From Virginia Tech to ABC News: Pierre Thomas to receive top journalism honor
Pierre Thomas is the 2023 recipient of Radio Television Digital News Association's highest honor, the Paul White Award.
Pierre Thomas has reported on some of the nation’s biggest stories over the past two decades as the chief justice correspondent for ABC News.
He covered the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11; played a critical role in coverage of the 2016 Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida; and reported on the death of George Floyd in 2020 and subsequent protests against racial injustice and police brutality.
Thomas '84 began his journey at Virginia Tech, where he honed his journalistic skills as a communication studies major within what is now the School of Communication. After spending the last 23 years at ABC News, he will receive the Radio Television Digital News Association's highest accolade, the 2023 Paul White Award, during an awards ceremony on Sept. 22 in Minneapolis.
We caught up with Thomas to talk about his noteworthy journalism career and how Virginia Tech shaped his experiences.
What does receiving the Radio Television Digital News Association’s Paul White Award mean to you?
First of all, I am beyond grateful that such a prestigious organization that I have the utmost respect for saw fit to bestow such an honor on me. I don’t know that I deserve to have my name associated with Peter Jennings, Barbara Walters, Walter Cronkite, and a host of other incredible journalists, but it’s an incredibly emotional and gratifying moment. I’ve always believed that journalism is public service when it’s done at its best, and although it’s my profession, I still feel that providing people with information they can sort out and use as they choose is vital to a democracy.
The Paul White Award recognizes your lifetime contributions. As you think back, is there a particular moment in your career, maybe an "aha!" moment, where it clicked and you knew that this is what you’re supposed to be doing?
You’ll probably laugh, but it was the moment that I chose journalism and communication as my path. I was a sophomore at Virginia Tech and doing well in accounting and computer science classes, but I had little to no passion for it. I thought and prayed about it and decided that what I really wanted to do involved gathering information and writing, so I switched majors to communication studies. I called my mother, and the first thing she asked was, “How much do journalists make?” Her question was framed that way because I was a first-generation college student and in her mind, the whole point of attaining a college degree was to give you the tools to make a good living. However, our conversation concluded with me stating, “I’m not sure, Mom, but if I work hard, I’m sure I’ll do OK,” and my mom agreed.
You have a reputation as one of the most trusted names in journalism. In a time where there’s often a lot of mistrust with journalists, how have you gone about earning that trust?
Truth be told, there are moments when the nature of my stories has angered people on the right and have angered people on the left, and it’s often because they prefer I do not produce the story about something or someone they are supporting. However, when I am stopped in airports or the grocery store, people thank me for not having any particular interest other than sharing the information at hand. That doesn’t mean that the information is not uncomfortable, but I can honestly say that I do my very best to be fair and provide as much context as I can.
Journalism, on some level, is an art, not a science. On some days, it’s not perfect, but I can assure you it’s not from lack of trying. One of the things I take pride and some comfort in is that “World News Tonight with David Muir” is the most-watched program on all of U.S. television, and “Good Morning America” is ranked as the No. 1 morning newscast. All the success across the ABC News platforms shows that millions of people make us part of their routine and believe in what we’re reporting on a daily basis.
How would you describe the impact Virginia Tech had on you and helping you get to where you are today?
The professors and the curriculum were tremendous. The main thing they taught me to do was to think critically and always apply a great amount of thought to whatever I was reporting and writing.
Virginia Tech’s motto is Ut Prosim (That I May Serve). What does that mean for you and how you go about your work?
I believe the best and highest form of journalism involves public service. Often, when I may have had a 20-hour day and I’m tired, focusing on public service motivates me.
The news industry has seen some major shifts and evolutions lately. What would be your advice to current students in the School of Communication who want to be journalists?
I would tell them to develop their principles and stick to them no matter what. I use the same standards when I am publishing a report for “World News Tonight with David Muir,” “Good Morning America” or “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” as I use for tweeting or posting something on social media.
You have an illustrious career where you’ve covered some of the biggest stories of the past couple decades. What gets you out of bed in the morning and keeps you going on this journey?
From Sept. 11 to the death of George Floyd to all the various stories coming out of the Justice Department to the appointment of special counsels to mass shootings, terrorism, and espionage, there’s never a dull moment, and most of it, if not all of it, is utterly consequential.
Written by Cory Van Dyke