“Pure Objectivity Is Easier Said Than Done” Words Of Wisdom With News Anchor Leslie Picker
“As journalists, we are constantly paranoid by the concept of objectivity and preventing our own personal biases from being incorporated in the stories we cover. Even in the numbers world in which I live, there are choices in story structure — certain numbers to highlight over others, etc. The best thing you can do is question whether your choices are skewing your story in a biased way and remedy the piece if that’s the case. Make sure every side of the story is accurately reflected.”
I had the pleasure to interview Leslie Picker, a veteran anchor from CNBC
What is your “backstory”?
I grew up about as far from Wall Street as one might get (metaphorically speaking). My hometown is Leawood, Kansas. I hadn’t heard of a hedge fund, a Bloomberg terminal or a credit-default swap until I auspiciously landed an internship at a business newswire in the spring of 2008. I use the term “auspiciously,” because originally I thought I wanted to be a political reporter. I applied to a political journalism fellowship where they arranged an internship for me, while I took classes at the Watergate building. My internship match was with Bloomberg. That fellowship gave me a front-row seat to the beginning of the financial crisis and ever since then, I made it my personal mission to dissect the more opaque areas of Wall Street and distill the implications for a large audience.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?
In order to get a better understanding of the subjects I covered, I decided to do a part-time MBA at New York University, with a concentration in finance. But the news didn’t stop when my classes started at 6 p.m. I remember a specific instance where I got a huge tip from a source, who texted me while I was in my behavioral finance class. I rushed out immediately to confirm it with another source and call my editor. Time is of the essence with that sort of thing — and I didn’t want to lose the scoop to another news organization. But there was one massive problem: my phone was on its last leg of battery life. So I went back into class, tiptoeing around in search of a phone charger, peaking into women’s purses while the professor was still lecturing. Fortunately, I found one, raced back outside, plugged my phone in, typed my story and sent it to my editor. Ultimately, we were able to break the scoop… but I missed most of the class that day!
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
We spent six months on an investigation into the sales practices of major Wall Street banks in Puerto Rico. We found that large, global banks were selling billions of dollars in bond funds, filled with Puerto Rican municipal debt. When the economy declined and ultimately filed for bankruptcy-like proceedings last May, thousands of local residents lost their entire life savings. We obtained confidential emails, testimony and arbitration documents that indicated that high up executives at the bank had direct knowledge that the riskiness of the bond funds did not match the risk tolerance of the clients who were buying them. But they did little to stop it. The report caused a congresswoman from New York to press the Financial Services Committee to bring in these executives for a hearing on the issue. The main 17-minute documentary and written story can be found here and we are continuing to report on the fallout from the original piece.
Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?
I’m fascinated by women leaders who were born in eras where their brilliance was underestimated and underappreciated and they still managed to defy the odds and become massive contributors to business history. These are women like Ada Lovelace, who was an English mathematical genius in the early-to-middle 1800s who is credited with inventing computer programming. It’s amazing to me that computer programs dominate the worlds of Wall Street and Silicon Valley, and yet both industries are known for having so few women.
What advice would you give to someone considering a career in journalism?
Find a subject matter that you’re passionate about and study hard — whether that’s meteorology, the White House, or clean energy. If you can demonstrate an expertise and a depth of knowledge on a topic, you will become invaluable to news organizations and more respected by sources. Those two dynamics will help you write bigger and better stories.
I know this is not an easy job. What drives you?
Curiosity. The nice thing about business news is that there’s always some complex new instrument, or trade, or personality that I get to study each day.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1. There are three main skills you need as a journalist: reporting, writing and source management. The first two are frequently taught in journalism school, but I think source management is just as critical of a skill. That essentially requires building a rolodex and frequently meeting with sources. This is important to stay in the flow of information on your beat, and build relationships with people who you trust and who trust you during your reporting.
2. Learn from those who surround you. Most newsrooms are open spaces. If there’s a reporter in the newsroom who you admire, study how he or she asks questions of sources, ask them for how they got a certain story, and pick their brain about how to be successful in your news organization.
3. Pure objectivity is easier said than done. As journalists, we are constantly paranoid by the concept of objectivity and preventing our own personal biases from being incorporated in the stories we cover. Even in the numbers world in which I live, there are choices in story structure — certain numbers to highlight over others, etc. The best thing you can do is question whether your choices are skewing your story in a biased way and remedy the piece if that’s the case. Make sure every side of the story is accurately reflected.
4. Be careful on social media. Your posts are there forever. Criticizing a company on Facebook or Twitter over poor service? Espousing your political views? It’s fine for most people, but realize that one day you may be covering that company or that political seat, and you don’t want to do anything that would harm your credibility in the long run.
5. You will see people who are mean and unethical get ahead. Don’t let that alarm you and don’t let that prevent you from doing good work with integrity. People who rise through the ranks the “wrong way” have a tendency to fall faster.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. :-)
Anthony Bourdain. And I’d let him pick the restaurant. :-)