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What would Queen Latifah do? Advice for the next generation of journalists
One of the highlights of Saturday's IJEA awards luncheon was the inspiring speech by Carla Jimenez of The State Journal-Register. Read on to find out what Queen Latifah has to do with great journalism!
June 10, 2015
NOTE: The following speech is reprinted with permission from the author, Carla Jimenez. She delivered it Saturday, June 6, at the annual IJEA awards luncheon in Springfield. The event, sponsored by the Illinois Press Foundation, took place at The State Journal-Register.
Hello. My name is Carla Jimenez, and I’m The Voice editor here at The State Journal-Register. It wasn’t all that long ago when I was your age, freshly graduated from high school and excited to start a career in journalism.
But even though I was optimistic for my future, I was still terrified. At first my parents were upset that I wasn’t interested in medicine, regardless of the fact that I literally couldn’t have done the math or science right to save my life let alone someone else’s, and people everywhere were telling me over and over again that newspapers were dying and I wasn’t going to get a job after I graduated college.
And on top of all of that, I went to the University of Missouri, which is one of the best journalism schools in the country. There I studied under hard-nosed journalists and Pulitzer Prize winners. I also studied with some of the best and brightest future journalists. So needless to say, all of this inspired a lot of anxiety and general panic.
By the time I got to my junior year, I started working as an education reporter for the Columbia Missourian, which is a daily newspaper run by the Missouri J-school. My editor’s name was Liz Brixey, and she was nothing short of amazing.
Anyone who’s ever met Liz Brixey or had her as a mentor will say the same thing. She was brilliant, hilarious, brave and sharp.
She was everything I wanted to be as a journalist and a person, but at 20 years old, it felt like it would take forever for me to even border where she was in terms of professionalism and general awesomeness.
My first story for her was covering the 15th anniversary of an elementary school in town. The school had planned this celebration with all the kids that involved food and noise and merriment, and when I heard about it, I thought at first it would make a great features story. I pitched it, and Liz put it on the budget, and we had a photographer lined up and everything.
But the day before the event itself, I started second-guessing myself, and the second guessing led to panic. It didn’t sound like a newsworthy story anymore. It sounded instead like a puff piece that wasn’t at all worthy of the Missourian.
I was scared that my fellow reporters would roll their eyes and judge me for coming up with such a stupid story. And I was absolutely certain that no one was going to want to read it. All in all, it started to look like a bad idea getting worse.
The afternoon before the event, I walked into Liz’s office and told her I didn’t want to do it anymore. I told her I didn’t think it was a newsworthy story and that I’d look for something better.
Well, Liz Brixey isn’t the kind of person who tolerates second-guessing. She looked up from her computer, pointed her finger at me and fixed me with the sternest expression I’d ever seen her wear, and she said: “No. Carla, you’re doing this. You pitched this story, it’s on the budget, the photographer’s been assigned and there will be a story. Do you understand? WWQLD?”
I stared at her in confusion, but before I could ask her what that meant, she shouted, “WHAT WOULD QUEEN LATIFAH DO?”
In my head I thought Queen Latifah probably wouldn’t have covered the story because she’s more important than the 15th anniversary of an elementary school in Columbia, Mo., but I didn’t say that. Instead I just nodded nervously and high tailed it out of her office.
When I got back to my apartment, I thought a little bit more about what Liz meant and Queen Latifah in general, which was more thought I’d given in my entire life. But when I think of Queen Latifah, I don’t think of a celebrity. I think of a force of nature. She’s a singer, rapper, comedienne, actress and overall amazing person. Also, she had her own talk show for a little while where she interviewed people, so you could even add journalist to her resume.
So what WOULD Queen Latifah do if she were in my shoes? Well for one thing, she probably wouldn’t run away from a story she pitched in the first place. For another thing, she’d probably use this as an opportunity to do some storytelling. Because she’s an artist, and that’s what artists are, right? Storytellers. And that’s ultimately what journalists are. We are true storytellers who make a difference.
The next day, I swallowed my panic. I went to that anniversary celebration, and I channeled my inner Queen Latifah. I told interviewed the students, the teachers and the administrators, and I got the story done.
It wasn’t going to win me any Pulitzers, but it was still somewhat of a milestone for me. It marked the first time I got to see my byline in a professional news publication, but it also marked the first time that I realized I could overcome my own terror and nervousness. And all because of Queen Latifah’s unwitting help.
A MANTRA FOR GREAT JOURNALISM
WWQLD soon became my mantra whenever self-doubt plagued me, and I used it a LOT. It grew to be more than just What Would Queen Latifah Do; to me, it became synonymous with what being a great journalist was all about. Thorough reporting, compelling storytelling and making a difference in a community.
WWQLD has gotten me through some of the best and some of the toughest moments in my career, and the one that really sticks out to me happened during my first full-time reporting gig.
After college, I became a staff writer at a daily newspaper in Hopkinsville, Ky., where I covered government and military affairs. Now, every journalist will tell you that you learn the most from your first job, and that was certainly true of Hopkinsville.
Even though there were times when I hated being so far away from home, hated how small the town was and hated the stuff I had to cover, I still learned so much about journalism and also about myself.
