Katie Couric on Building 'Empathy' and 'Understanding' with New Documentary Series

With her new documentary series on National Geographic, Katie Couric will be taking deep dives into issues affecting the nation

Photo: David Buchan/Variety/REX/Shutterstock

Katie Couric isn’t just reporting the news of the moment anymore — with her new series on National Geographic, the veteran journalist will be taking deep dives into issues affecting the nation.

After working on the February 2017 documentary Gender Revolution for Nat Geo — in which Couric spoke with scientists, psychologists, families and more about the complex issue of gender identity — she discovered the importance of addressing divisive themes.

“I really enjoyed the process of taking a mammoth issue and trying to unpack it and trying to understand it better and going on a journey of learning, really, and of understanding,” Couric, 61, tells PEOPLE. “I think the folks at Nat Geo were really happy with that documentary.

“I think that it helped a lot of people have a better understanding of gender identity at a time when a lot of people were very confused and probably still are very confused in some ways. It started, I think, forging a path of understanding for people.”

And for America Inside Out With Katie Couric, she will be tackling feminism, Muslims in America, political correctness and more, in-depth.

“I’m hoping that through personal stories that people will have a little more empathy for some of these situations and a deeper understanding instead of just a knee-jerk reaction. I’m hoping I’ll help people think instead of simply react,” she says. “I know that may be a tall order, but that’s what I’m hoping, and I’m hoping it’ll spur a conversation that will continue long after the series is over.”

National Geographic/Jason DeCrow

One of the episodes of the six-part documentary series will focus on harassment women have experienced in their workplaces, a topic Couric says she wanted to explore after seeing the “abysmally low” numbers of women holding leadership positions.

“​I’m doing an hour on gender and inequality in Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and beyond called ‘A Woman’s Work.’ It’s something that I actually wanted to do months before the #MeToo movement started,” she explains.

The journalist adds, “​Then, of course, the #MeToo movement exploded and the stories of sexual harassment and abuse in all kinds of arenas started to come to the fore. That added another layer of … We were going to obviously deal with toxic workplaces, but this revolution, if you will, added yet another layer to when it came to

“It added another layer in terms of understanding all the factors that are at work that may be keeping women from achieving parity.”

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The topic hits close to home, as Couric spent 15 years co-hosting NBC’s Today show with Matt Lauer, who was was fired at the end of November after the network received a “detailed complaint from a colleague about inappropriate sexual behavior,” with reason to believe “this may not have been an isolated incident.” Women have also anonymously accused him of sexual harassment and assault in reports published by Variety and The New York Times.

“The whole thing has been very painful for me,” Couric told PEOPLE on Saturday. “The accounts I’ve read and heard have been disturbing, distressing and disorienting and it’s completely unacceptable that any woman at the Today show experienced this kind of treatment.

She continued, “I had no idea this was going on during my tenure or after I left. I think I speak for many of my former colleagues when I say this was not the Matt we knew. Matt was a kind and generous colleague who treated me with respect. In fact, a joke I once made on late-night television was just that, because it was completely contrary to our brother-sister relationship. It’s still very upsetting. I really admire the way Savannah [Guthrie] and Hoda [Kotb] and the entire Today show staff have handled a very difficult situation.”

Jamie McCarthy/Getty

Couric says investigating these challenging topics has taught her to look at people differently and realize that the issues are much more complicated than they appear.

“​Things aren’t necessarily what they seem,” she says. “To be able to have a nuanced conversation, to be able to see the different shades of an issue, I think is really helpful, especially as you go out in the world and especially as we try to come together in some ways as a nation to solve some of these really challenging issues.”

Couric is focused on her popular podcast, she says.

“I’m having so much fun doing my podcast with my friend Brian Goldsmith,” she says. “I’ve been able to have extended and substantive conversations with so many great, interesting people, like Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Alec Baldwin, David Axelrod, Ava DuVernay and Ina Garten. And now we’re ‘dropping’ episodes weekly.”

America Inside Out With Katie Couric premieres Wednesday, April 11, at 10 p.m. ET/9 p.m. CT.

Updated by
Stephanie Petit
Stephanie Petit

Stephanie Petit is a Royals Editor, Writer and Reporter at PEOPLE.

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