The Executive Producer of 'PBS NewsHour' on Media in the Age of Trump

Daniel Hautzinger
Sara Just, executive producer of PBS NewsHour.
Sara Just, executive producer of PBS NewsHour.

“Our job – to be journalists who cover the facts as best as we can ascertain them and find them, and to report them as fairly and contextually as possible – hasn’t changed. It’s our job to hold power accountable, to explain things to our audience that are complicated, and to sort out the spin from the facts. We did that before this White House, and we’ll continue to do it.”

This is how Sara Just, the executive producer of PBS NewsHour, envisions the role of the program in the present moment. With the rise of fake news and widespread antagonism toward traditional media coming from both the public and various levels of government including the President – who has called the media the “enemy of the American people” – there has been a lot of soul-searching by journalists since last fall’s election.

“The issue of whether or not the audience trusts us is disconcerting, obviously,” Just says. “To hear anyone, especially someone with such authority, disparage the very nature of our work and our business – because people really became journalists to tell the truth, that’s what we do – that’s very upsetting. It’s really disturbing, too, that there’s an entire business creating these stories that look like real stories but are truly not real stories. But the best way we can counter that is by continuing to do the work we do, as well as we can do it.”

Just came to the NewsHour as executive producer in 2014, having spent more than 25 years at ABC News at Nightline, ABCNews.com, and as the Washington Deputy Bureau Chief. During her tenure, she has vastly increased the NewsHour’s digital presence and embraced social media – for instance broadcasting Washington press conferences on Facebook Live, live-streaming the Inauguration on Twitter, and submitting content to Apple News.

“It’s incumbent upon every news organization to go to where the audience is,” she explains. “We do a great broadcast every night at 6:00 [pm EST], and we hope that the largest number of possible people watch it. But we do know that there’s a large section of the audience, maybe a growing section of the audience, that’s not going to make evening news broadcasts part of their schedule, maybe ever again. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t trying to hear what’s going on from somewhere. So we want to be in those places, and those places are constantly changing and moving. We’re constantly experimenting with reaching people through new platforms.”

The NewsHour’s long-form journalism – it has an hour-long TV broadcast every weeknight and a half-hour on weekend nights – might seem to be anathema to a younger generation who is purported to have increasingly short attention spans, but Just disputes that. “Our audience studies are showing that the assumption that millennials won’t watch anything over a minute is really not the case. They are interested in longer-form journalism if it’s compellingly told and easily found, discovered, and shared. We find that that audience responds really well to information that they find authentic.”

Ensuring that information is “easily found, discovered, and shared” online is obviously a strategy that the government has used as well, in a different way. Both the Obama and the Trump administrations have made extensive use of new platforms for communication, and Trump in particular has a well-known penchant for Twitter.

“The President might tweet late at night and change a story significantly,” Just says. “It’s disruptive, but it’s good, because it forces us to get out of comfortable cycles and really try to look hard at what we do and how we do it. This is a new administration that’s trying to shake up the conventional wisdom and the processes of Washington, so they are challenging us to be more thoughtful as journalists.”

That said, the speed of the news cycle since the months leading up to last year’s election has been relentless. “Usually you kind of drain yourself during an election, and then things fall into a more typical routine after the Inauguration,” Just says. “You can get back to seeing your family for dinner and that kind of thing. But it’s been harder this time.”

Whereas it was sometimes a struggle to fill an hour with stories when she first came to the NewsHour, recently that has not been so. “We find ourselves running out of time far more often than we ever did before,” she says. “But it’s also a very exciting time. The only thing a journalist wants to do is cover an interesting story, and this is definitely an interesting story.”