When Journalists Make The Story About Themselves

This WNYC video shows Nikole Hannah-Jones and her daughter going to school.

There’s a tremendous power that can come when a reporter puts her or himself into a news story, combining reported facts with personal insight and detail not often available to an outsider.

But there are also some risks.

Nikole Hannah-Jones’ decision to write about the Brooklyn rezoning dispute from a personal perspective in the latest NYT Sunday Magazine is a good opportunity to explore the pros and cons of the personal reported narrative — and to hear what those who have tried it have to say about the experience.

Personal essays, or reported pieces including personal elements, are pretty much everywhere these days. You can see them on the Atlantic’s education page, in Vox, in Slate. Modern Love columns in the New York Times are a well-known example. BuzzFeed, CNN, VICE, and the Washington Post also regularly feature them. There are so many of them that the Washington Post published a piece not too long ago about how personal narratives had “conquered” journalism.

The upside is that these pieces carry an immediacy and authenticity that only the best traditional journalism seems to match. In highlighting thoughts and feelings, they tend to generate strong feelings of connection with readers, linking what can be obscure policy issues with real lives and consequences.

The potential downsides to reporters putting themselves (or their children) front and center in their writing is that doing so can hinder their perceived credibility as “objective” journalists by readers, hinder their skepticism or critical thinking about an issue that is so close to home, or skew media attention towards the somewhat insular and atypical concerns of reporters and editors. There’s also the issue of exposing oneself and family members to public scrutiny and potential criticism.

But what do those who’ve attempted this form have to say?

One of the main considerations, according to WNYC’s Rebecca Carroll, is how it will affect her family. Carroll wrote about her own school choice decision just a few days ago in Choosing a School When Race is the Main Concern. She also writes an opinion column for The Guardian where she regularly includes personal experiences.

However, the main challenge covering education, according to Carroll, is “finding a way to make it feel like a necessary conversation even if you don’t have kids.” And one of the main benefits of putting herself in the story is that it allows her to write from inside a world “that is so often written about in such a brash, disconnected way under the guise of journalistic objectivity.”

Whether it’s about racial segregation in New York City or anything else, writing about it personally helps give her pieces extra energy. “I’m on the ground, in my black skin, writing for and about us.”

Earlier this year, educator Amy Simone Piller wrote a piece about diversity at her school (I’m a New York City school administrator. Here’s how segregation lives on) for Vox. She sent a draft to the principal over the summer to get some idea of how the piece was going to go over, but generally got a better response than she expected. “I was expecting more irritation or frustration.”

And she was also glad that her piece had put an educator’s experience at the forefront of a story. “It’s hard to remember sometimes that being a practitioner gives you a voice.”

Not everyone has a universally positive experience taking this approach. Chicago-based freelancer Maureen Kelleher wrote last year about her child’s experiences attending school while experiencing an evolving sense of gender identity (The Trouble with Pronouns).

Kelleher says that “it can feel like your are selling your kid’s story in the service of your own work.” There’s also the issue of preserving your child’s privacy. And “people can really slam you in comments about your kid (that’s pretty emotionally challenging to take even the risk).”

The criticism of personal choices and family members is an issue that Hannah-Jones is well aware of.  She declined to be interviewed for this piece but recently wrote a column about her experience for the Times (A Reporter Is in the Center of a Story She Covered), describing how surreal it was last summer to be reporting on an issue that hit so close to home, and how she decided to write about NYC segregation from a personal perspective.

While initially she’d wanted to keep a wall between her work and home life, eventually she felt compelled to write about what she was going through personally. It wasn’t easy, Hannah-Jones writes, exposing her family’s internal issues to the public and to acquaintances, and limiting the potential impact on her child’s experience at the school she still attended.

“In the end, what I produced is probably my most nuanced exploration of the challenges of, and the mandate for, integration. And, as I expected, it touched a nerve with readers, prompting hundreds of emails, comments and social media posts. I am proud of it. But mostly, I am relieved it is done.”

In some ways, education reporters can’t help but bring personal experiences into their stories, even when they don’t mention themselves. Their experiences as students, teachers, or parents is part of their framework as journalists and often generates story ideas and angles.

Crossing the line into making one’s own personal experience a part of the story has obvious appeal and power, but carries with it some short-and long-term considerations that probably should be kept in mind. In the case of Hannah-Jones’ story, there was really no other way for her to write about segregation in New York City, and she is already so closely identified with the issue of integration that there was somewhat less at risk. For other writers, the end result might be different.

Related posts: When Education Reporters Share Their Own ExperiencesNikole Hannah-Jones MattersHusband Of NYT’s Race & Class Reporter Involved In Brooklyn School Dispute.

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.