B+C Hall of Fame 2023: Deborah Roberts
Senior National Affairs Correspondent; Contributing Anchor, ‘20/20’
The past few years have seen veteran correspondent Deborah Roberts at her best. As the nation was riven following the killings of Black citizens by police, Roberts covered the news not just as a typically dispassionate reporter, but as a fully sentient human being. In 2021, she was awarded a Peabody Award for the 20/20 special Say Her Name: Breonna Taylor, which featured Roberts’s extensive reporting on the tragic killing.
“That was satisfying, for once as a journalist, to report on issues that are not only of our time, but also that affected me deeply as a person, as a person of color, as a woman, as a mother,” she said. “I drew from a lot of personal emotions as I was reporting on those stories.”
Read More: Here’s to the 2023 ‘B+C’ Hall of Fame Inductees
Janice Johnston, 20/20 executive producer, said Roberts always puts a unique stamp on her reportage. “The combination of her hard news, her journalistic drive and that she’s such a compassionate interviewer are what sets her apart,” Johnston said. “Particularly for our show, it’s a wonderful mix.”
Growing up in Perry, Georgia, Roberts’s family sat down to watch the news with Walter Cronkite every evening. “I used to sit and stare at the screen in a way my brothers and sisters didn’t,” said Roberts, one of nine children. “I was really taking it in.”
While studying at the University of Georgia, she got an internship with Georgia Public Television, covering the state legislature. One summer, she worked at WMAZ Macon. By the time Roberts graduated, she had a bit of on-air experience.
She landed at WTVM Columbus, Georgia, as a general assignment reporter and began to ease into the role. “I had a lot of fire and determination,” she said, “and I think my news director saw that.”
Roberts moved on to WBIR Knoxville, then WFTV Orlando, before landing at NBC News as a reporter in 1990. Filling in for Deborah Norville on the Today news desk, she met her future husband. It happened to be Roberts’s birthday, and Al Roker, also a 2023 Hall of Fame inductee, suggested they go out to lunch. “He was friendly and lovely,” she said.
Roberts switched to ABC News in 1995. She counts Diane Sawyer and the late Barbara Walters as “key mentors” in her career. “Both reached out and both always had their doors open if I wanted to stop in,” she said.
Johnston mentioned how Roberts is a cornerstone that connects the earlier days of 20/20 and the present program. “That legacy of reporting and gravitas — she’s a bridge of that,” Johnston said.
Offering Information and Hope
Roberts has a keen perspective on what keeps both World News Tonight and Good Morning America on top in their ultra-competitive ratings races. Of the evening newscast, she said, “People want to be informed, but they also want to have a little hope.”
Whenever she discusses a story with anchor David Muir, Roberts works to find “a little glimmer of light” in it, she said.
Same goes for GMA. The show “not only informs you, but leaves you feeling a sense of wonder, a sense of contentment,” she said.
Roker noted the intense prep work Roberts does before an interview, including binders exploding with research material. “I’ve learned so much from her,” he said. “She’s a serious journalist. Me, not so much.”
Outside of work, Roberts enjoys spending time with her family. She and Al are “theater buffs,” she said, and she loves exercising, often composing her scripts when she’s running around Central Park. Her book Lessons Learned and Cherished: The Teacher Who Changed My Life was recently released. It sees Robin Roberts, Oprah Winfrey and other A-listers share their stories of memorable teachers.
Every day means a new story for Roberts to cover. “I feel incredibly blessed to have stumbled upon this career and still be doing it at this stage in my life,” she said.
Broadcasting & Cable Newsletter
The smarter way to stay on top of broadcasting and cable industry. Sign up below
Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.