Nicole Young returns to discuss ’60 Minutes’ story

Dean Howard Schneider, Nicole Young, and Steven Reiner. Photo by JD Allen

Perseverance Pays Off

Reporting by Katarina Delgado

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Nicole Young was all smiles as she recounted her journey from intern to assistant to senior producer of the “CBS Evening News” in her second “My Life As” talk.

Young began her trek to the top much as the students she was speaking to are doing: working countless unpaid internships.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” Young said. “I didn’t know where it would take me. I just knew I needed as many internships as I could possibly get.”

She told students about her time spent logging tapes in the basements of television studios. Even after going back to school for a master’s degree in international journalism, Young said, she still found herself in low-paying positions.

But she kept up a hopeful attitude.

“I did nothing but log tape, all day, every day,” Young said.  “And it was so awesome!”

After many night shifts, moving back in with her mother and logging more tape, Young landed an interview with Scott Pelley, with whom she has now worked for 14 years. She bought the best suit she could afford for her interview for a job as Pelley’s assistant. When she sat down, she talked up her experience.

Finally, she said: “All of that stuff doesn’t matter. I can be the best field producer you know in, like, 25 years. But how do you like your coffee?”

“I like my coffee black, large,” Pelley replied.

“Cool. I’ll never forget it,” Young said.

Whether it was the experience or the joke, she got the job. She worked as Pelley’s assistant for several years.

During Pelley’s coverage of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Young took initiative and began directing crews and producers, telling them where to go and what to do, she said.

“I just went into this world of ‘Whoa, I gotta do this,’” Young said, and afterward, she told Pelley she ready to be an associate producer. And after presenting her boss with an offer she had gotten from another station, Young finally moved up to associate producer at CBS.

Since then, Young has become an Emmy Award-winning producer and has traveled around the world.

As Young’s talk ended, the chuckles went silent. The Frey Hall auditorium darkened, and her “60 Minutes” story on the 2013 sarin nerve-gas attack in Syria, which killed an estimated 1,400 civilians, was projected. The students were silent and attentive as they absorbed the story’s horrifying images.

When the video ended, the pensive environment remained.

“Sometimes the truth is hard to look at,” Young said.

Young took questions from students about her work and offered advice for aspiring journalists. Throughout the night, she gave insight and tips on what it is like to work from the bottom to the top of an industry.

“I think it’s great that someone like Nicole would come and talk to students,” Irene Virag, a journalism professor, said. “It’s good for students to hear voices other than their professors’.”

Freshman journalism student Laura Fallick asked Young for tips on dealing with high stress and anxiety in the field. Fallick said anxiety is something she felt might hold her back from becoming a successful journalist.

Young suggested Fallick practice her interview skills in front of a mirror or with friends.

“All her advice for interviewing really made me more confident about my skills,” Fallick said. “I didn’t want this to end.”



Reporting by JD Allen

Nicole Young, an Emmy Award-winning CBS Evening News and “60 Minutes” producer, said that television audiences may need to see graphic images in order to see the truth that lies in a story on Tuesday, September 29th, at a Stony Brook School of Journalism event organized to inform university students and the public about the careers of journalists.

“We need to make sure people do not forget this stuff happens,” Young said, “and we helped bring it to justice.”

The prominent weekly investigative broadcast aired a segment titled “A Crime Against Humanity” in April about the 2013 sarin gas attacks in Syria that killed 1,400 civilians. The images Young and the “60 Minutes” production team selected included the ineffective care of men, women and children who were stricken by nerve-exploding sarin gas on makeshift linoleum tile hospital floors, bloody and in agony. CBS correspondent Scott Pelley describes the seizures that drain the affected civilian’s pupils tight, in the video.

“Showing graphic images like these are important because this was the story,” Host Steven Reiner, who is a professor of the School of Journalism, said. “You simply had to see it. Journalistically, the interviews absolutely explained the horror of the photos.”

The School of Journalism invited Young to speak for the second time as this semester’s first “My Life As” series speaker. The lecture series invites professionals to advise students on making the most of their journalism careers — a career Young said is not glamorous, but worth the opportunity to travel, meet new people and have an impact. Young added that she hoped that “60 Minutes” decision to choose to use the graphic images would change the way other stations select their content. Yet, it is imperative to understand there are no clear answers when choosing to use sensitive visuals, and that a newsroom discussion needs to happen every time to decide what is right, she said.

“People need to see graphic images because these images cause things to change,” Kathleen Smith, a sophomore studying journalism, said.

Young began her career at the age of 19 as an intern at CBS. Now as the senior producer of CBS Evening News with Pelley and a producer for CBS “60 Minutes,” she has covered poverty and homelessness in Central Florida, the tsunami in Japan and, most recently, the Syrian Refugee Crisis. Not every story requires difficult ethical decisions, she said, though it is important to turn over every stone and learn to work on a topic she knows nothing about, is controversial and effects her on a personal level.

“The story is not about me,” Young said. “Sometimes it is very hard not to take a side — but I need to produce a story that the audience can make their own decisions about.”

The sarin gas story was viewed by over 13.5 million people worldwide. Though the images were controversial, it was a move “60 Minutes” needed to make. “We need to give people the opportunity to see things that they would not be able to otherwise see,” Howard Schneider, the dean of the School of Journalism, said. “That is our job as journalists.”

The package required CBS to sift through 90 hours of footage, which was accumulated from sources that released video that not even the American government had seen before. Some of the visuals came from Syrian social media users, a resource that Young said was crucial to production because CBS could not get on the ground in Syria. Once the images were first debated, and then selected, it took over three weeks to edit. The graphic images were selected to show the truth about the people living in Syria, and to uncover a story that many thought they knew the truth about, but really did not know, Young said.

“It is the reality,” Dara Bahk, a freshman journalism major, said. “To say something is too graphic is just not a valid excuse to not exposing the truth.”

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