Profile: “20/20” Executive Producer Janice Johnston
By Elyse Notarianni

Janice Johnston with Robin Roberts and Diane Sawyer, photo: ABC

Behind the scenes of Janice Johnston’s 2 decades at ABC, you’d never catch her standing alone.

As the new executive producer of ABC’s “20/20,” she’s constantly on the go overseeing shots with editors, advising producers on stories and leading her team as they dive into 2-hour character-driven stories. Even when she’s finalizing show details or making production edits from her kitchen table in Cherry Hill during the pandemic, she’s only a Zoom call away.

“There’s a strong sense of importance, and even comfort, in being a part of covering these news stories in this moment in history,” says Johnston. “With everything going on, you feel like you’re doing something, like you’re contributing. To know that I have the opportunity to be a part of bringing real life events to TV in a time when we need it most is a really important responsibility.”

When Johnston was named executive producer of “20/20” in January, she became the first woman and first person of color to take on a role that’s only been held by 3 other people in its more than 4 decades on air. But to her, that’s nothing new. For better or for worse, she says, she is “of an age and a generation where I’ve had to be the first.”

Janice Johnston behind the scenes at “20/20”, photo ABC

“When you’re the first of anything, it represents an even greater opportunity for the people coming up behind you who before couldn’t see themselves in that role,” says Johnston. “The goal is to make sure that young people today don’t ever have to be the first. Someone already paved the way for them.”

It’s a responsibility she’s been working toward ever since she stepped foot on ABC’s studios 23 years ago, even if she didn’t know it at the time.

“I didn’t walk in the door saying, ‘I want to work my way up to becoming the executive producer,’” says Johnston. “I walked in saying ‘I want to learn everything I can, and I want to use that to help tell stories that mean something.’”

Johnston started her broadcast career with a decade-long stint as a supervising producer with “Good Morning America” before moving on to “20/20” in 2008. Throughout her time at ABC, she’s done everything from highlighting families across the country to producing an Emmy-winning town hall called “The President and The People.” Oddly enough, she was also the person making sure no one stepped on Taylor Swift’s cats while filming a country music special at the singer’s Nashville home. Her work has earned her 6 Emmys and 2 Peabody Awards among other accolades.

Johnston has wanted to be in TV production for as long as she can remember – going all the way back to her 4-year-old self sitting cross-legged on a Formica floor in her Cherry Hill home, eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich while watching Action News (on what is now 6abc), where she later interned during her senior year of high school.

“Even at such a young age, I had this conscious thought that these people on the screen were somewhere important,” says Johnston. “It was always clear that everything was happening on the other side of that screen, and that’s exactly where I wanted to be.”

“I strive to find light in the dark. So in sharing someone’s stories, I take serious care to take something that may have been the most horrible, defining moment in someone’s life and make it more than just a cautionary tale.”

But the path she took to get there isn’t one many would expect to lead to ABC’s executive offices. After earning her bachelor’s degree from Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs, she went on to earn her law degree from the University of Virginia School of Law. She worked as a corporate litigation lawyer before heading to Washington, DC, to work as a speechwriter for the senate. But she always had journalism in the back of her mind, and when she transitioned into broadcast television, she found her law experience came in handy in unexpected ways.

Janice Johnston with “Good Morning America’s” Robin Roberts

“Often, the way you think about a story is the same way you bring a case to trial,” says Johnston, who is still a licensed attorney in New York. “You have to figure out what you’re trying to say, who you should talk to, why this is important both locally and in a broader sense, what questions you should ask and how to leave room for someone to take your questioning into a completely different direction. It’s all about learning how to approach the same topic from a million different angles.”

That perspective has allowed her to lead some of the show’s most critical programming of the moment. She’s worked on 3 breaking news specials on the Coronavirus pandemic, a 2-hour look into the life and legacy of John Lennon, true-crime features like the story of 3 women kidnapped and held captive in Cleveland for a decade and the show’s first Juneteenth special. It’s heavy stuff, she admits, but she’s not someone to take it home with her at the end of the day.

“I am a light-seeking person,” says Johnston, who credits this attitude to her Quaker schooling at Haddonfield Friends School and Moorestown Friends School, where she currently sits on the school’s board of trustees. “I strive to find light in the dark. So in sharing someone’s stories, I take serious care to take something that may have been the most horrible, defining moment in someone’s life and make it more than just a cautionary tale.”

She tries to bring some resolution, she says – even if it’s just for the family involved to know what they went through isn’t forgotten. Johnston and her team work closely with the people they profile on “20/20,” often reporting on a story for a year or more before it hits the air.

“We’re often working with details that are very dark, but we don’t want to wallow in the darkness during our storytelling,” she says. “We’re trying to give the story a broader theme, not just a retelling of some horrible crime.”

“These types of stories have always been important, but in a moment in time when people are really tuned into injustices and events around the world, they have an even deeper meaning,” she adds. “It’s an awesome responsibility to be a part of putting them on air.”

Come see Janice Johnston live at the Women’s Empowerment Series!

Women’s Empowerment Series Panel 3: I’m not Superwoman: Is having it all even a thing anymore?

When: Tuesday, December 6, 6 – 8 pm
Where: The Mansion on Main Street, Voorhees
Join us for a night of food, drinks, networking and a panel by women in South Jersey at the top of their fields. This panel will feature:

Kate Scott Play-By-Play Announcer, Sixers
Wanda Hardy President/CEO, Financial Wellness Institute
Janice Johnston Executive Producer, ABC’s “20/20”
Janell Simpson Deputy Chief, Camden County Police
Susan Manzi Chief Financial Officer, SJRA

May 2021
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