Pam Huff: The Matriarch of Birmingham TV News on the state of journalism

Column

By David Baxley, Assistant Professor of Mass Communication, Francis Marion University, SPJ South Carolina member

If you know anything about the Birmingham television market, you know it’s a city bustling with news. From government corruption, to high crime rates, to high-impact severe weather events, to national football championships: central Alabama will keep a news department stretched to the limit. The market consists of four competing broadcast news departments, each hoping to garner news consumers’ trust.

Pam Huff 3

Pam Huff, Anchor, WBMA ABC33/40 Birmingham, Alabama

For 40 years, Pam Huff has told the stories of Alabamians while making a difference in her community. In fact, she was the first woman named to a nightly news broadcast in Birmingham. She came to WVTM in 1977. After a brief stint outside of TV in the mid 1990s, she returned to the airwaves in 1997 at rival station WBMA ABC 33/40, where she continues anchoring evenings newscasts. Huff has been an intricate part of shaping the television news landscape and is revered as perhaps the most respected journalist in the market. Some would call her the matriarch of Birmingham TV.

Huff is the longest-tenured anchor in Birmingham, and she has no plans of slowing down. Throughout the years, she’s seen many changes. News consumer habits have undoubtedly changed with the digital transformation. Male dominated newsrooms have declined and more minorities have been hired to provide balance through diversity. But, at its core, journalism seems to be fading at a time when it’s more important than ever for citizens to understand the world around them.

SPJ official logoHuff has been a member of the Society of Professional Journalists since her college days in the 1970s. She’s a journalist who lives by SPJ’s Code of Ethics, and considers the code’s principles the hallmark by which all journalists should strive to achieve in their reporting.

Through the years

Looking back over her illustrious career, Huff visited the White House three times for interviews with Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. “I have incredible respect for the office itself and consider these interviews among the best work I have done,” Huff said.

John Louise prison

John Louis Evans waits for his execution at Holman Prison in Atmore, Alabama in 1983. Huff covered the story.

She also vividly recalls covering the 1983 execution of John Louis Evans at Holman Prison in Atmore, Alabama. It was the first execution after the United States reinstated the death penalty in 1976. Her coverage led to viewer feedback. “After our coverage I received dozens of letters (there was no email). I knew I had given a fair report because almost exactly the same number of people said they knew I was in favor of the death penalty as those who wrote to say they knew I was opposed to it,” she said.” It was an important and historic story.”

More recently, Huff was involved in her station’s exhaustive coverage of the April 2011 tornadoes that raked through Alabama. Huff helped lead her news team through swirling emotions amid the miles of devastation: “We talked with leaders who had to have the vision to begin picking up the pieces and starting over. We helped organize groups to go out on the weekends and help with cleanup. These were stories that went to the heart of a hurting community.”

Day to day coverage

Alabama tornadoes 2011 AtlToday

It was an emotional year (2011) for journalists covering tornadoes in Alabama and reporting on these weather disasters took a toll on many Alabama journalists. 

Covering the aftermath of those tornadoes – or any emotional story for that matter – can have a toll on journalists. After all, journalists are people trying to find enough details to tell a clear story. Sometimes those details can be too much, even for a veteran journalist.

“I get through it by simply understanding I am there to record a moment of history for my community,” said Huff. “Just like the police and fire fighters, I have a job to do. We sometimes talk about the stories that hurt the most days later in the newsroom, but we do not dwell on them. All of us seek happiness outside the newsroom.”

Attracting younger audiences

Not only is Huff an anchor; she is also an executive producer at her station. She admits each day provides new challenges while attempting to give the audience a “fresh approach” to stories. Most importantly, showcasing stories that make people care about what they are watching can be even more daunting at a time when more people – especially young people – are moving away from traditional television viewing to social media to receive information.

Pam Huff 2

Pam Huff

“If these young people aren’t going to sit down in front of a TV to watch, then we must meet them on their turf. We have to fight the battle to get to be one of their ‘favorites’ online.” Huff continued: “We can still provide news content – but it has to be fresh, up-to-the-minute, and easily accessed on our station websites if we are to stand a chance of bringing up younger generations to understand the importance of fair, balanced, independent journalism.”

