Let’s kill these four standards of journalism

Celeste Headlee
23 min readDec 2, 2022
In 2016, John Oliver used an episode of “Last Week Tonight” to focus on the problems facing journalists.

This is the transcript of a lecture I delivered last month while accepting the AP-Eunson Distinguished Lecturer Award at my undergraduate alma mater, Northern Arizona University. The ceremony is a joint endeavor between the Associated Press and the School of Communications.

Once you’ve read the entire speech, I think you’ll understand why I felt a little nervous about delivering these remarks to the students and faculty. To be honest, I felt quite anxious and many times, while speaking, paused to ask myself, “Should I really read this next part?”

To my surprise, the speech was greeted with enthusiasm and heartfelt support. So, I present it to you as well, hoping it finds another receptive audience.

I want to begin with a cautionary note. I didn’t study journalism while in school. I was a music major here at Northern Arizona University and later earned a Master’s in Music from the University of Michigan. I performed professionally as an opera singer for years and never once considered taking a job as a journalist.

My first job in radio was as a weekend classical music host at KNAU, the public radio station that serves north and central Arizona including the Navajo and Hopi reservations. I began reporting just a few months after taking the job when an NPR producer offered to train me; I then took every training course and fellowship that was offered me. 23 years later, I have anchored shows on NPR and PBS, and reported for the BBC, CNN, and a whole slew of others.

My point in relating this history is to show that all my training has had to be on-the-job or finding mentors and asking them how to do things and never, ever turning down an offer of free training. It didn’t matter if I thought the subject was relevant to my work duties or not; if someone offered to teach me how to do something, I said yes.

That’s not advice, by the way. I’m just telling you how I got from there to here.

I get asked to speak at high schools and universities a lot. Over time, I’ve learned not to give advice. I don’t tell young people what they should or shouldn’t do. I don’t give them a list of the ten things successful people do every morning, or the three habits to avoid. Nor do I warn them about what obstacles lie in…