God's Ambassador (Joe Torres)

Speech given at World Journalism Institute conference at The King's College in New York City, NY (November 3, 2007)

Joe Torres reports and anchors the weekend evening news on WABC-TV, New York.

Joe is a full-fledged, purebred New Yorker. He was born in Brooklyn. He attended P.S. 198 until the sixth grade when his family moved to Northern Westchester County. He is a graduate of John Jay High School in Cross River.

 After high school, Joe continued his education at SUNY Brockport, where he earned a B.S. in Communications. Along with his wife Fran and their two boys, Joe still lives in the town where he grew up.

Joe joined the Eyewitness News team as a general assignment reporter in 1997. Throughout the last nine years he has established himself as one of the premier street reporters here in the nation's #1 television market. Versatility is his strength. Crime, politics, education, transportation, business, whatever the subject, Joe has covered it all with an engaging and energetic style that fellow New Yorkers have come to know and love.

Perhaps most memorable for viewers has been Joe's extensive coverage of the late Pope John Paul II. Before the Holy Father's death, Joe followed the globe-trotting Pontiff on his trips to Cuba, Mexico, and the Holy Land, providing New Yorkers with local angles to worldly events. Joe was at the Vatican for the Pope's Silver Anniversary and for his death, when millions flocked to Rome to say goodbye to the spiritual leader. And lastly, Joe was at St. Peter's Square when the white smoke from the Sistine Chapel informed the world of the historic election of Pope Benedict the XVI.

Two days a week Joe sets aside his reporter's pad and heads to the anchor desk. Each Saturday and Sunday Joe serves as the Co-Anchor of Eyewitness News This Weekend.

Joe's distinctive storytelling ability garnered him a Peabody Award and the Edward R. Murrow Award for his reports on the world-changing events of September 11th. Joe also earned an Emmy Award for his coverage of the Greenpoint Gas Tank Implosions in 2001.

Joe started his television career in 1987 as an NBC Page in New York. He first reporting job was at WSAV-TV in Savannah, Georgia, where he served as a general assignment reporter and beat reporter covering county government. Joe then moved to the ABC affiliate WNEP-TV in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, to work as a Consumer Reporter, general assignment reporter and Weekend Anchor. In 1992 Joe landed a job as the Jersey Shore correspondent for Disney/ABC-owned WPVI-TV in Philadelphia.

by Joe Torres

The great theologian and former chaplain for the Dallas Cowboys, Dr. Howard Hendricks, once told the story of a revealing experience he had on a cross-country flight. His flight, interminably delayed, had most of the passengers anguished, disturbed, and frustrated. Tempers flared, arguments ensued, fingers pointed. And caught in the middle of it all: the flight attendants, who did their best to keep the peace and allow sanctity to prevail.

The flight eventually lifted off, and during a quiet moment Dr. Hendricks managed to pull aside one of the battle weary flight attendants to offer some words of praise: “I just want to say that I watched how you handled yourself throughout that whole ordeal and I can’t begin to tell you how impressed I am. American Airlines is so fortunate to have an employee such as you.” The delighted attendant smiled and gave Dr. Hendricks a response that, in his words, “shocked me awake.” She said, “Well, thank you, sir, but you see I really don’t work for American Airlines.”

At this point the good doctor began to wonder exactly what flight he was on. She continued, “I work for the Lord Jesus Christ. And each day during my commute to the airport, I pray and ask God to use me as His servant working at American Airlines.”

Dr. Hendricks went on to say how he picked himself up off the floor and began an absolutely delightful conversation with the flight attendant. He wrapped up the story by telling his mesmerized audience, “May her tribe increase.”

I first heard that story 24 years ago at a Campus Crusade for Christ Christmas conference called KC ’83—’83, of course, for the year it took place and KC for that marvelous steak metropolis in the Midwest that’s home to baseball’s Royals and football’s Chiefs. I left the conference having made the commitment that I would “increase the tribe” by doing exactly what that flight attendant did each day.

