"Journalism, if we do it right, there is no better calling," says ABC News' Senior Justice Correspondent Pierre Thomas.
Thomas must be doing something right, since the National Black Journalists' Association named him its 2012 Journalist of the Year.
"I was very emotional when I got it," says Thomas, 50, who will receive the award in New Orleans in June at NABJ's 37th annual convention. "It's something touching when your own peers recognize you."
But when the Lynchburg, Virginia, native started his freshman year at Virginia Tech in 1980, journalism wasn't in the game plan. He was a business and computer science major. But that didn't last very long. "I found I was pretty bored with it," he says.
In the middle of his sophomore year, he decided to switch his major to journalism.
This move eventually led to a career in which he has worked at three major news organizations: ABC, CNN and the Washington Post.
Thomas started his career as a reporter at the Roanoke Times and World-News upon graduation in the summer of 1984. After sending some clips to Ben Bradlee, then the executive editor at the Post, he landed a job there in 1987 at age 24. He spent 10 years at the Post, and was part of a team whose work was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for reporting on illegal gun use in the Washington area.
His work attracted the attention of CNN, which summoned him for an interview and a screen test. Then the cable news network offered him a job.
"It took me three weeks to make the decision," he says. Sure, the job at CNN paid better. But Thomas was comfortable as a print reporter. A broadcast job, he says, would involve his face, his voice and "ears like Will Smith."
"The only reason I could come up with not do it was I was afraid to do it, and that wasn't a good enough reason," he says. So he made the move in 1997.
After breaking news at CNN on topics such as terrorism, cyber-crime, the hunt for Osama bin Laden and the Justice Department's involvement in the Elián González case, Thomas moved to ABC News in November 2000.
Thomas says he appreciates being at a place that has the resources to allow him to do the work that he does. And he likes the fact that ABC has so many platforms for distributing news.
It was at ABC that he covered what he considers to be the most important story of his career―the 9/11 attacks. He also says it's the most difficult story he's ever done. He was so caught up in the reporting, he says, "I realized I hadn't grieved at all. I had just been covering the story." The network won Peabody, Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University and Emmy awards for its coverage.
Being involved with such important stories was the reason Thomas wanted to become a journalist in the first place: "Doing stories that matter. Doing stories that say something about the world in which we live in and informing people."
Thomas covered a number of them last year. He reported on the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and others in Tucson, where he was among the first to report details of the bloodbath and the seriousness of Giffords' injuries. He also reported that President Barack Obama was going to announce the capture and killing of bin Laden.
"Pierre Thomas' entire career has been a testament to his abilities as an incisive reporter whose storytelling is noteworthy," NABJ President Gregory Lee Jr. said in a press release announcing Thomas' selection as Journalist of the Year. "We honor him now because during the past year his abilities have allowed him to be frontline, reporting on the stories that captivated us all."
ABC Washington Bureau Chief Robin Sproul says Thomas is widely admired by his colleagues. Thomas is "exactly the guy you would want to have on your team," she says. "I don't know anyone who doesn't respect him."
Sproul also says that Thomas "has a compassion and empathy for the people he covers."
Thomas, for his part, says that is very important to him. "Having a reputation of being aggressive but fair, and a person who has integrity, is what I want to be known as."
While Thomas doesn't plan to leave the business anytime soon, he does have an idea of the legacy he wants to leave.
"Someday when I hang it up," he says, "I can look back and hopefully be proud of the work."