

It can be tough to dedicate a lot of time on stories I’m passionate about because the news cycle changes so quickly now and my focus is often on the breaking news in the moment but that said, I still try to make time to pursue stories that I find interesting.

The MJ-school strives to keep innovation at the heart of our curriculum. What are the parts of your typical day on the job that you couldn’t have anticipated when you graduated in 2006? How should our journalism students prepare to remain nimble in the face of rapid change?
I can’t tell you how many times I started the day working on a story and by the time I went on air I was on my fifth story of the day. It’s important to never be too committed to the story you’re working on for the day because things can change, but if it’s a story I think still deserves attention I will make a point to go back to it when I can.

I think it’s important for students to know how important ‘following up’ is. The people I work with now are completely different from who I worked with while I was covering the Department of Justice. I have found it often takes at least three follow up emails to actually get someone’s attention. Oftentimes I’ll email someone and then right away put in my calendar to follow up with them in a week in case they don’t respond. Some of my best sources have come from repeated attempts by me to meet with them. It’s all about being persistent with follow up.

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