Tips From The Top: One On One With CNN’s Athena Jones

I spoke to CNN national correspondent Athena Jones about her journey and her best advice

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Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your story and what you have learned from your journey to date. First things first, though, what is something about you that your fans don’t know?

Athena: I think a lot of people view journalists as the so-called coastal elite, but while I was born in Boston, I grew up mostly in Louisiana and Texas and I spent time outside of major cities, with people whose lives revolved around school, work and church and not what was going on in Washington — or on Wall Street or in Hollywood, for that matter. My paternal grandparents were poor sharecroppers in the northeast corner of Louisiana from 1922 to 1940 and my father and many of his 13 siblings grew up picking cotton from the age of three or four for just $3 a day. My mother grew up in a middle-class family, one of three daughters of a Baptist minister in Waco, TX. Their experiences living through segregation and various forms of discrimination – and overcoming those obstacles to become lawyers — not only shaped them, but shaped me. I grew up hearing their stories and they instilled in me the importance of justice, fairness and hard work. I also believe that growing up in the South has given me a better understanding of both sides of some of the cultural flashpoints that create so much division in this country – whether it is guns or abortion or same-sex marriage or even school vouchers.

Adam: What failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your development and success?

Athena: I have not yet had any major professional failures or setbacks, but my two bouts with breast cancer certainly slowed me down a little bit and meant that I had to leave the campaign trail. Still, during this challenging time, I continued to work and was able to show my chops while filling in as a correspondent at the White House. I believe that proving that I could do that job is what led my boss to officially name me to the White House beat at the beginning of the Trump administration.

Adam: In your experience, what are the common qualities among those who have been able to enjoy success in media and broadcasting?

Athena: Hard work, preparation and discipline are key. Strong writing skills and – when it comes to broadcasting – good on-air delivery are also important. I think the most successful folks in this business are good at thinking on their feet and at connecting with interview subjects in a way that allows them to draw out the most informative, most useful answers to important questions. Boiling down complicated issues so that they can be more easily digested by viewers or listeners is also important, as well as placing the news in the proper context.

Adam: Who have been the biggest influences in your life and why?

Athena: My parents and my teachers. My mother, in particular, placed a good deal emphasis on education. Most of my close family members have at least two degrees and I was encouraged to study hard, to read a lot and to get good grades. But it was more than that. My mother, who passed away in 2013, was a trailblazing lawyer in her own right who was a mentor to others and was often asked to share her advice or talk about her experiences before groups big and small. She taught me to aim high and to believe I could do anything and she helped encourage my interest in public speaking. I had excellent teachers all throughout my growing up years and college who inspired me to consider writing as a career.

Adam: What are the best lessons you have learned through your career that are applicable to those who will never earn a living in front of or behind the camera?

Athena: Work hard, by which I mean be prepared, maybe even over-prepared whenever possible, for any interview or assignment. Don’t be too easily discouraged by setbacks, they are unavoidable and there’s no point in allowing yourself to be defeated simply because accomplishing a certain task is turning out to be a little more challenging than you originally thought it would be. Be willing to take a chance that might open a door. For example, I moved to Santiago, Chile – sight unseen – in 1999 for an internship at Bloomberg that was meant to last something like three to six months, with no guarantee I would be hired on afterwards. I worked hard, learned the ropes and within five months, the company had hired me and moved me to Buenos Aires, Argentina. I remained in Argentina for more than three and a half years – traveling throughout South America for stories and covering the collapse of the Argentine economy and government – experiences that were key to my development as a journalist and as a person.

Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?

Athena: The best advice I’ve ever received came during the college application process when I was debating whether to apply to a certain university. I was told “If you don’t apply, you won’t get in” — another way of saying if you don’t try, you’ve already failed. I’ve fallen back on some version of this advice multiple times over the years to give me the courage to follow opportunities as they present themselves and to take calculated risks that may lead me to experience something new, learn something new or otherwise expand my horizons.

Adam: What are your hobbies and how have they shaped you?

Adam: I’ve always been a reader and I’ve always been an athlete. These days, I spend so much time reading the news, I have less time for novels and non-fiction, but I still try to read about matters other than current events. Non-fiction is obviously edifying, especially when I read about a topic I knew little about – like the great influenza of 1918 or Belgium’s past pursuits in the Congo. Fiction is a wonderful escape and is also a great way to experience the inner life of another person or a group of people – even if they are invented characters. That strengthens one’s sense of empathy and, I believe, can make you a better journalist. On the athletic front, my days of team sports are over, but I do run several days a week along the Hudson River, which I find energizing and uplifting.

Adam: What is one thing everyone should be doing to pay it forward?

Athena: Encourage, enlighten, engage. Speak up about the issues that we care about and, especially, be open to mentoring young people and encouraging them in their academic, extracurricular and career pursuits. I used to long to be a Big Sister, but did not want my unpredictable work schedule to mean I was potentially abandoning or standing up any Little Sister who might be assigned to me. My solution — for the moment — has been to be open to communicating with pretty much any young, aspiring journalist who reaches out to me for information and advice and to take part in mentoring even younger students through organizations like DreamWakers.

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