So on my way to work every morning, whether I’m in the car or on the train, there is one portion of my daily prayer that’s virtually the same: “Lord, use me today as your servant, representing you at Channel 7 Eyewitness News.”

Each of us has a God-given talent, a spiritual gift that the good Lord expects us to use. Over the years I’ve come to realize that what I do professionally is the gift God has given to me.

I’m a storyteller. That’s really all that I do. On a slow and uneventful and far-from-normal day here in New York City, I spend eight hours gathering information, conducting interviews, making phone calls, questioning witnesses, scanning videotape, listening to audiotape, rummaging through facts. And at the end of those eight hours, I take all that stuff and dial it down to a 90-second story. All along the way, however, there are absolutely numerous opportunities to showcase who I am and what’s important in my life. That, I believe, is my ministry.

Throughout the performance of my job I try to conduct myself in such a way that people are compelled to ask, “What is it that makes you tick?” And there is my God-given opportunity to explain to the curious that I play by a different set of rules. That chosen lifestyle is evident not only in the things that I say and do, but also in the things that I don’t say and don’t do.

Many of you work in a newsroom. You do not need me to tell you the sickening level of verbal sewage that all too often seeps from the mouths of colleagues. And it’s not just the filthy language and limited curse-filled vocabulary, but also the heartless backstabbing and oh-so-damaging gossip that often ruins relationships.

Over the course of my eleven years at Eyewitness News I’ve managed to impress upon my friends and my colleagues that I don’t curse. I don’t want to. There’s just no need to. In a newsroom, just by doing that you stand out. Frankly, therefore, without me having to say anything, the full-frontal implication is that if I don’t need to curse, just maybe they don’t need to curse either.

And truth be told, they prove it over and over, because now they refrain from cursing in my presence. My follow-up response usually goes something like this, “If you can keep from cursing when I’m here, you can keep from cursing when I’m not here.” The same holds true with taking God’s name in vain. A simple glance from me is all it takes to generate an apology.

My hope is that their cautious approach is not done simply out of respect for me but out of a keen understanding that it’s just wrong. Now that may be just wishful thinking, because Biblical scripture clearly shows what it takes to tame the tongue. In the third chapter of James we read, “The tongue is a fire, a world of evil among the body parts. All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by human beings, but no one can tame the tongue,” which means if your tongue is under control, you know God did it.

The good Lord has blessed me with the ability to speak two languages. And the same Godly principles that I work hard to employ in speaking English, I also apply to my life in Spanish as well.

Scripture also guides me in the realm of self-control. How often have we seen drama-filled fits of rage, blood-boiling displays of fury, coupled with bold accusations and personal attacks? Is that really necessary? It’s certainly not godly. I work in a business, as many of you do, where my end product is molded and shaped by the hands of many writers, producers, editors, photographers, and graphic artists. Yet the end product, which is what you see on your tube at home—my end product—has my name and face on it. Guess who gets the grief when something is wrong, when something is not correct -- even if it’s not my fault? Me. Many times a reporter will see something wrong in his or her piece, and the resulting hell-bent diatribe is the stuff of legend.

Whether it’s a writer or photographer on the receiving end of this public emasculation, it’s the reporter who often gives a piece of his or her mind that they can’t afford to lose. Believe me, there are many times I’ve wanted to completely blow my lid, but Proverbs 29:11 has a way of creeping into my brain. “A fool gives full vent to his anger, but a wise man keeps himself under control.”

So now instead of lining up a defense to a brutal attack, the response from my error-causing colleague is usually this: an apology, a promise to be more careful, and a night wallowing in the guilt that he or she disappointed a colleague who was perfectly justified in perhaps ripping them a new one.

Lastly, as a TV news journalist here in New York City, too often I am required to speak to people who have just suffered an unspeakable loss or tragedy. A son killed in a fire, a daughter subject to abuse, a family torn apart by violence. In the eyes of many, the last place these grieving people would expect to receive some sort of solace or comfort is from a reporter. But that’s exactly why I often see a wonderful opportunity to convey God’s limitless love and grace. The expectation is: He’s concerned with a sound byte. He’s worried about deadline. He’s focused on a story. That’s all he cares about. So when I ask in that pregnant moment there, “Can I pray for you?” When I offer a verse of scripture, when I hug a teary-eyed mother, then that whole expectation has been completely shattered. And there’s a sudden realization that this guy’s different. He actually has a heart, unlike so many other reporters. Now God is at work, and the prayer that God would use me as his representative is answered right before my eyes.

