Q&A with Meg Kinnard, politics reporter for The Associated Press

Meg Kinnard is an Associated Press politics reporter based in Columbia, South Carolina. A native of Tennessee, she is a graduate of Georgetown University and UNC-Chapel Hill, where she earned a master’s degree in digital communication. In this interview, conducted by email, Kinnard talks about her work at the AP, discusses her diagnoses and treatment for a rare form of breast cancer, and offers career advice for student journalists.

Q. Describe your job at The Associated Press. What is your typical day like?

A. If only there were a “typical” day! As a wire service reporter, pretty much anything is possible on a day-to-day basis.

Normally, I cover political stories somehow touching on South Carolina, which could be national news made by the governor or a member of the congressional delegation. That means going to a lot of events with those officials, meeting with their staff and talking to “real people” about the ways in which the decisions made affect their lives. I spend just as much time researching the issues playing out in all of these campaigns, ensuring that I bring balance to any reporting and filter out the spin.

Every two years, my sole focus becomes presidential campaigns, which means I spend four or more days a week on the road, crisscrossing the state to cover the dozens of candidates who stump in this first-in-the-South primary state. I spend those days fielding pitches from campaign staff, setting up and conducting interviews with the candidates themselves, and then also being interviewed by other media outlets about my reporting. In any given week, I can put 500+ miles on my car, hop in a motorcade or on a charter flight, traveling with candidates as they spread their messages and interact with voters.

Then, there’s the “everything else” that comes along with being a wire service reporter. I’ve covered hurricanes, earthquakes, train derailments, federal death penalty trials and ice skating competitions. Yesterday, I helped out with AP’s Ukraine coverage. Today, I’m working on Supreme Court nomination hearings and a walkout of Disney employees. There is never a dull moment.

Q. How do editing and headline writing work at the AP?

A. For AP’s U.S. operations, the country is divided into four regional editing hubs, with other major desks in NYC (business and top national/international) and DC (politics). Most of my copy goes through the DC desk, since it falls under politics, but some South Carolina-specific pieces move through our South desk in Atlanta. 

I come up with many headlines on my own, and over the past year, AP has tried to do much of our headline and lede writing with SEO in mind, keeping key terms in both. Editors oftentimes will tweak the headlines, but I try to always have a backread in those circumstances, since we know that headlines are (sadly) all that some readers will ingest.

Q. You are active on Twitter, and for your master’s thesis, you researched its use by journalists. What are your top Twitter tips for reporters and editors?

A. First off, the internet lives forever, so make sure that you’re thinking about that when you post anything, anywhere.

Aside from that, though, it’s imperative for journalists to maintain objectivity in all ways, including their use of social media. It’s not that we can’t have opinions, but it’s that we must be careful about where and how we express opinions.

Thankfully for me, AP has published social media guidelines, which serve as guideposts for the company’s expectations for its employees’ use of online platforms. It’s not just important for politics reporters to stay away from overt support for candidates or campaigns; it’s also vital that journalists of all beat areas do their utmost to present unvarnished information in a way that leaves it up to readers to decide if they have an opinion about it.

My own husband and our children don’t know for whom I vote. That may sound extreme, but I am that adamant that my opinions stay with me and aren’t expressed anywhere — especially not in my reporting or in my social media accounts. If you’ve read a story, or a tweet, of mine, and you feel that you know my political viewpoints or opinions, then I haven’t done my job correctly. 

Journalists don’t always get this right, even from high-level outlets including my own. But we can and should always try harder.

Q. You have posted about your diagnosis and treatment for a rare form of breast cancer, and you’ve been interviewed about it. What led you to share that part of your life publicly?

A. I knew that the physical costs of my having cancer would eventually be evident, since I do my job in a very public-facing way, so some part of me always wanted to take control of the narrative before anything actually changed. I also wasn’t sure how treatment would make me feel or if I’d have to turn down story assignments or tips, so I also didn’t want sources to think I had disappeared or was ignoring them, if I had to lie low at times. Within 24 hours of my diagnosis, after talking it over with my husband and our children, I told the world.

But moreover, I realized that, along with having a public platform also comes the opportunity to share about what I am going through, in a way that might be able to help someone else facing a similar struggle. I’m typically guarded about my private life, but any apprehension about piercing that veil fell away when I received countless messages from others experiencing similar health crises, thanking me for simply letting them know that they were not suffering alone. 

Unfortunately, I was also un/misdiagnosed for years, only getting a correct diagnosis after seeking a second opinion at MD Anderson Cancer Center. I also came to realize that there might be value in using my platform to make people more aware of their options when it comes to self-advocation and pushing their healthcare providers to get to the bottom of their own help quandaries.

That’s the message I continue to share, whenever given the opportunity, and I sign off a lot of times with: Self-exam. Get a mammogram. Advocate for yourself.

Q. What advice do you have for student journalists who are aiming for jobs and internships at the AP and other news organizations?

A. There’s no way to know if journalism — or a particular beat, like politics — is the right fit without actually giving it a try. Apply for internships in the beat area in which you’re interested. AP has a great program, but it’s incredibly limited in the number of positions available.

But, even without that, see if there’s a journalist doing what you want to do — and reach out to him or her directly. I’ve had a number of college students shadow me for a day or two along the campaign trail, seeing what I do from the inside, traveling the state, and even in some cases conducting interviews alongside me. Some have gone on to pursue political journalism. Some have, while we had a great time, decided that it wasn’t for them. Either way, they got to see for themselves what it was like, and that’s truly the only pathway toward knowing for sure if this crazy journo life will be a good fit. 

I’m grateful that The Washington Post let me test-drive political journalism as a college student, before I took the professional plunge. If anyone wants to spend some time on the South Carolina campaign trail, my DMs are open!