On the Nuances of Journalism


Nikole Hannah-Jones discusses how to tell stories about race and social injustices with writer Cheryl Thompson at Friday night’s soiree.

Neha Desaraju, Reporter

I’m thriving is what I told my friend from home when she called.

I meant it—although we were told to produce a multimedia package and a project of our own in what was essentially two days, the challenge was new and more than thrilling. 

Friday night, I wore denim shorts and our camp T-shirt for the casual dinner. We would be introduced to our speaker of the night over tacos and nachos. 

That night, I took pictures, mostly. Since I usually write, edit, and talk on a podcast, photos were a good break from my norm. Reminding myself that I’m not doing a good job if I am comfortable, my Converse shuffled across the concrete warehouse floor as a pantheon of writers listened to race writer Nikole Hannah-Jones. I grew more bold. I grew more defiant.

Perhaps it was her words. Perhaps it was that, when I was taking pictures from my iPhone, they were some of the best I had ever taken—the angles, the lighting, the purposefulness in each one. Perhaps it was because what struck me was that I was listening not on how to do journalism, but rather how to process it—how to experience the world around me both as a journalist and as a person.

“Neutral positions are useless.”

Nikole Hannah-Jones spoke with the conviction of someone who knew the characters she created like they were the back of her hand. Both echoing my own beliefs and adding on to them, Hannah-Jones brought many of the newest ideas to my one-year repertoire of journalism.

The most important part of the conference was the continued discussion on how to tell a nuanced story. From session two’s  reporting the “small” people to session 9’s investigative stories on justice in the community, there is a way to tell a story in which the subject is the main character.

The story is not in the event but the people. We come back to read investigations because of our favorite characters not the events that take place. Watching the Jessie finale at 1 a.m. in the hotel room made me realize that even now, we relate to Ravi, Zuri, Luke and Emma because of who they were, not because they lived in a New York penthouse.

Because I had nothing better to do, I also watched Ice Age: Continental Drift the next morning and again was reminded of how the plot line is the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen, the characters weirder. No one would think that a viewer could relate to a mammoth and saber-toothed tiger (although perhaps a sloth). But Manny’s and Diego’s dry humor wonderfully clashing with Sidd’s dumb antics makes one say #mood.

This could be us.

Just as Jeff Maysh did not tell a story about the McDonald’s scandal but instead one about the 52 defendants and clown involved, point of views are the most useful tool a writer can use. Sonia Nazario would not have been able to give a powerful speech or write a powerful story if she had not followed the path of one particular immigrant. Not hundreds, not even herself, but one little boy.

As humans, we vie for this relatability to characters in stories. I heard a common theme on Saturday: as humans, we have always been telling other people’s history.

We are storytellers, after all.

Follow Neha on Twitter @nehades_ or see her other work at nehadesaraju.myportfolio.com.