On the Media

In conversation with Pat Mitchell, president and CEO of the Paley Center for Media in NYC and host of TEDWomen, about curating the TEDGlobal session “Embracing Otherness,” and what it takes to be a successful journalist.

What drew you to this theme, “Embracing Otherness”? How are you defining “other” in the context of TEDGlobal?

One of the TED talks at TEDWomen in December was titled “Otherness” and the speaker, Elizabeth Lesser, spoke about how we tend to “otherize” people who don’t look like us, think like us, believe as we do, worship as we do, etc. I was struck by the power of the concept of “otherness”—and of course, we see how it plays out in our lives on so many levels … from bullying in school to waging acts of terrorism. We fear the “other,” we demonize the “other,” and the outcomes of this are certainly anything other than positive. So I thought about “embracing otherness” as a way to start bridging the lack of understanding, the miscommunications, the demonizing that result from fear and intolerance of what lies outside our comfort or knowledge zones.

It’s interesting that several of your speakers work in media—two journalists, a filmmaker, and an actor. Do you find that people working in media perceive themselves as “the other,” or is it more a case of media people being sharper observers of “otherness”?

I think journalists and filmmakers are keen observers. And actors must also be sharp observers as they draw their characters and their stories from what they experience around them. After all, that is what actors, filmmakers, journalists are trained to be: observers. And then they do something with their observations. They put them into films, stories, and roles. So it’s probably no accident that the speakers on this subject are such professionals. I wanted these stories of how to engage otherness to be practical, to be real, and to come from experiences and not from some sociological theory or construct.

What’s your perspective on the changing role of the journalist in the digital age?

Being a good journalist begins with being curious, and that has not changed. You still have to want to know more, understand better, and be able to communicate what you discover to others. The tools may have evolved from pen and paper to iPads, PDAs, computers, and camera phones, but whether or not anyone sees, reads, downloads, distributes, retweets, or blogs depends on the quality of the questions asked and the stories shared.

In your work at the Paley Center, you’re engaging with new forms of storytelling. What’s the best way to engage others to tell their stories?

Stories are like secular prayers. Getting people to share them begins with a belief that they matter to someone else.

What was your favorite session at TEDGlobal this year? What new collaborations or initiatives do you hope to see emerge from the event?

At the risk of sounding self-centered, my favorite session was the one I curated and moderated ... not because I spent the most time with an amazingly accomplished and diverse group of speakers, but also because I learned something new and felt something powerful from each of them. “Embracing Otherness” offered me the kind of emotional depth and personal story sharing that surfaces ideas worth spreading while also engaging my mind and heart completely.

Pat Mitchell is the President and CEO of the Paley Center for Media. She curated and hosted the “Embracing Otherness” session of the 2011 TEDGlobal conference. Emily McManus is the editor of TED.com.

Photography by James Duncan Davidson / Courtesy of TED

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