She implemented a strategy in her newsroom to hopefully weed out information that’s less than important. She calls it the WIIFM theory, or “What’s In It For Me.” She encourages her news staff to employ the theory for every assignment.

Getting back to good journalism

Huff is aware of the declination in news media trust. Many obstacles are in the way, with the line between news and commentary being blurred. Yet, Huff believes journalists have an obligation to do a better job if they are to ever regain consumers’ trust.

“I do not believe journalists are doing a good job covering impactful stories in the communities they serve. Too much emphasis is given on ‘click points’ – getting people to watch rather than on the content the stations are providing,” Huff said. “Ratings, cable television news, and smart phones have diminished the impact a major, investigative story can have. People want to be entertained – rather than seeking to be informed. Unfortunately, too many newsrooms are giving in to that formula.”

One way to provide quality journalism is to hire the right people. Reporters must connect with the audience to build confidence. Reporters must also strive to give viewers varying perspectives to present a balanced report.

In the 1970s, Huff came into the business to provide perspective. It was hard to find a female in the newsroom, unless she was “tall and blond.” She was even told to have a second career on standby if the television gig didn’t work out.

“I have been blessed that so many people have stood with me through the decades, and I trust that I now serve as a mentor to young women just entering the business,” Huff said.

When asked if she believes more women are needed in today’s newsrooms, Huff provided a candid response:

“I believe it is simply time to hire the best person for the job – male/female, black/white, Asian/Hispanic. I am tired of quotas. I want quality – period.”

Rebuilding trust locally

Despite disappointing numbers in the level of news consumers’ trust in journalists, Huff believes there is a way to turn it around – and that’s at the local level.

“…Newsroom managers have to once again make their reporters seek out legitimate news stories that can have an impact on a community,” she said. “Enough already with feel good stories or simply taking a news release and regurgitating it! Find me some real news – dig deep – make a difference.”

And it doesn’t end there. Broadcast journalists must give their audience a reason to watch rather than just skimming the surface.

“What all journalists must do is look for interesting ways to tell all stories,” she said.

Journalism schools can help

Journalism and communication schools, according to Huff, need to emphasize writing again. Students aren’t going to know everything about the business starting out. Huff believes students need to start small, find a mentor, and hone their craft. And, aspiring journalists need to know broadcast news is not an easy job.

“This is not a nine to five job, but too many young reporters do not want their job to interfere with their life. Stories break at all times of the day and night and we need to be prepared to cover them. Young journalists need to understand that. If not, then perhaps they should consider a different career path.”

Journalism professors should emphasize storytelling and encourage their students to seek out internships. Internships allow students to gain a first-hand account of how a news operation works.

Pam Huff’s legacy

For four decades, people in central Alabama have grown to know Pam Huff as a devoted journalist and a dedicated public servant. When asked what she hopes her legacy will be, Huff said: “The fact is that days after I am gone from television, people will already have begun to forget who I was or what I stood for. However, for those who do someday bring up my name in conversation, I hope they recall that I was determined to tell the truth, that I wasn’t afraid to ask the question ‘why’, and that I cared deeply that my news department got it right.”

Pam Huff 1While Huff says she has been blessed to stay in the news business all these years, it goes without saying that the city of Birmingham and central Alabama is lucky to have such a dedicated journalist working in the market. The Society of Professional Journalists recognizes her outstanding career spanning over four decades. Huff cares about journalism and understands the vital role local reporting plays in communities. Without question, news consumption is changing. Huff will see to it that Birmingham is kept well informed.

“It remains a fascinating career.”

David Baxley

David Baxley

David Baxley is Assistant Professor of Mass Communications, Francis Marion University, and a SPJ South Carolina member. Baxley worked in broadcast news since 1999. He is also a meteorologist. Before entering academia in 2016, Baxley worked as an investigative producer at WIAT-TV in Birmingham, Alabama, for two years. Baxley is a regular contributor to the SPJ Region 3 website, SizingUpTheSouth.com.

 

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