Stubborn, critical and questioning

by Lauren Dana

November 13, 2017

Award-winning New York Times Magazine journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones spoke at Newhouse about race, education and the qualities that make a good journalist

Nikole Hannah-Jones spoke at the Newhouse School Nov. 2. Molly Gibbs

On Twitter, Nikole Hannah-Jones describes herself as "the Beyoncé of journalism." Just like Beyoncé, Hannah-Jones is outspoken, blunt and not afraid to confront the challenges facing society head-on, with a stern look on her face and a determined attitude. The renowned reporter certainly lived up to her self-description when she spoke at the Newhouse School Nov. 2.

Hannah-Jones is best known for her work as an investigative reporter exploring the consequences of segregation of public schools across the United States. As a black child growing up in a segregated community in the 1980s, Hannah-Jones was bussed across town from her neighborhood to a predominantly white high school to gain a better education.

More than 20 years later, Hannah-Jones is still fighting for equality and the desegregation of public schools, a fight that stems all the way back to the 18th century, she says. "The fight for quality education for black children goes all the way back to when it was illegal to teach black slave children how to read," she said.

She recounted some of the gruesome protests that occurred after black students began attending majority white public schools. "We need to understand how violent the opposition was. And that opposition didn't go away. It just changed its character."

When Hannah-Jones first began covering race and education five years ago, she became more critical of other reporters in the same field, specifically ones who "weren’t dealing with the facts and [challenging] them."

"White reporters are considered neutral, as if they don't have a racial heritage or experience. As if their schools didn't look different from the schools black reporters went to," she said.

In 2016, Hannah-Jones’ fight for equality in the public school system became personal when she published the New York Times Magazine article “Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City.”The piece chronicled Hannah-Jones’ research and the journey that ultimately led her to enroll her child in a low-income, predominantly black public school.

"I wrote on education segregation for years, but not as a mother. Other reporters had children in schools that they weren't writing about—and they were the people they were condemning in their stories," she said.

Hannah-Jones told the audience that she never shies away from being subjective in her writing. "When it comes to injustice, I don't pretend to be objective at all; I think my job is to expose the hypocrisy. What makes me the writer I am is my belief that I am destined to bear witness to the injustices of this country, and so every sentence I write is formed by an ever-present rage," she said.

Hannah-Jones’ rage may be the spark that lights the fire, but her work and research are impeccably crafted and well thought-out. "I read everything I can find on what it is that I'm reporting. I seek out texts and research that is opposite the thing I am arguing. I think it's important to evaluate your argument from all sides," she said.

When asked to name the top three characteristics that made her a good reporter, Hannah-Jones listed stubborn, critical and questioning. "From a young age, I've always refused to believe something just because somebody told me it was so. I'm the one who broke it to my older sister that Santa Claus did not exist," she said.

As she concluded her presentation, Hannah-Jones provided the aspiring journalists in the room with valuable career advice.

"You know the stories you got into this to tell. It may hurt your career and take you longer… but you need to stick it out. I can't say you'll get the breakthrough but at least you'll have your integrity," she said.

Lauren Dana is a junior magazine major at the Newhouse School.