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News Sense for Uncertain Times

IF EVER THERE WAS A CRUCIBLE FOR journalism, Susie Banikarim ’93 met this one head-on: a year consumed by a pandemic, protests, and a presidential election.

It was one that an ever-evolving and challenged industry—or anyone, for that matter—could not have foreseen or prepared for.

Two months after Banikarim joined Vice News as its head of global news-gathering and as an executive vice president, the World Health Organization declared the spread of the coronavirus a pandemic.

The public health crisis sent top media executives like Banikarim, a recipient of the Edward R. Murrow Award for feature reporting and a five-time Emmy nominee, scrambling to reimagine the newsroom, coverage, and the work-life balance.

“It was definitely very jarring,” Banikarim says. “We’re not working from home. We’re working from home during a pandemic, and that’s fundamentally a different thing.”

Banikarim oversees a staff of about 200 reporters who are based at Vice’s headquarters in Brooklyn, New York, and bureaus in Washington, Los Angeles, and London. She is also in charge of the outlet’s flagship television program, Vice News Tonight, which airs on its Vice TV channel.

The dynamic of directing news coverage remotely suddenly had a major human component to it, from journalists having to juggle childcare responsibilities with Zoom calls and bearing witness to so much suffering.

“There’s a sort of underlying difficulty in everyday life now that didn’t exist before,” she says. “We’re covering painful stories. That can take a toll.”

Vice’s team of reporters found themselves reporting from COVID-19 hospital wards and on the ground of widespread protests over police brutality and racial injustice. Banikarim notes that there are many journalists of color that work for Vice.

“We have Black reporters covering Black deaths over and over again,” she says.

Before joining Vice News, Banikarim served as an executive vice president and editorial director for Gizmodo Media Group, where she oversaw the edgy and opinion-filled websites of Deadspin, Gizmodo, Jalopnik, Jezebel, Kotaku, Lifehacker, Splinter, and The Root. The parent company was sold to the private-equity- backed G/O Media, a fate becoming all-too-familiar in the media landscape.

“I really loved running those sites,” she says. “There’s a place in the news ecosystem for strong opinion-based writing.”

Banikarim, who was born in Iran and moved with her family to Paris, twice to California, and to London, did not start off as a journalist. She became a management consultant after graduating from Barnard College and deferred her law school enrollment. That’s when she applied and was accepted to Columbia University’s prestigious journalism school.

She began her journalism career at ABC News, where she eventually worked as a producer for George Stephanopoulos and Diane Sawyer. In 2007, she earned a Murrow Award for an ABC feature about a blind trumpet virtuoso.

Banikarim later helped Katie Couric launch her syndicated talk show and conducted some of the first interviews with the families of the first-graders who were killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012.

Banikarim at a town hall she produced for the Katie Couric show in Newtown, Connecticut, in March 2013, a few months after the Sandy Hook shootings. ABC/ IDA MAE ASTUTE

Banikarim at a town hall she produced for the Katie Couric show in Newtown, Connecticut, in March 2013, a few months after the Sandy Hook shootings. ABC/ IDA MAE ASTUTE

“That work is incredibly emotional,” she says. “You’re human. I feel like Newtown was the first time that I realized what a significant amount of disinformation was emerging on online platforms.”

The vitriol online and the demise of local news coverage have only made it harder for journalists, who Banikarim says learned difficult but valuable lessons from the 2016 presidential election. That dynamic was the focus of Enemies of the People, a widely watched documentary that Banikarim produced and directed.

Banikarim began the project while she was the Shorenstein Center’s very first filmmaker-in- residence at the Harvard Kennedy School. The documentary featured top journalists, including Jeff Zucker, the CNN president; Maggie Haberman, the White House correspondent for The New York Times; and David Fahrenthold, the Pulitzer Prize winner from The Washington Post. It aired in October 2020.

Banikarim says the shortcomings of 2016 and the gravity of the pandemic changed the way the media approached the 2020 election.

“The machinery of government can feel distant and remote, but COVID has made that impossible,” she says.

—Neil Vigdor ’95

Ed. note: Banikarim recently left Vice News to pursue other opportunities.