Like you, God has equipped me to be a journalist, but more so as a Christian journalist. He can do the same for you, and the beautiful thing is all you have to do is ask.


Question: What do you fear the most as an individual—professionally and personally?

Answer: Professionally, I never want to miss deadline. Never. In TV we call it missed page. If I’m the lead story at six, I’ve got to be there, I’ve just got to be there. So I fear missing my slot.

Personally, I fear that I would not do some of the things that I have just talked about. I’m an individual and I’m human, so I do fail in those regards. So my prayer on the way home is usually a lot different than the prayer on the way in.

Those two things stand out. But I can’t say that I go into the day expecting to fear things or worrying about fear, but it’s there.

Question: Imagine your assignment today is to cover the Gay Pride Parade. How do you handle it?

Answer: I handle it as a professional. I have to do justice to my job and what I’m doing. The opportunity is to minister—and minister is a verb—to again hold myself in such a way that I can pull off the story but not necessarily agree with it.

I’m a huge Mets fan. I’ve had to cover three Yankees parades. It’s the same thing. People should not be able to tell when I cover the Yankees parade that I’m a huge Mets fan. I don’t convey that. But I do justice to the story and I tell what’s happening. I may not necessarily agree with what’s going on.

Question: Could you share with us some of the highlights of your career as far as your most proud moment or a situation that was dangerous?

Answer: The dangerous one, of course, would be 9/11. I’m not a big fan of talking about that but if you want to hear it, I can tell you a little bit about it.

The story I’m most proud of occurred not while I was a reporter at Channel 7. It occurred when I was a reporter at Channel 6. Before I worked here in New York, I worked in Philadelphia at Action News. I was the Jersey Shore correspondent for Action News. For those of you who don’t know much about Action News or Channel 6 in Philadelphia, it is an absolute rarity in the TV world that a big market TV station dominates the market the way Channel 6 does in Philadelphia. You could put color bars on the air and people would watch Channel 6. We don’t know what it is. So I had the privilege of working there for four years, and I was doing a story at the Jersey Shore. It was one of those awful horror ones in Ocean County right along the beach. It was a case of child abuse. The mother had left her daughter in the care of the next door neighbor who she had entrusted through a relationship for years. The long and short of it was the neighbor had abused that trust and abused the girl.

Joe gets sent out on this story. So, so difficult. I convince the school superintendent, who was serving as a liaison with the media, to help me with an interview with the mother. Realize that her daughter for years has been abused by the next door neighbor. We do the interview. Of course, we do not reveal the mother’s identity. We shoot it in silhouette. She tells a harrowing tale and off I go.

Two weeks later I get a notice in the mail from the general manager of the station. If you know the hierarchy at a station, the general manager is the top guy. He’s the big kahuna. The news director reports to the general manager. So it wasn’t my immediate boss. It’s the super huge mambo boss. So he sends me a letter and it pretty much said, Joe, I thought you might be interested in seeing this. Signed. And I opened it thinking, okay, this is it, my career is over, I’m done. So I open it and I look at it, and it was a copy of a letter that the superintendent had sent to the general manager. The part that I’ll remember is, “Dear So and So, My name is superintendent of schools and I had the honor and privilege of meeting your reporter, Joe Torres, who handled himself so professionally and with such courtesy that he changed the way I think about reporters.”

It doesn’t get any better than that. That was my high point. I don’t know if I’ll ever top that. That’s the evidence of what I’m trying to do every day. That godly character can override even the worst situations and turn it around in such a way that when you don’t think there’s any possibility of ministering, there’s every possibility of ministering.

And I managed to change this individual’s perception, not by the things I said, but the way I carried myself and the way I presented myself. There is room for compassion; there is room for integrity, especially when you’re dealing with someone who has suffered such unspeakable loss.

