Renee Shaw’s 25 years at KET
“My mother always used to tell me, ‘If you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready.’”
Renee Shaw hasn’t just followed her mother’s advice; the Kentucky Educational Television journalist has made it her life’s work.
“When I get to the candidate appearances that are held in this studio, I’ve done five drafts of those questions,” Shaw says. It’s just one example of her exhaustive preparation, a hallmark of her 26 years at KET, where she produces, anchors and manages the public affairs efforts of the statewide TV network.
Viewers see an unflappable anchor with a confidence grounded in command of the facts. What they don’t see are Shaw’s research rituals. Like a military strategist’s map or a football coach’s X’s and O’s, Shaw’s Post-it notes lay out important facts and questions ahead of significant interviews.
“I’m literally on the couch with a blanket, and I’m just taking stuff and posting it to a poster board, just looking at my thoughts,” Shaw explains. “Because I feel like every time I get in this studio, I have to do it better than I did it the last time. If the last thing I did becomes the last thing I did, it had better be the best thing I did.”
Not only is Shaw well-prepared, but she is going to “appropriately push back,” says U.S. Rep. Morgan McGarvey of Louisville, who took office in January in Congress after serving as Democratic leader in the Kentucky Senate. “Renee doesn’t just let you get away with political talking points. She makes you answer the questions.”
Scott Jennings, a longtime political strategist and Kentucky native, notes, “To be interviewed by Renee Shaw is never easy but it’s also never hostile. When you talk to Renee, you know you are dealing with an absolute professional who is going to treat you fairly, but also someone who is dogged in pursuit of the facts and information.”
An early start
When she was 5 years old growing up in rural Tennessee, just south of Bowling Green, Kentucky, Shaw was captivated by the TV news she watched with her parents.
“I would have my little play typewriter and I would pretend that I was typing along with what they were saying,” Shaw recalls. “Then after the newscast was done, I would take all my stuffed animals and dolls and I would pretend that I would be reading the news.”
Out of their impoverished upbringings, Shaw’s parents built a middle-class household, with their only child and her education at the center. Her mother, Imogene, took a job as a factory seamstress. Her father, Ferrell Martin Shaw, was a foreman for a gas pipeline company. In middle school, Shaw began tutoring neighbor kids in English and writing, and at 16, worked as a waitress “at some little greasy spoon.”
“The expectation is, nothing is going to come to you for free,” Shaw reflects. “I believe that I am here by the grace of God and their hard work.”
Her Western Kentucky University professors encouraged Shaw to get her doctorate and teach at her alma mater, but supported her journalism path in 1997 when she applied for a job covering the state legislature for KET.
“I walked in that Capitol building and I was like, whoa,” Shaw recalls. “I was so intimidated by it.”
A quarter century later, Shaw has worked in the Capitol longer than all but a handful of the elected leaders she covers.
“Most of the people who are there are doing the very best they can for their own right reasons,” Shaw says. “I may not agree with them, but it doesn’t matter what I think about it. It doesn’t matter. I’m just there to report.”
Facts, not favoritism
Though the concept of unbiased reporting may seem quaint in an era of increasingly blurred lines between journalism and advocacy, Shaw’s impartial yet informed restraint has fueled her rise at KET.
“I have worked alongside Renee Shaw for the last decade. I don’t know if she is a Democrat or a Republican,” says McGarvey. “She covers the legislature and points to what legislation does, not her own opinion into it, but facts.”
Jennings, a conservative commentator for CNN who has worked for federal and state Republican candidates and officeholders, concurs.
“I think because of her fairness and because of her professionalism, she gets more out of her interviews than just about anybody in the state,” he says. “You feel like you’re getting a fair shake. I think the style of journalism she is doing is what people need.”
To Shaw, whose interest in public policy started in middle school, it’s her duty.
“The institution of KET really is built on the fact there are objective, fair people who are just delivering the information,” she says.
As one of the most high-profile African American women in Kentucky, Shaw also faces other expectations.
“One of the concerns I had, just to be honest, is that people would assume that (I’m with) either political party or whatever because of the skin I’m in, or my gender,” Shaw acknowledges.
As a Black woman who grew up in a predominantly white community and didn’t see many people like her on television news, Shaw says representation matters. One of her favorite interviewees was the late Georgia Davis Powers, the first African American to serve in the Kentucky Senate.
“When I first came to KET, she reached out to me, and she and several other African American women who were in the political space just kind of said, ‘If you need anything, if you need to know how to navigate, let me know.’
“I want others to come after me and feel like they’re empowered to do the work. But it doesn’t mean that I’ll show favoritism toward any particular group.”
The only favoritism Shaw displays is to the craft of journalism that serves the public in the public interest.
“On the first and last days of the session, I will drive up Capital Avenue and I will look at that Capitol and just marvel that this is where I get to come,” Shaw says. “I don’t have to come here; I get to come here.”