December 13, 2013
As members of the Writers Guild of America, East who had voiced their interest in diversity programming, NATPE 2009 Fellow Melissa Cornick was partnered with Maria Nieto and undertook surveys, focus groups and interviews with writers of color. The duo sought out scores of writers on issues faced in gaining employment and acceptance in television and film projects. The findings were presented to Council to further its diversity initiatives.
This is a new trajectory for Cornick who is best known for her award-winning work as an investigative reporter and television producer on “60 Minutes,” “Dateline,” “20/20,” and “Nightline.”
Her news reports have consistently garnered high ratings due to her style of insightful reporting, what she refers to as “There but for the grace of God go I” that focuses on the everyday citizen as “celebrity” whose story may improve the world. “Strategic communications requires authentic connection between issues and people. Some journalists just get the story and leave. I wanted to discover who these people are, learn what they are about,” she said.
Cornick was the first to investigate the wrongful conviction of one quarter of the adult black population of Tulia, TX. Going into the community to probe the criminal allegations, the award-winning report called “Town on Trial” aired on 20/20 in 2001, and was credited with leading to the exoneration of innocent prisoners from serving up to 60-year prison sentences by biased juries. According to Cornick, Arianna Huffington asserted that “Town on Trial” was a primary reason she decided to enter the field of journalism.
Cornick’s in-depth reporting has earned her several awards, including the prestigious Edward R. Murrow Award for Investigative Reporting, the Mongerson Prize for Ethics in Investigative Reporting, the National Headliner Award, and the Cine Golden Eagle Award, among other distinctions.
In 2008, after 15 years in the business, Cornick was ready for a sabbatical. It was time to experiment. So she applied for the NATPE Diversity Fellowship Program which was underwritten by the Walter Kaitz Foundation. The Program provided a small group of emerging television and video content creators of color with the next step in their career development. Those interested in executive level positions were given a clear snapshot of the television business and how to navigate through it. Creatives were afforded the unique opportunity to make valuable contacts while learning to prepare and polish their pitches and get direct access to sponsors and executives.
Surprised to learn that she had been selected, she said “I believe my application may have stood out because of my story about my family background. I am a direct descendant of John Harris, a Revolutionary War patriot. You don’t hear that everyday.”
Cornick also had the mutual opportunity to hear things she didn’t hear everyday as a news journalist. “I got to meet with top executives and to observe their meetings. The program exposed us to what companies faced as bottom line issues. As a journalist, we never think about that,” said Cornick.
“At that time, the new mobile app was just being used to connect to customers through sports, “ she continued. “The industry was just learning that customers were in control and were concerned that that they lost control of their audiences. Jeff Zucker who was with Comcast then, [currently President of CNN Worldwide since 2012] spoke to us and remarked that ‘the audience now has alternatives. We plan to be the best at providing them.’”
Cornick recounts that the top broadcast networks were trying to figure out how to become more powerfully profitable online. Experts from around the world came in to talk. A whole new world was about to open up and they wanted to be on top.
Beyond industry perspectives and opportunities, Cornick talked about the more pragmatic benefits of the NATPE program. “I also learned that I like reality television — what people are doing or thinking in the moment. It shows you major trends in the pop culture arena. They taught us how reality TV works, and we learned step by step how to produce and pitch a show. I really needed that. I have at least 70 stories in my head I am ready to pitch at any time.”
“In all, I learned a great deal of information that I have used a million times since. It [NATPE] enriched my frame of reference. There is life outside of investigative journalism,” she concluded.
Upon completion of the summer program, Cornick immediately went to Columbia University and then to Doylestown Historical Society to serve as Director of Communications Strategy, and while there also executive produced historic documentaries, including the Revolutionary War.
She continues to ask, ”What does the world need to know? How would this democracy be improved?” Of one thing she is certain, “if you want a platform or many platforms to counter what is not true, television and diversity is very important,” she said.