Every week we will run a Q&A with a wonderful reporter to talk about what’s right and wrong with journalism, their interests and random other stuff. Some are friends. Some are just people whose work we really respect. Some cover sports. Some don’t. Hopefully all will be interesting.
This week, it’s with Kerith Burke, just back from a stint covering the Olympics for NBC. Kerith is the first broadcast journalist to be featured on The -30-, and she’s definitely one of the most interesting people we’ve had. We talk about her decision to leave a job at SNY, why she was nervous to put her age on her LinkedIn profile and why she isn’t going to “stick to sports.” .
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The questions are in bold. The answers are not.
1. How did you break into journalism, and what has your career path been to this point?
I’ve wanted to be a reporter since fourth grade when my teacher Mrs. Bryant invited a TV news crew to our classroom to cover the mock elections we were holding to vote for president. I was a teacher’s pet, so when the crew needed to interview a student, Mrs. Bryant nodded in my direction. I was SO EXCITED to tell my parents I would be on TV that night. That’s what my ten year old mind knew about reporting: You get to be on TV!
As I got older, I discovered what went into reporting. I had a remarkable journalism teacher named Mr. Rex in high school who shaped a lot of the beliefs I have to this day about how to do the job honestly and compassionately. I was the editor of my high school paper. I specifically went to Washington State University for their journalism program. I got involved with Cable 8, Wazzu’s student TV station, my first semester and did shows all the way up through graduation.
I fell in love with radio in college. One of our class requirements was NPR-style news updates which kept the hard news side of me feeling fresh, but my heart was with KZUU, the quintessential indie station. My first shift was 6am-9am on Friday mornings. Being alone in the booth, talking to a smattering of listeners, and discovering new music was life-changing. I have a cassette tape recording of my final show. I cried.
I remember thinking my last semester at Wazzu that if I could get paid for exactly what I’m doing now, I would be happy for the rest of my life. I was doing TV and radio and writing position papers for media law class. I was certain reporting was my calling, but I was unsure what medium I would choose. Can’t lie…it came down to who hired me first.
I was lucky my first job was in my home state. I got my start in news, not sports. I worked for KEPR-TV in Pasco, WA as a general assignment reporter. I was in charge of daily beat calls for health and education stories. It was a small newsroom and we were one man bands in charge of shooting our own stories, editing them, and presenting them.
The police scanner in the newsroom was by my desk. When police or fire were toned out to something that sounded particularly gnarly, we’d go chase the sirens. We had scanners in our cars too. I remember going out to a house fire in Finley, WA which was about 30 mins from our station. The scanner was giving me updates as I drove: House fire, possible occupant inside…child occupant inside…request for a chaplain. I was shaking by the time I arrived. That report was the worst live shot of my life. It was a three year old boy who died. He was playing with matches with his five year old brother. There wasn’t a lot of information from the PIO at the time of the live shot, so I kept numbly repeating “A three year old boy is dead.”
The more I stayed in news, the more I discovered I was bringing the gloominess home. When friends would visit, I’d give the worst tours of the city. “There’s a murder house…there’s meth house…a kid went missing from there.” I had achieved my dream of being a reporter but I didn’t know how to confess I was unhappy. Thankfully, because the newsroom was small, I was dabbling in sports too. I was helping out the sports director by shooting Friday night high school football games. Then he gave me a reporting role on his Friday night show. Then I started filling in as the sports anchor when he took vacation. And then I became the interim sports director when he left. This course of events saved my career.
Everything I loved about reporting, informing people, the rush of a deadline and being live, I got to have in sports without the death. There’s also a different voice to sports, so I was letting my personality out more. Being a woman in sports is/was a nice trend to ride as well. My next two sports jobs were for local news outlets in Boise, ID and Raleigh-Durham, NC.
My first network sports job was at SNY in New York City. I was nervous to take it. I never saw myself in NYC. I was worried it would be too hard or too unforgiving, plus it’s difficult to jump into a brand new setting and familiarize yourself with all the teams quickly. If I stayed in Raleigh-Durham however, I’d be locked into the same role. I was a reporter and photographer first, a fill-in anchor second. The Sports Director and the weekend guy weren’t going anywhere because their jobs were so good. My job was good too but how long did I want more of the same? Plus having a big TV camera on my shoulder all the time was wearing me down physically. I took the job at SNY and put the camera down for good.