The other day in Queens there was the story of the corrections officer in Rosedale, Queens. She died in a fire, the second story. She couldn’t get out. Fire fighters made it up to the second story. They saw her there, but the building collapsed and they ran back out. And they ultimately found her on top of her two children. She had died in the fire, and she had died covering up her two children. I have to go find the mother and the grandmother of the victims. I find her. I don’t know why but we got there, the New York Post got there, the Daily News. I think we were the first TV station to get there. And when you get to the scene you get there and usually there are some family members outside the front of the house. I say this to a lot of young journalism students: The way you ask the question often determines the answer, more so than the question itself. So the way you present yourself initially will help solicit the response and give a strong indication to the person on the receiving end of the kind of individual that you are and how you’re going to handle the situation.

You’ve got ten or fifteen seconds to make that first impression, which results in whether you get anything or not. The gentlemen who were relatives there at the front door, obviously protecting those inside, saw me. I presented myself as Christian-like and as gentlemanly and respectful as I could, and I asked whether the mother was home and had anything to say and whether they had a picture of the daughter and the kids. And he said, hold right there. He went inside and got the mother. The mother was home. She didn’t want to talk at first, but she said I’ll work on getting a picture, just stand by. By this point other members of the media came out, and now we’re all waiting. And you know we’re all impatient. So she finally comes out with the picture and we gang rush the front door and the guy at the front does says, “Only Channel 7.” And he literally comes up to me. I walk in the vestibule and the mother’s in the background. She comes over and she says, I always watch Channel 7 and you, Mr. Torres, I do watch you in particular. And I said, thank you but that’s not important right now. I am so, so sorry for your loss. (I usually see little crosses or Bibles or something, something that gives you an indication that they are people of faith.) And I said to her, whether they were people of faith or not, you know, I certainly will be praying for you today and for your family. The family was originally from Jamaica and that immediately opened her up and she said, well, I trust in the Lord and it’s hard to understand what’s going on. She was phenomenally composed for a mother who’d just lost two grandchildren and her daughter. I couldn’t believe it. She didn’t shed a tear in front of me and didn’t appear to have shed a tear earlier in the day. She was probably in shock but overwhelmingly receptive to the fate that the Lord had laid before her. I don’t know if I could handle that, but she did. Then I asked her, are you a believer? She said, Absolutely yes. And we had a wonderful talk, and that to me is just God using me during this moment. Here’s devastating loss, but at the same time this woman—think of it—has opened her home to a reporter. It’s just unheard of. But it’s not me. It’s God at work.

Then we walked out of there. And then all the members of the Daily News and the Post, they said, good job, Joe, way to go, man, in the vile street language that they do. I can’t even tell you what they said. “I don’t know how you do that.” Then we bring out the picture—a 20-year-old picture—and they snap photos of it. Then I, of course, have to return the picture.

Question: How much did you have to cover 9/11?

Answer: I was there. If you remember, 9/11 was primary day in New York. So I was in pretty early because I was covering the races. I covered everything. My story for that day became my story, my personal experience of that day. That was what I had to do. We reporters like to report the news, but we don’t really like to get involved in the news. So that was out of my element that day. It created an opportunity to show a little bit of the human side of who we are. And how can you not be emotional on that day? So here we are seven years later, and to this day I still have people saying, I cried with you on 9/11, I saw you on 9/11. I ran for my life up Church Street, thinking that the street was going to blow up below me because we heard the rumbling. The buildings were coming down but we weren’t looking up, we were hearing it from below our feet. And the expectation at that point, knowing that it was terrorism already, was that the street was going to blow up. So I literally ran up Church Street praying, praying.

Question: It sounds like you care a lot about the people that you interact with, and I know some people would say you have to separate your emotions from your work. Do you think that’s true, or do you think that you can do both, that you can integrate both your compassion for other people and your work?

