Nikole Hannah-Jones Matters (To Education Journalism In Particular)

Nikole Hannah-Jones, arguably the most prominent education writer in the nation (through the lens of race and class), unexpectedly became a central figure in a controversy over women in journalism, white male privilege, the New York Times’ coverage of race, and journalists of color. 

Almost single-handedly, Hannah-Jones has put the issue of school segregation back on the journalistic map. She won the EWA top award last year — even before her This American Life piece came out. (She’s a possible two-time winner for that work).

While minor, the incident highlights issues facing female journalists of color that are important for education journalists (many of whom are women) and education journalism (which often focuses on people of color).

Things got kicked off last Wednesday when New York Times published a story (Gay Talese Goes Through the Twitter Wringer) about how much-admired writer Gay Talese had ignited a Twitterstorm over comments he’d made about women writing nonfiction. In it, he made an accusation against Hannah-Jones, who had both criticized his comments on a panel and also greeted him in person.

“She’s a serious journalist, and I respect her. How could she be so duplicitous as to write me off with a quote?”

Hannah-Jones had declined to comment for the story, but apparently hadn’t known about the opportunity to address the specific criticism Talese made against her.

In response, the NYT’s Dean Baquet issued a highly unusual critique of the story and a public apology to Hannah-Jones (A ‘Flawed Story’ on Gay Talese), which some (NYT public editor Margaret Sullivan) thought was appropriate and others (like the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple) thought was unnecessary or even problematic.

Riffing off a piece in Rewire (Meet the Journalist Talese Insulted), NY Magazine  published a followup piece about the Talese/Hannah-Jones encounter in which she recounted how the 84 year old writer had asked her how she got her job and whether she was going to get her nails done (Gay Talese Asks Prominent Writer About Her Nails).

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Far as I know, nobody’s seen or published the selfie that Hannah-Jones and Talese apparently took together. Not sure it matters, but I’d still love to see it. 

What to make of it all?

First and foremost, if you don’t know Hannah-Jones’ work, you really should remedy that. Agree or disagree with her journalism and advocacy on school (and newsroom) integration, she’s a powerful voice.  

“If you’re a white journalist who grew up in a community where your interactions with police are respectful, where your schools aren’t segregated and you have quality teachers, that is is definitely going to bleed into how you’re covering schools…” (Lack Of Diversity Skews School Coverage)

More immediately, her encounter with Talese highlights issues that white (male) journalists might need to consider when communicating with journalists who are of a different generation, gender, and race. It’s hard to imagine an education journalist saying some of the over-the-top things Talese said to Hannah-Jones, but I’m guessing there’s no shortage of micro-aggressions and privilege-based dynamics going on with education teams and newsrooms.

Want to read more on this? See pieces in Slate, Jezebel.

Related posts: Nikole Hannah-Jones Is EverywhereSome Questions About This American Life’s School Integration StorySchool Segregation’s Back (In the News).

Alexander Russo

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who has created several long-running blogs such as the national news site This Week In Education, District 299 (about Chicago schools), and LA School Report. He can be reached on Twitter at @alexanderrusso, on Facebook, or directly at alexanderrusso@gmail.com.