SNY was an excellent workplace. As anchor and reporter only, I had more time to focus on the story-telling. It’s far easier to look an athlete in the eye during an interview when one of your eyes isn’t covered by a giant lens. I got a gift at SNY: Covering four National Championships in four years with UConn women’s basketball. My time with UConn helped me get the job with NBC Sports to cover Team USA women’s basketball at the 2016 Olympic Games. Less than two weeks ago, I was reporting from a gold medal game.
So that’s where I’m at. This summer has been a scramble, but in the best way. I was saying goodbye to SNY, I got a surprise call to cover the Olympics, and I moved across the country. What comes next is a question mark.
2. You worked at SNY in a major media market, which some would actually consider a career high. Then you covered the Olympics for NBC last month. But now you’re unemployed. How are you processing this vertiginous career arc? And what is it like to be without a job as a TV broadcaster? As a freelance writer, it’s daunting to be without a netting, but at least the Internet is large and vast and there are opportunities. I’d think in TV and broadcast, it’s scarier.
It is striking to say “From the Olympics to unemployed!” but let me clarify, I asked for this. Months before NBC called about the Olympics, I told my bosses I didn’t want to re-up at SNY so I could move back to the west coast. I had five wonderful years in the nation’s number one market and it was hard to leave, but there was something in me calling out for a change.
Getting the Olympics gig was an unexpected and amazing phone call. About a month before the Opening Ceremony, NBC had to shuffle around some reporters when one had a health concern. I was ripe for the opportunity to work the Olympics because of all the time I had put in with basketball. I don’t know how to describe that opportunity except to say it felt cosmic.
My career has been climbing up, up, up and I can’t tell if where I’ve stopped right now is before a cliff, a traverse to something different, or a scenic viewpoint with more room to climb.
I have no idea what’s next. I took a risk by leaving SNY when I didn’t have my next job lined up. I’m in the Bay Area now and there are places out here I’ve been talking with. I have a resume I’m proud of, but I can’t control when a job comes open. I knew that. What guided me to take this risk is my desire to reshuffle priorities. Loved ones first, career second. I’m not giving up my career, but I’m putting it in a place that feels better.
3. What is it like right now trying to land an on-air role? We’ve heard the horror stories of the stigma towards aging in the television industry. There was a recent HBO Real Sports segment that showed the still-present attention paid to looks for female broadcasters. How do you go about selling yourself to potential employers and how cognizant are you of all the potential supposed and real unfair factors in getting hired?
I didn’t get to see the HBO segment because I had to pack my TV! I’m ticked off I missed it. I moved a week after the Olympics ended, so I’ve been out of the loop.
Speaking generally, TV is a visual medium so the standards are different, and more so for women. There is something unfortunate happening where bosses want the experience of a mature reporter combined with the face of a 25 year old. That combination does not exist.
When I started at SNY, I was the youngest on-air person in the newsroom. It was my fourth job though. Recent hires have gotten much younger, as in 24, 25, 26. That includes the men, by the way. Good for the youngsters, they’ve shown to be gems. Strictly speaking for myself, as I go forward, I wonder if an employer will find a way to ask how old I am. If we were having a beer outside of this conversation and you asked how old I am, I would gladly tell you. I feel the best I have in my life. I’m happy and confident. I like who I am. I haven’t peaked yet. How I would answer the question to an employer is different. I’d say, “Well how old do I look?” with a smile and hope the question stops there. I’ve been told I look younger than my age, so I’m not in a hurry to correct people because of my line of work.
I made a LinkedIn (ugh) for my job search and I hesitated when it came to adding the year I graduated college. Maybe I’m nervous over nothing. But when everyone is looking for an edge in a competitive field, ageism makes me pause. To repeat: I am not that old.
4. You have never shied away to express your views on controversial social issues on Twitter. How have your previous employers responded to that outspokenness? How much do you worry that speaking out could alienate future employers as you continue to search for a job? Why do you believe it’s important to do so, even if it’s potentially risky? And should the people in charge at media outlets allow their talent to speak their mind, even if opinion isn’t part of their actual job description?
