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Overcoming Illiteracy: CBS Journalist Shares His Story

December 7, 2009 - As a child, CBS News reporter Byron Pitts was a shy, skinny boy with thick glasses. By age 11, he was also functionally illiterate. Pitts spoke about overcoming illiteracy and rising to become chief national correspondent for CBS News at the first Newsmaker Lecture sponsored by Georgetown’s Master of Professional Studies (MPS) Journalism Program.

His memoir, Step Out on Nothing: How Faith and Family Helped Me Conquer Life’s Challenges (St. Martin’s Press, 2009), details his experience.

“As a child who couldn’t read, I know what it’s like to be voiceless,” Pitts said before an audience of more than 100 members of the campus community in Copley Formal Lounge. “No one asked my opinion. My opinion didn’t matter.”

Prior to being diagnosed as illiterate, Pitts said teachers allowed him to advance at his Baltimore school. He survived by memorizing texts and keeping a low profile to hide what he described as the “shame” of his inability. Teachers eventually discovered Pitts’ illiteracy through his work on mathematical word problems.

He overcame the odds primarily with the help of his mother, whose beliefs came from her deep-rooted faith. Through prayer and a tenacity to get Pitts the help he needed, his mother kept him encouraged.

Finding a Voice

Pitts’ chosen profession now gives him a power he didn’t have as a youngster.

“[As] journalists … we have the opportunity to give voice to the voiceless,” said Pitts, who is also a contributing correspondent for 60 Minutes.

Pitts shared stories with the audience about his experiences in the field, including his coverage of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Once, while embedded with U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Pitts and his team were separated from a convoy of trucks and “wandered into this field of land mines … the size of manholes.” Taliban fighters chased the truck he and his team were in, but the crew eluded capture.

“[I was] so afraid, more than [had been] in my professional life,” he said. Although dedicated to gathering news for the public, he couldn’t help but think about the promise he made to his family to stay safe.

Advice for the Next Generation

Denise Li, the new associate dean for the MPS Journalism Program, said having journalists share career and life experiences is invaluable to aspiring journalists.

“When reporters such as Byron Pitts come to share their insights and experiences, students can gain inspiration and a deeper understanding of what it takes to succeed in journalism,” Li said.

Weighing in on the future of journalism, Pitts reminded students that technological advances such as social media can be useful tools, but nothing replaces “real reporting.” He said readers and viewers still value accurate, truthful information.

“At the end of the day, people appreciate good work,” Pitts said.

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