Answer: I think if you’re incapable of separating your emotions from the heart of the story, depending on the story, then perhaps you might want to think about something else. However, that doesn’t mean we check our heart at the door. It doesn’t mean that when you go on the air at six o’clock and you report a story about two kids who died in a fire -- you don’t need to cry on the air, but if people can feel the hurt from the reporter, that’s part of telling the story. And it’s not acting. It’s not Broadcast News when they do the two-shot and he starts to cry again. That’s not it, no. It’s presenting a level of horror to a story that is full of horror. Just the way that at a parade story you’re going to be ebullient, you’re going to be joyful, you’re going to be excited. It’s a parade. So emotions, yes, certainly do play a role, but I think they’re from the heart. I don’t think they’re generated for the story. They are a result of the story.

Question: How do you emotionally prepare yourself?

Answer: Billy Graham, in one of his final crusades, was in Queens, at Flushing Meadow Park in Corona. I had the privilege of going to that news conference, which was one of the biggest I’ve ever been to. The question was similar. Think of who Billy Graham is and what he represents. Someone says to him, how do you prepare? What do you do? And he says, I pray. (Okay, we knew that.) What do you pray? And he said the most common prayer that I say more than any other prayer is, Lord, help me. And I thought, oh, man, that’s huge! So to me, it worked for Billy Graham. I’m going to try it. Our Lord is all knowing. He knows what I’m going into so I don’t think I have to ask specifics, but simply, Lord, help me. Lord be with me. I’m your ambassador. Look up ambassador. Think of an ambassador at the United Nations. You represent someone or something in a different place. This is sanctification, right? The more we grow as Christians, the more we become like Christ. I want to be like Christ in my role. So, Lord, help me is usually my prayer.

Question: So you’re on assignment and you’re there generally with at least a photographer. Does that person just know that you are who you are and you’re going to do what you do? How do you work with your team?

Answer: That’s a good question. By now they know. They know my mo-jo. They know how I operate at a story. There are reporters who really think they’re Federico Fellini and will absolutely direct every shot. Give me a tight shot of this, zoom out and pull out wide, and then pan over there, give me 30 seconds of that. And it really insults, in my opinion, the integrity of the fellow professional that you’re working with, whose job it is to take the picture. So I say, do your thing. I’ll watch you do your thing. In TV we write to the video. So I watch him do his or her thing.

Anyone know who Tony Guida is? Tony Guida was a longtime New York City TV reporter. He worked at Channel 4, then worked at Channel 2. You can hear him on the radio now. He wasn’t exactly a mentor for me but he worked in the same small market that I started in. We were just talking about stories and crafting a story, and he said, I’ll never forget the story I did on Darryl Strawberry being arrested. And I said to the photographer, give me a tight shot of the handcuffs around his wrists. So the photographer obliged. That became the opening shot of the story.

He gets a tight shot of the wrist of Darryl Strawberry, and he opens up the piece that way. (For those of you who are getting into TV, open up with your best video, and end with your second-best video.) So he gets the tight shot of Darryl Strawberry’s wrists and again you have to watch the photographer do that or suggest it, because you’re thinking about writing it that way. And he opens up the piece saying, The same wrists that swatted 494 home runs today have handcuffs around them, as he marches into jail. It was a great way to open the piece.

That takes collaboration with the photographer, because you’re thinking along certain lines of how you want to open the piece. But at the same time, I’ll get in the van when we’re all done and I’ll say to the shooter, did you get any particular shot that just has to be in the piece, or was so good that it told the story? Or I’ll say, did you get a shot that you think we should open with? And he’ll say, no, it’s your basic fire.

We were doing a story on beach erosion in New Jersey, and the photographer had a shot of a starfish. You know a star filter, photographers? He had a star filter on, so it was just perfect, the sun, the wetness. The star glimpses off one of the stars of the star fish. That was just a killer shot. I mean, you can’t recreate that shot. So I wrote to that piece at the end of the piece. Again, start with your best, end with your second best. And I had calls the next day. The next day people said, man, that shot at the end and the way you pieced it together with the words, that was just smokin’.

Question: I wanted to get to the point where the photographer is coming and all of a sudden you’re praying. That’s got to be different, and I wonder if you ever have any feedback from that.