What we call “controversial topics” should often be relabeled “uncomfortable topics.” The Black Lives Matter movement, pro athletes and domestic violence, Brock Turner’s three felony sexual assault convictions yielding only a six month sentence and early release are all things I want to talk about. Loudly. It comes down to a call to treat people equally, respect people equally, and punish people equally. But equality is an uncomfortable topic in our country.
I do my best to pick my spots on Twitter. Quality over quantity hopefully. I got an email from a mentor who cautioned me to be “careful and conservative” regarding what I tweet during my job search. I felt like I was already doing that. So I scanned my twitter feed and the only thing I could see that would possibly be considered uncomfortable was tweet where I took a screenshot of a story about Stanford banning hard alcohol as a result of the Brock Turner fallout, next to a picture of the victim’s statement where she said, “You were not wrong for drinking…why am I still explaining this?” It felt like a powerful way to juxtapose how the decision-makers at Stanford were not listening, and how lessons about consent would be far more powerful than banning alcohol…which, ahem, is already banned for people under the age of 21.
I’m guessing that’s the tweet that prompted my mentor to write? I don’t know, he didn’t write back. And ultimately, I deleted the tweet because I noticed that portion of the victim’s statement contained the word “dick.” Careful and conservative is good advice. Sigh.
During my job search, I’ve been oscillating between wanting to unmuzzle myself now that I’m a free agent, but also wondering if it will cost me. People like my mentor are in charge of hiring. Is it worth ruffling feathers? Not really, but silence doesn’t feel good either. Silence feels terrible frankly. I promised myself I’d use my voice more now that I found it. If I have this platform, it feels like an obligation.
Furthermore, our industry is moving in the direction of asking reporters to inject their opinion into conversations. Talk shows galore! I could be more attractive to an employer for my ability to hone my opinion in a concise, powerful way.
There’s a time and a place for opinion. I’m comfortable with the balance I’ve struck professionally.
5. When you were at SNY, or before that, how much did you push your bosses and producers about covering the social activism athletes are involved in now, instead of just the on-field sports? Will you in your next job? How much do you worry that this could bring on a blowback to your career? And how much does that matter to you, considering you’re still young and trying to move up the ladder?
It feels best to keep this answer short: There are patterns that have come up in every newsroom I’ve worked at regarding the coverage of social issues. It starts with the fact most of the faces in a newsroom don’t match the faces of the population. And when it comes to some issues, newsrooms don’t know how to talk about them, don’t want to talk about them, or are afraid to talk about them.
It’s narrow to believe “stick to sports!” should be a guiding message for newsrooms, despite how often we hear that, when sports and activism are sewn together. To separate one from the other doesn’t capture reality.
6. Beyond the career implications, what is it like to be, for a lack of a better term, a woman with an opinion on the internet? You have not shied away from exposing harassment and hatred on social media, but how difficult is it to deal with that day after day when you’re an on-air personality? To what extent do you muzzle yourself out of fear of what the response might be and in going after jobs that would include opining because of any such inhibition?
Being a woman with an opinion on the internet means you’re occasionally called a cunt, and one time a troll misspelled that word in a mean tweet to me. I laughed so hard.
I don’t have it as bad as some of my female friends because my profile isn’t as big. I’m not on ESPN or even as outspoken as they are. The stupid, typical stuff doesn’t register anymore. You can tell me to get back in the kitchen as much as you want. That doesn’t hurt my feelings, but it does make me pity you.
For the past year, contemplating my departure from SNY, I’ve been asking myself what’s been missing from my career. I keep coming back to the idea of writing more. You asked if there’s a fear regarding what the response might be for a woman with an opinion. I am concerned what abuse might come my way if I decide to write, based on what my friends have endured.
Before I put something out there, I ask myself, is it worth it to express this opinion if it means I’ll get abuse or threats? Half the time the answer is no because I’m not in the headspace to deal with the garbage. It’s not amusing anymore to see “RIP your mentions lol” from twitter friends, because that feels like a shrug regarding the stream of abusive sludge about to hit my mentions. It feels like acceptance. The other half of the time I’m disappointed in myself for letting the worst of the egg avitars bother me or silence me.
