The World Needs Journalists: Katie Utehs (‘08)

In journalism, nothing changes, even as everything changes.

“From a young age it was instilled in my family that you stand up for people,” says Katie Utehs, a UW Communication alumna, and current freelance reporter at KGO-TV, one of the leading stations in the Bay Area. “Journalists are in a position to elevate the voices of people who need help, or shine a light on issues that need to be exposed […] A journalist seeks the truth and reports it. That’s part of the Society of Professional Journalists’ definition, and in my opinion, the most succinct.”

Since Utehs made her on-air debut in the early 2000s, news platforms have undergone a digital transformation. The rise of social media has created many opportunities, and many challenges, for journalists. Seizing upon the former while covering a domestic terrorism case in Spokane, Utehs pushed for rule changes that would enable reporters to send real-time Twitter updates to the public, informing the public how federal cases are proceeding.

As many individuals scrutinize journalism in this brave new world, and students in the Department consider the future, Utehs’ professional insights serve as an example of what is possible with hard work, quick wits, and a little faith in humanity.

Why did you choose journalism? Looking back on your career, how do you feel about that decision?

“At several points in my life, my mentors steered me towards journalism. John Carver, my high school English teacher and softball coach, asked me to join the student newspaper. The attributes of a journalist – a love of words, competitive nature, and a passion for the truth – are all part of who I am; perhaps he noticed. Upon reflection, I see now why my mentors encouraged me to pursue a career in the field. Journalism is my calling.

But irrespective of fit, was it wise to become a professional journalist when I did? Probably not. In 2008, I secured a reporting job at the NBC affiliate in Yakima, graduated from the Communication Department on a Friday, and started work on a Monday. Then the recession hit. All the overtime I was promised to help make ends meet went away. Surviving as a young reporter is emotionally challenging and financially difficult. Nobody should embark on this journey without that knowledge. However, I believe the work is important, now more than ever; ultimately, journalism was the right decision for me.”

What does it mean to be a journalist?

“If you do your job well, then the viewer or reader shouldn’t know your personal opinions on a story. They should trust that you questioned the right people, found the relevant facts, and shared unbiased information. No spin, no agenda. My definition of journalism requires a little faith in humanity. I believe that when people have the best information possible, they’ll use it to better their lives and the lives of others. That’s the power of an informed and educated citizenry. It’s why good journalism is a pillar of democracy.”

What challenges have you faced?

TV news is a visual and audio medium. Broadcast reporters are scrutinized for their looks, race, personality, gender, and language, likely to the level that would lead to HR disputes and lawsuits in other industries. It’s important to acknowledge that how I look and sound has helped me; other times it’s hurt my likelihood of getting a job. The frustration is that those physical attributes, in addition to being things you cannot change, are extremely subjective. They’re not an indicator of your skills as a journalist. For me, the facts are more important than my hair, but the reality is that both do matter in TV news.

At one point in my career, one of my news directors treated me very unprofessionally (I’ve since learned from others that they experienced the same). I was in my mid-20’s, working at a station with a legacy reputation alongside seasoned journalists from whom I was eager to learn. The news director cut me down at nearly every opportunity. His comments were not only uncalled for at times, they were simply wrong. I have a thick skin and a good sense of humor, but this was unlike anything I’d ever encountered.

The situation most certainly affected my work. At the time, I stayed silent and tried to improve my skills while avoiding him. In hindsight, I wish I had sought the advice of mentors and perhaps stood up for myself, even reported his comments. As a journalist, I believe speaking out is the right thing to do, but it’s extremely difficult when doing so could potentially cost you the job you love. The #MeToo movement is helping to illuminate this issue, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.

Wisdom has come with age; I’m now much more likely to ask for advice from a trusted mentor than I was early in my career. When I started in San Francisco, most of my colleagues had been television reporters longer than I’d been alive. Because I deeply desired to fit in, there was no way I would have outed myself by asking for advice. Looking back, that was silly. Now I regularly seek the counsel of people I respect and trust.”

What constitutes “a good day’s work” for you?

“A good day’s work means that I’ve shared information that will help people better their own lives. Sometimes it means my reporting exposes a wrong, or it holds people in power accountable; other times, it simply highlights the triumphs and tribulations of the human experience. Hopefully my reporting makes people feel informed, inspired, and empowered.”

How does your work differ from region to region?

“Each television market is unique because of the people who live there and the issues the community finds important; the different political leanings of San Francisco and Seattle, when compared to Yakima and Spokane, come to mind. However, my approach to reporting doesn’t change; there are good people everywhere.

People fascinate me; why do they think and live a certain way? What circumstances and decisions in their lives led them to this point? I approach everyone with the same high level of respect, regardless of where they live or what topic I’m covering. However, knowing the history of the region will help you meet people where they’re at, as opposed to coming in as an outsider. This is especially important when covering communities that have been disenfranchised.

Was Yakima the most exciting place to live in my early 20’s? Not really, but I learned skills there that I still use today in a larger market. You have to start somewhere, and it’s most likely not going to be where you imagine.  It’s important to have aspirations, while also being humble about your skills. The people in small markets are encouraging of young reporters. They cheer you on; you grow as a journalist, and then move up as your skill level warrants.

Are there any particular experiences that you recall from your time at the UW?

“It’s hard to pinpoint a singular experience, but I would say my course with Mike Henderson gave me a strong journalism foundation. His lesson that journalists need to be skeptics, not cynics, resonated with me and it still does.

The news industry is in constant flux, but the principals of journalism should carry with you across all platforms: print, TV, digital, social media. During my time on campus, the UW journalism program was geared towards newspapers, but even though I wanted to go into broadcast, that wasn’t a bad thing. An ethical core and strong writing skills are what’s fundamental. It is easier to learn about shooting, editing, and presenting on-camera during internships and in the field, in my opinion. The mode of delivery is less important to me than the quality of the content I’m producing.”

What do you think students need to know before entering the industry?

Television news is not as glamorous as some people think. You will do your own hair and make-up, purchase your own wardrobe (with a tiny paycheck), write your own scripts, and most likely eat lunch in a live-truck as you drive to your next assignment. You’re also likely to make personal sacrifices in order to achieve your goals. That said, reporters witness history in progress and get to interview fascinating people. There’s rarely a dull moment because ‘newsworthy’ often means you’re there for a person’s most triumphant or most tragic day. Seeing those extremes gives you an incredible perspective on life; other people’s and your own. Working as a reporter pushes my limits professionally and personally. The work can be incredibly fulfilling, but it’s not for everyone. You must have a deep respect for life in order to do this job well.

Also, beyond philosophical beliefs, there’s the practical nature of reporting; it’s more dangerous than when my career began. Television crews in the Bay Area are robbed at gunpoint, and physically assaulted by protesters; I’ve even taken a police officer’s baton to the ribs. The climate right now for journalists is incredibly challenging. Some people have a hard time believing that you’ll represent them fairly. Because of this problem and others, reporters must safeguard their credibility to an even greater extent. In that vein, social media can be a wonderful tool for reporters, but how you use it can affect your credibility. For me, credibility comes first. It’s a deeply engrained lesson learned at the UW.

Is there anything else you want to say?

Become a journalist. The world needs you.