Answer: Usually my prayers are internal, so I’m not on the street praying.

Question: As I understand it, you’re praying with the subject.

Answer: Usually that’s done after the interview. I leave it up to them. The interviewee is the boss, so if they want to pray now, we’ll pray now. If afterwards, we pray afterwards. If they don’t want to pray at all, we don’t pray. So the photographers know how I roll. They know that that’s a quiet time, not necessarily for pictures. So they’ll either back out or move away. But again, it’s developed over time.

Question: Do you read blogs?

Answer: Not necessarily, I really don’t. I’m the father of two children and am happily married. I have a long commute. My day is crazy. I read several newspapers a day. If there were 36 hours in our day, maybe I would. I just can’t find the time to get into blogs too much.

Question: When do you read newspapers?

Answer: Whenever I can. I try to read them on the train ride in the morning. I read my local one at home, and usually when I get to the station I’ll pick up the Post or the Daily News and finish those off. Diane Sawyer apparently is one of these super-human individuals that needs only about three hours of sleep per night to survive. So Diane Sawyer, I’m told that for the 7 o’clock Good Morning America, she gets thereat about 4:30, 5 o’clock. She has read eleven newspapers by the time everybody gets in. She knows exactly what’s happening all across the globe before the people step a foot in the door. So that’s why she is who she is. She’s just unbelievable. You can’t keep up with that. She has no children so I guess that helps in that professional regard. But you’re behind the eight ball at 5:01. So she is just unbelievable. Ted Koppel supposedly was the same way. Just consumed newspapers and was just a walking casaba of knowledge. I have trouble with three. So blogs have their value but I just can’t find the time.

Question: In the area of compassion, you were talking about the mother and grandmother of the woman who died. She did not want to be interviewed. When do you accept a no as a no? Obviously on that one you went back to her and you got her on the air. At what point do you as a professional and as a compassionate person say I think this no really does mean no and I’m going to back off?

Answer: Fellow reporters, I think half of what we do is reading people. As a reporter, especially here in New York, you get out there and within the first 20 seconds you have an inkling -- that’s the smell factor -- whether this person is sincere and wholehearted in wanting to be on TV, or just wants to shout out for the boogie down or just wants to get on because they want to be on TV. So a lot of it is reading the individual. And I think if you’ve made it to New York, you’ve probably got a good beat on how that works. For the most part, in those situations, and Scripture talks about this, let your no be no. So I will go up there and I will ask, and if it’s a defiant no and there’s a slam in your face, what more sign do you need? You’re done. If you can sense it’s only hesitation, that they’re initially uncomfortable, then you can take it to the next level. And then if you feel there’s definitely going to be a change of pace, you can stay with it. But there’s a fine line to walk there between being persistent and being abusive. I will always lean on the persistent side and back away at any indication where they could walk away saying, okay, he won’t leave me alone.

And again, I just sort of sit back. When it’s a gang bang and there’s a whole bunch of reporters there, I wait back here, because all of them are going to do the nasty rapping on the door in the projects, where we need a neighbor sound byte. You’ve been in the projects and you walk up, you get off the elevator and there are eight apartments this way and eight apartments that way. You need a sound byte from somebody, a neighbor on that floor. I can’t tell you how many reporters rap on doors all the way up and down the hallway. And the first head that pokes out, you run over with the camera. That’s just not in me as an individual.

So I will let them do that “dirty work” if they want to do it, and I’ll reap the rewards if the person comes out and says, yeah, I’ll talk to you. And then I’ll go stick my microphone in and I’ll get it. Speaking of news conferences, I’m one of those people at home where I yell at the TV when the questions are so inane, so off subject, so unimportant that I just want to throw stuff. So even in news conferences, I’ll just sit back and I will not ask a question unless I hear a question that should have generated a responsive answer and they ditched around it, and I’ll come back and re-ask the question. Again, the way you ask the question determines the answer more so than the question itself. So I’ll ask the question, and because you ducked it the first time and I’m not gonna let you get away with it, and we need that answer.

So I usually sit back most of the time.