CNN News Producer Addresses KO News Journalists - Kingswood Oxford

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March 29, 2023

CNN News Producer Addresses KO News Journalists

Maria Spinella ‘93, executive producer at CNN, addressed the staff of the KO News at the 30th Annual Baird Journalism Dinner. Spinella was co-editor-in-chief of the KO News with fellow classmate and journalist Ryan D’Agostino during her time at the school. Under the tutelage of journalism and English teacher Warren Baird and long-term KO News faculty advisor Rob Kyff, Spinella learned the basics of good reporting on the third floor of Seaverns, where the faculty set a high bar for high schoolers making a real paper, making real decisions and not shying away from difficult issues she said.CNN News journalist addresses KO News staff at Kingswood Oxford in West Hartford


Following a position in video production early in her career, Spinella interned at CNN in Atlanta, springboarding her journalism path.  After the internship, she planned on heading to Columbia University School of Journalism but secured a news position at CBS. In a quandary about which path to follow, work or schooling, Spinella spoke to the dean at the journalism school, who advised her to take the position at CBS, where the Columbia journalism students often landed after their education, saving Spinella $40,000 in tuition. 


Since CBS, Spinella’s career has led her to marquee organizations like HBO Sports and ABC to her returning to CNN. Spinella has covered major news events like the contested 2000 presidential election, 9/11, and most recently, the 2020 election, the Georgia run-off Senate election, the January 6 insurrection, the two impeachments of President Donald Trump, and the death of Queen Elizabeth. She’s interviewed President Biden three times, President Trump, and President Clinton while he was no longer in office.


Despite her contact with world leaders and adjacency to historical events, Spinella still is amazed about her career trajectory. She shared that while at the KO News she called herself Woodward-ella, a nod to the legendary investigative Watergate reporting team of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Well into the future, she recalled seeing Bernstein’s name displayed on her caller i.d. at home, looking to pitch a story and to appear on the evening news.


 “As I was looking at the phone, I was thinking, ‘If I had ever known at KO when I was calling myself Woodward-ella with such confidence,” she said. “That someday Carl Bernstein will pitch you a story, and you would tell him, ‘I don’t know if we have room for that story’ is amazing to me. It’s just amazing what you can go on from here to do.”


CNN News journalist addresses KO News staff at Kingswood Oxford in West HartfordIn her position, Spinella produces ten hours of live tv a week for the CNN news in the 8:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. slot. Working in the state-of-the-art control room, she decides what airs, what reporters and presenters are featured, what footage is shown to produce a seamless show.  “You must be decisive. You must trust your gut, and you must be a problem solver,” she said.


Spinella shared the challenges facing television news reporting, including viewer cord-cutting from linear television, the rise of chatbots, deep fakes, alternative facts, and, most challenging, the toxic environment in the mistrust of journalism. This pernicious climate led her team to evacuate their New York offices due to a bomb threat.


“An agreed-upon set of facts is considered essential, I think, for the functioning of good journalism and a society,” she said. “I don’t think I’m telling anyone anything they don’t know when I say it’s pretty hard for people to come to an agreed-upon version of the facts these days. People have a lot of opinions. An opinion has a role in journalism ….how someone believes this to be true. It’s difficult to change someone’s opinion. A journalist’s job isn’t to change someone’s opinion but to inform them well enough so they can make up their own mind.” 


Spinella fielded questions from the audience. One student asked if Spinella ever ran a story without all the facts on the story, to which Spinella answered with an emphatic ‘No.’ 


“There have been times when we didn’t have the facts, so we didn’t put it on the air,” she said.”It does damage to your career and the brand.” If a story contained errors, Spinella corrected the information. “I’ve never felt pressure to put a story on the air that wasn’t ready. I’m a believer in transparency. There are a lot of times that there is a breaking news event that I’m covering. I will tell the audience through our scripts or our newscaster, “Here’s what we know, and here’s what we don’t know.” 


Spinella shared that the unrelenting pace of the job has taken a toll on many journalists, with many of them burning out and leaving the field to take on other pursuits. Recognizing the stresses, many news organizations have mental health services for their staffers. For her staff, Spinella tries to give them as much as a healthy work-life balance as time permits.


Despite the awareness of mental health challenges, Spinella admitted, “You can’t turn it {the job} off. You wake up in the morning and have a deadline hanging over your head every minute of the day. And then you get home, and you get five or six hours of sleep, and it starts all over again. Some of these stories are really awful. Really awful. Some of the really awful stories happen over and over and over again. It takes a toll.”


As consumers of news, we’re grateful to the reporters like Spinella, who lead with integrity and share the events of the world, its heartbreak and its heroes every day.

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