By REBECCA TURNER
“If your mother says she loves you — check it out,” Professor Virginia Johnson often tells her students to highlight the importance of verification in journalism If you’ve ever had a journalism class, you may have heard something similar. Johnson is an adjunct professor at UT who is also employed in television news at Bay News 9, working every day in the role she teaches students about.
“Being inside the change can be helpful to students, as even the latest textbooks can become outdated quickly,” Johnson explains.
Johnson is also able to bring her students to the news station to get an inside look at how a real newsroom operates. They get to witness first-hand the division of labor and necessary multitasking that occurs. Johnson finds the latter to be the most challenging part of her job.
On a typical day at Bay News 9, she will be out shooting a story while also preparing for the following day, planning out ideas for future projects and how they can tie into social media and web stories. In addition to other special projects, Johnson also works on a series called “On the Town” that runs four days a week. It was for this work that she and Bay News 9 photojournalist Bobby Collins won an Emmy in 2014 in the Arts/Entertainment category.
“It’s great to work with Virginia,” Collins says. “I know I can count on her each and every day. She is always open to new ideas and is committed to a quality product. For example, if I want to make a fish talk in a story, Virginia will do the voiceover for me and supply the funny moving mouth video I need to lay into the fish’s lips. Not a lot of reporters would agree to that.”
But, Johnson doesn’t just stand out in that way. Her students have also recognized her dedication to her work. In the Spring 2016 semester, Johnson’s students nominated her for the Unsung Hero Award. On the night of the reception, Johnson went a step further to bring her class along to watch her receive her plaque and indulge in some hors d’oeuvres.
“It reinforced this happy feeling I get when I arrive on campus before class,” Johnson explains. “I feel lucky.”
The award does not appear to be a fluke either, as Johnson has a perfect overall quality rating of 5.0 on Rate My Professors. Junior communication major Brennan Ackermon had Johnson as his media writing professor in 2015.
“My favorite part about having her for class was definitely the energy she brought,” Ackermon says. “She was very enthusiastic about teaching which helped me to be enthusiastic about learning and it was awesome hearing her talk about her experiences as a field reporter.”
Johnson has certainly journeyed far to end up teaching at UT — literally. She was born in Louisiana as the seventh of 11 children and grew up in an area called Devil’s Swamp. Collins says that Johnson has taught him a lot about her Cajun heritage, though Johnson wants to learn even more.
“I now know King Cake has a little baby in it, so be careful when you eat it,” Collins says. “I have had ‘real jambalaya,’ not the fake stuff from most restaurants.”
And, while you won’t likely notice it on television — due to a voice trainer, according to Johnson — her Louisiana Cajun accent sneaks out when Johnson talks about where she grew up, her siblings and, especially, her parents.
“My momma was always so curious about places she’d read about,” Johnson says. “And my daddy always worked to make her dreams for us possible. They did everything to prepare me for this life — any successes I have I owe to them. They made me believe I could do anything I wanted — and I could do anything my eight brothers could do. They lit a fire in me for life.”
Johnson figured out she wanted to go into journalism while interviewing for a final paper in Malaysia for her master’s degree in the school of human resources and industrial relations from Loyola University Chicago. Interviewing former government executives and engineers ended up being the best part of the experience for her and she chose to pursue it further. Within a year and a half, Johnson had enrolled in the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University for her second master’s degree.
“When people agree to give you a little bit of themselves in the form of a life story, it’s like a gift,” Johnson says. “It’s a great privilege. And I loved the entire process. People are fascinating.”
Some of Johnson’s favorite stories she has worked on include: the inclusion of universal bathrooms in Hillsborough County schools and how it affected transgender teens in those schools; the unexpected meaningfulness of Thanksgiving for an Iranian family that came to the U.S. during the 1979 revolution; a one-woman show in which an actor focused on perception of skin tone in the African American community; and a talk that concentration camp survivor Elie Wiesel gave at the Florida Holocaust Museum.
Johnson brings a unique energy to the screen that impresses Saundra Weathers, a general assignment reporter at Bay News 9.
“I don’t know what else Virginia would do,” Weathers says. “Her personality is so huge; it belongs on television.”
While sharing these stories can be incredibly demanding, Johnson does her best to draw behavioral boundaries and always be present, even though keeping a consistent work-life balance is difficult with her work hours.
“I try to work as hard as I can at work, and I try to be as good a family member as I can when I’m home,” Johnson explains. “My work hours change quite often, and so I have to be flexible.”
Johnson credits her husband of seven years, Jason Wightman — and his more predictable work schedule — for holding down the fort. The couple has two young daughters, four-year-old Lillian and two-year-old Paxton.
In the future, Johnson hopes to earn a doctorate, take a look back into some previous work projects and travel more. She also hopes to continue teaching at UT and maintain connections with her students.
“I would like to talk to students who are working in the business and have them come back and talk to my class about their adventures in news,” Johnson says. “It would be my proudest moment.”
Rebecca Turner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.