Ask any successful woman writing about sports (especially the intersection of sports and social issues) if they brace themselves before hitting publish, and the majority will answer yes. They know what’s coming. A piece that gets shared widely brings attention. Attention can yield the worst kind of threats in your mentions or the comments section. Why is that the cost for doing the job?
7. What do you think is the future of on-camera broadcasters and personalities? Obviously so much attention is paid to how the internet has changed print media, but broadcast media has its own issues, too. And what does it mean to be an on-air person now when every outlet is prioritizing video, and you can broadcast via Facebook, Snapchat, Periscope and other ways?
I thought I saw the future of broadcasting when I left local sports departments for a network that prioritizes sports. It was so frustrating in local to watch your whole sportscast evaporate because a snowflake fell an hour away and that meant wall-to-wall weather coverage. Now what’s happening to networks is cord cutting. Why have a cable bill when you can stream the games you want without paying for the stuff you never watch? I get it. Networks are being squeezed by consumers who want their habits recognized, and on top of that, teams are finding was to make local coverage less essential. They’re smart to figure out they can have an in-house video department and in-house reporters to cover what they want covered, how they want it covered. I get that too, even though it’s concerning as far as accountability and transparency.
What consumers want is also changing in a way that reflects they’re thirsty for information beyond the two-hour window of a basketball game, for example. Periscope is a tool that can share a different kind of access. I remember one of my favorite co-workers in my career, Mark Armstrong, periscoped the hallway after an NCAA championship game, so viewers could sense the atmosphere. They could see the mass of reporters clogging the hallway, and they could hear the joy coming from the locker room while the door was closed. It was a simple way to lift the curtain on what happens after the game is over.
At the Olympics, NBC asked us to use Facebook Live to lift the curtain. Our broadcasting crew went into a little booth and talked about what didn’t make air. Viewers didn’t have X’s and O’s questions, rather they wanted to know what the team was doing in their spare time, how were they getting around Rio, what they ate. They wanted a fuller picture of the experience so they could feel like insiders.
Periscope and Facebook Live and Snapchat aren’t taking anything away from broadcasters. It feels like they’re augmenting our product.
8. What would you change about how sports is covered on television, whether it’s studio shows, highlight shows or whatever else?
I’ve been thinking about how newsrooms are married to using a template for shows. There’s a structure, like thirty seconds for this highlight, 45 seconds for this one. I wonder if that boxes in our storytelling. If there’s one play that defined a game, the play everyone will be talking about….why not make that play the focus? Why not anticipate what gif is going to be retweeted 20 thousand times and make sure we have that video at the top of our show? What made you yell OHHHHHH! during a game? There’s a whimsy to sports that deserves to shine. Let’s not forget to join in the fun.
I’d like to see studio shows, especially debate shows, reflect more diversity. Diversity comes from experiences, and skin color or gender impact experiences, so yeah. Let’s see some different people. Help the conversation break out of the typical mold. It’s already happening!
There are two things I hope I never hear in a newsroom again: “Nobody cares about ______” and “We’ve always done it this way.”
And finally…sports should be aired live, which broadcasters calling the game from the game, to give the viewers the best experience.
9. So your name is pretty uncommon. In 2015, there wasn’t a single baby named Kerith in the US, according to US government stats. Where did that come from? I’ve also heard that you search out people named Kerith and try to contact them. Why, and has anyone ever just called you out for it?
Not a single baby Kerith last year? Is that name in baby books? My mom saw the name Kerith in a book called The Source by James Michener. I wish there was a better story here, but my mom wanted something Irish sounding to go with my last name. My parents planned to nickname me Keri but I insisted as a toddler MY NAME IS KERITH and that was that. I set into motion the heartache of not having a little personalized license plate for my Huffy bike like all the other kids in the neighborhood. Substitute teacher day was awkward when they’d misread my name as Keith. I have a collection of credentials that refer to me as Keith Burke. Autocorrect hates me.
If there’s a play about my life, it contains this scene:
Hi, what’s your name?
No, Kerith. K-e-r-i-t-h.
Ohhhh, okay. Nice to meet you! (They still have no idea what my name is.)
I used to hate my name growing up, but I’m over it. It’s me. It’s pronounced CARE-ith, by the way.
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