The staff at the Kentucky New Era was a small one, so even though my beats were government and military, I’d still have to cover stuff on other beats if someone was busy or on vacation or something.
In the spring of 2013, we got a press release from the police department detailing the arrest of a man who was charged with impersonating an officer. He was pretty thorough, too — not only did he have a jacket and the badge, his truck was outfitted, he had several firearms, cuffs, everything. It was an elaborate ruse, and one the police seemingly caught out of sheer luck.
My editor asked me to write up a quick report, and so I did. We mentioned the name of the man arrested, Steve Renfroe, and the charges, and we included pictures of the stuff the police confiscated. The next day it ran on the front page, and I didn’t think anything about it afterward.
A month later, police found his dead body on the side of a country road. The coroner ruled his death as a suicide, and his family was left to pick up the broken pieces of their lives.
THE POWER OF TRUE AND COMPASSIONATE STORYTELLING
The self-doubt that plagued me the day his body was found was nothing like I’d ever experienced before. I knew I was following the assignment my editor had given me, but I couldn’t stop thinking about what my involvement in his death might have been. If I hadn’t written that report, it wouldn’t have gone on the front page for the whole community to see, and maybe, just maybe, he wouldn’t have killed himself.
I started overthinking everything I wrote after that, trying to think through the consequences of every single story. But while I thought I was being more responsible, I eventually realized I was back to the same terrified college junior I thought I’d grown out of. So I returned to my old mantra: WWQLD?
In this case, Queen Latifah would have wanted to get the whole story. His arrest and those pictures and his suicide were just different facets of his story. And now that I’d already started, I couldn’t just give up and not tell the rest.
So I went to his widow. As you can probably imagine, she wasn’t all that interested in talking to me at first, but once again, I channeled Queen Latifah. In moments like these, I realized that it was important to be a human first, reporter second.
If I was going to tell Renfroe’s whole story, I needed to look at it from an entirely human perspective. His widow needed compassion, room to grieve and security to tell the story without fear of judgment. So that’s what I tried to give her. I interviewed her several times over the course of four weeks until I was certain I knew her husband almost as well as she did.
Then I talked to the other people in his life. I talked to his best friends while he was in the Army, the people he volunteered with. I talked to his young children and the police officer who arrested him.
I tried to get every single facet of this man’s life as I could, and I started to piece together the story of a veteran who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, who’d been discharged and lost his identity. A man who just wanted to relive the feeling of wearing a uniform and making a difference.
The story that eventually ran was the lede/center of a Saturday morning paper, and the community response was more than I could have expected. The people who knew Renfroe could rest easy knowing that their friend’s story was finally told, and the people who didn’t could empathize with his grieving family. And altogether the story raised the profile of suicide rates among soldiers and veterans, and since Hopkinsville is a military community, it was an important issue.
The Renfroe story illustrates to me why journalism is so important. It illustrates to me why it’s so necessary today. It also helps to explain why I love it so much and why I’ve dedicated my life to it.
A GENERATION READY TO SHAPE THE FUTURE OF JOURNALISM
There’s been a lot of talk recently if traditional journalists and traditional journalism still have a place in society. There are some who say that the Internet has replaced institutions like The New York Times or The Washington Post. There are some who say traditional journalists can’t be trusted. There are some who say that journalism is dead altogether, and the Internet is the new marketplace of ideas.
I could not disagree more. While it’s true that we’re in a rapidly changing media landscape, the need for dedicated journalists is still there. In a time when attention spans are getting shorter and shorter, when newspaper subscriptions are decreasing and newsrooms are shrinking and the public trust in legacy media is declining, being an accurate storyteller is more important than ever, and recognizing the life-changing stories is also an indispensible skill.
This doesn’t mean that the future of journalism isn’t going to change. It has to change, because adaptation is important to its survival. But that change starts with all of you.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned while working with the teens here as The Voice editor, it’s that the next generation is not only technologically savvy, but it’s resourceful as well. You use the many tools at your disposal to get things done, and if there isn’t a tool available, you make one.
And what’s more, your generation is so mindful of the global community you live in. You’ve grown to understand and respect more viewpoints than I ever could have when I was your age. For all the accusations of laziness and entitlement that have been unfairly attributed to your generation, I don’t think many people in the older generations truly realize the potential you have for making such an incredible difference.
Your careers are going to be bumpy, there’s no doubt about it. But my hope for all of you is that you find the editor or colleague who inspires you. That you find your own Queen Latifah, your own mantra that helps you overcome self-doubt.
The great American novelist Norman Mailer once said, “If a person is not talented enough to be a novelist, not smart enough to be a lawyer, and his hands are too shaky to perform operations, he becomes a journalist.”
Well, with all due respect to the late Mr. Mailer, I have to vehemently disagree. A person becomes a journalist because she has a million questions that she can’t shake, because she finds a compelling story, because she’s dedicated to the truth and because she wants to make a difference and change the world.
So if someone tells you that you’d be better off studying something different, don’t pay attention to them. When someone sneers at your major, shake your head and walk away. And when you find a story you’re certain is worth telling, ask yourself: What Would Queen Latifah Do?
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