As a young girl, Jill Dougherty (’70) studied photographs of China that her father took when he was a soldier in World War II, and she was fascinated by stories of a cousin who studied French. Those early glimpses of a world beyond her hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania, helped inspire Dougherty’s career as a globe-trotting journalist.
Now the foreign correspondent for CNN, Dougherty says she’s at the most exciting period of her 40-year career.
“This is the most revolutionary period in news since the invention of the printing press,” she says during a recent interview from Paris, where she was covering the rebellion in Libya.
“It is hugely revolutionary. Average people can contribute to the news, make news, comment on the news, and take pictures using modern technology and social networking. And there are a lot more news stories.”
But sorting out the truth in the flood of information is a challenge for both journalists and the public, she says.
“It’s harder for people to judge what is true because videos can be doctored and people look for the news they want,” she says. “They revert to what they think is news and don’t take any chances. They also don’t know what to believe.”
Not that Dougherty is ready to say news networks are a thing of the past. “It’s important to have reputable journalists and networks like CNN reporting the news and that people keep watching them,” she adds. “This is a new process and a very exciting time. But it’s a wild, wild world.”
Dougherty’s early global perspective was encouraged by a dedicated teacher, Michael Peregrim, who taught and tutored Dougherty and her twin sister, Pam, in Russian at Scranton Central High School. It was an unusual and pivotal opportunity for the twins, which eventually led them to U-M, where Dougherty earned a bachelor’s degree in Russian language and literature.
“I got a spectacular education at U-M,” she recalls. “Because it was such a big university, it attracted students from all over the world. The international students were my closest friends. I had an Iranian friend, who helped me understand the Arab world. U-M was a mini-version of the world.”
While at U-M, Dougherty and her sister were awarded two National Defense Foreign Language Fellowships, a federal program to develop scholars who were fluent in Slavic languages. She studied Russian at what was then Leningrad State University, where—unbeknownst to Dougherty—future president Vladimir Putin also was studying law.
After graduation, Dougherty and her sister worked as guides for exhibits across Russia created by the U.S. Information Agency, explaining American culture to Russian citizens. They traveled throughout the Soviet Union, immersing themselves in the language and culture.
She began her career in journalism in 1976 at Voice of America, U.S.S.R. Division and became a street reporter for WMAQ-TV in Chicago the following year. In 1983 Dougherty was hired as the Midwest correspondent for the then-fledgling cable news network CNN.
She eventually became the network’s White House correspondent, covering presidential activities in the United States and abroad, including election campaigns in 1992, 1996, and 2000. She traveled with Presidents George H. W. Bush and William J. Clinton and was part of the CNN team that won the American Journalism Review’s 1993 Award for Best White House Coverage.
During the Clinton administration, Dougherty covered first lady Hillary Clinton’s trips overseas and saw the connections she made with women’s organizations around the world. She says that Clinton has reconnected with many of the organizations as current Secretary of State, a topic Dougherty has covered for years.
“[Clinton] has created an incredible network of women, and when she goes to places now the women remember her and she remembers them,” she says.
Dougherty’s fluency in Russian and prowess as a reporter eventually earned her the title of Moscow bureau chief. There, she covered many major stories, including the presidencies of Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin and Russia's post-Soviet economic transition.
In 2005, she was named managing editor of CNN International Asia Pacific. Based in Hong Kong, she oversaw the regional news and feature programming produced in Hong Kong and coordinated CNN’s coverage across the Asia Pacific region. She later became U.S. affairs correspondent for the international network until she took on her current role as foreign affairs correspondent, based in Washington, D.C.
Dougherty says she is especially touched by stories of the women in developing countries. She recently reported about Afghan women learning how to become house painters.
“I see impoverished women in the countries I cover and realize by the grace of God I was born in a developed country, with running water, and that I can vote,” she says. “It’s a complete fluke. When I do these stories I always remember this.”
Dougherty says the women are very grateful for her interest in their lives.
“The women are happy to have their stories told,” she says. “They are so underrated, and they are the most important structure in society. They raise the children, they grow the crops, and they keep the family together.”
Her life is dominated by breaking news in faraway locations, like the recent trip to Paris to cover Hillary Clinton’s negotiations on Libya. It can be tough on her social life, but she thrives on the unpredictability of her job.
“It’s a very unpredictable life. I have no idea when I wake up in the morning where I will end up,” she says. “But I have wonderful adventures and the unique ability to ask people who know what’s going on in the world.”