My mother has always been an inspiration in my life. As an Emmy award winning Journalist and Investigative Producer, my mother went to work every day while trying to raise two young daughters. She was a trailblazer in the news industry at a time when very few women were in that business, and can now add Documentarian to her list of accomplishments. Read on to hear her story and advice to other working moms!
FO40: Tell us your journey of how you got into the news business?
Helen Young: I started in the news business in 1979 after spending a few years as a teacher in the New York City public school system. As far back as I can remember, I was interested in being a writer and in current events. I was able to combine those two loves when I got into the news business. I “broke” into the business at WABC-TV during the New York City subway strike when I was hired as a freelance news writer.
FO40: What was it like being a woman in a man’s business in the 1980’s?
HY: The news business was very different then than it is today. There were far fewer women working behind the scenes in writing and production. I was working at WCBS-TV during the 1980 Presidential campaign between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. At the time, as I recall, there were three women in the newsroom writing news. And, we worked on manual typewriters! Now newsrooms, both at the local and network level, have lots of women working behind the scenes, many as news executives which is a very positive development. Newsrooms are also a lot quieter these days with everyone working on a computer. (I’m not sure how I feel about that!) There was a certain energy level created by the pounding on those manual typewriters, the verbal back and forth between writers and their copy editors, and the race to the anchor desk to update the latest change in the story. Then again, the advent of a computerized newsroom eliminated a lot of unnecessary stress.
FO40: Your career turned to investigative reporting where you won several Emmys. What was undercover reporting like?
HY: I was drawn to investigative reporting because it is challenging to drill down on a subject, really learn it, and get to the truth. When I worked in local news, I produced stories for a consumer/investigative unit. I did go undercover many times to investigate a host of scams including a phony driver’s license operation, unlicensed security guards, grey market goods, and even a phony priest. While at CBS News, I produced a number of investigative series. One led to changes in the way the federal government inspects meat. Another led to the shutdown of an operation by an unlicensed doctor who was placing ads in college newspapers to entice young women to become egg donors or surrogate mothers. Going undercover can be nerve wracking, however, it can also be very rewarding if you’re able to effect change that benefits society.
FO40: Your children were young while you were commuting to NY and working- what are your words of wisdom of juggling it all?
HY: As all working women know, having a full time job and raising children is a balancing act. In today’s world most households need two paychecks. However, even if working is not financially necessary, I think it’s important for the mom to be happy because if she’s not the family will not be happy. I do believe in the “quality time” concept. I believe if a woman has a need to have a professional life she will be a much happier mom and wife. If a woman is not happy being a full-time mom, then she owes it to herself and her family to incorporate a professional aspect to her life. Alternatively, if a woman is not enjoying her work life and pines for her children every minute she’s away, then she owes it to herself to figure out a middle way. By that I mean carving out a more flexible work arrangement that might allow her to work from home. The internet has created opportunities that were not there when I was raising my children. I am a firm believer that if a woman sets her mind on achieving something, she can.
FO40: What is the key to raising strong and independent women?
HY: As my two daughters will tell you, I am a strong believer in fostering self-reliance in children. Because I was a single mother while they were growing up, they had a great deal of responsibility from an early age. I could not be home at 3pm when they got back from school. So, they were latch key children. While I could not be with them as much as I would have liked, I tried my best to be as involved as I could in their lives. When I was not working, I was home. We took vacations together. I’m also a big believer in having dialogue with your children and finding out what is going on in their lives. I love my daughters unconditionally. There is nothing they could say or do that would change that. Sometimes as parents we do not want to hear what our children have to say or we may disagree with what they are saying. However, I think what’s most important is talking about it. Finally, I have tremendous confidence in both my girls that they can accomplish whatever they set their sights on. The outside world often tears us down, if parents can’t support their children, then who can they turn to for that all important encouragement? I am my daughters’ biggest cheerleader.
FO40: Your focus has turned to your documentary which is a major passion project. How has this experience been?
HY: Yes, I recently completed an independent documentary film, “The Nuns, The Priests, and The Bombs” which focuses on a community of nuclear disarmament activists, some of them Catholic nuns and priests, who undertake very dramatic protest actions against nuclear weapons. They oppose nuclear weapons on moral grounds. The film was recently screened at the United Nations while negotiations were underway on a new treaty that prohibits the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons. As we know, the ongoing crisis between North Korea and United States coupled with the uncertain future of the Iran nuclear deal, have thrust nuclear weapons to the center of world attention. There are 15,000 nuclear weapons in the world. According to experts, it’s just a matter of time before one is used either deliberately, or by accident or miscalculation. Modern day nuclear weapons are dozens of times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. By making this film I hope I can raise awareness on the existential threat facing humanity. While many see the North Korea situation as hopeless and eventually leading to war, I am a strong believer in the power of American leadership and diplomacy. I think this crisis can be diffused peacefully and diplomatically if we have the will to do so.
FO40: Any other words of wisdom for working moms and aspiring journalists?
HY: I would say do what makes you happy and never give up on your dreams.
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