This is part five of the anticipated five-part Sonia Nazario Series for Writers. Read the rest of the series for writing insights from this Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist and author.
#1 Become an Investigative Journalist at an International Publication Using This Inside Track You Didn’t Know You Had
Writing is very hard. It’s a very lonely, solitary profession. I go from speaking to thousands of people a day to being locked up, trying to quiet my mind, to focus, to put one word in front of another. – Sonia Nazario
Mandy: You were the youngest person ever to be hired at the Wall Street Journal. Can you share with our future journalists how you did it?
Sonia: I used connections. I attended Williams College. They had an office that helped graduates get jobs. They had binders with information about alumni in particular fields willing to give Williams College students career advice. I applied to Mother Jones magazine, but they didn’t respond.
I wrote to a Williams graduate, who also happened to be the page one editor of the Wall Street Journal. I told him I wanted to cover Latin America; did he have any advice. I enclosed my resume. Within two weeks I was in NYC being interviewed and was offered a job as a news assistant.
Within months I moved from NYC to Atlanta and was offered a promotion as a reporter after writing just two feature stories.
The Wall Street Journal at the time didn’t have any hispanic reporters. They were looking to expand coverage of Latin America. I had very little newspaper experience, but I spoke three languages, had gone to a top-ranked college, and went at any task you gave me with 110%.
My editor in Atlanta knew he would have to teach me to write better, but I had a lot of the other skills and innate abilities that would make me a good reporter.
[Note: Notice that Sonia used connections she already had through her college’s career center to land a job at the Wall Street Journal. If you think you don’t know anyone in the writing field you want to get into, check with your university alumni association and career centers like Sonia did. Ask around. You never know what connections you may already have. And if one person can’t help you, move on to the next. This is your writing dream. Don’t let anyone tell you, No.]
#2 Maintain Neutrality: How Sonia Nazario Keeps Her Cool in The Face of Human Suffering (And Why You Should Too)
I have seen time and again that if I write the most powerful story possible, a greater good can come of that experience. I always think about that when journalistic ethical rules mean I cannot help the individual standing in front of me. -Sonia Nazario
Mandy: It must be hard to watch human suffering and not be able to help. How do you remain the neutral observer you have to be as an investigative journalist when so much suffering surrounds you?
Sonia: You are constantly feeling the push and pull of being a journalist, but also a human being.
Your first impulse is to help people in danger or who are miserable. But journalism, like any profession, has ethical rules—I largely cannot help anyone I am writing about unless they are in imminent danger.
These rules are part of the profession for good reasons.
Journalists are supposed to convey reality, not alter that reality and then write about it. That’s considered dishonest to readers. We don’t pay people for information because people may start to alter what they tell you—give you what they think you want to hear—in order to get paid.
Paying people for information can corrupt information. The rules are devised to be in service to readers. My goal is to sweep readers away with the story enough that they will want to read to the end—and maybe even act to improve some of the problems I describe.
To do this, to get the most compelling material possible, I often have to watch misery unfold.
For me, the hardest part of reporting Enrique’s Journey was having 30 or 40 people each day ask me for food or for help. If they were in imminent danger, I helped them. If they were miserable, I did not.
I watched that misery unfold and wrote about it.
I have seen time and again that if I write the most powerful story possible, a greater good can come of that experience. I always think about that when journalistic ethical rules mean I cannot help the individual standing in front of me.
#3 The Details That Bring Those “Dull But Important Issues” To Life for Your Readers
Mandy: It’s interesting that the issues at the root of human suffering—like immigration, poverty, and hunger—tend to be the issues that are hardest to bring to life in journalism. You called them dull but important issues, or DBIs, because readers feel burned out on these stories. They feel too big to engage with.
Can you share the techniques you use to turn those “dull but important” issues into compelling narratives so readers here can do the same in their writing? How did you make Enrique’s Journey, a story about DBI immigration reform, into a bestseller?
Sonia: I think if an issue touches many of us, it is inherently interesting. It is part of our lives and affects the quality of our life in some way.
But often issues like education, health care, drug abuse, and immigration are so big and amorphous it’s hard for people to get their arms around them. They are hard to understand.
We know there are a lot of problems, and in a way the size and complexity of these issues turns many people off to reading about them. So we have an inherent interest, but in a way these issues, and the solutions to the problems within these issues, seem so overwhelming we just turn away.
I think the way to get readers to re-engage is not to telegraph to readers that you are writing about a big issue—a DBI—but rather to tell them a story, a compelling story, that happens to be about a big issue. Take them inside the issue in an interesting way.
When I wrote about hunger in America, it was through the prism of more school boards coming under the control of religious right members who didn’t want their districts to avail themselves of federally-funded breakfast programs for children.
I showed in one middle school what happened when parents struggling between paying for rent and food meant they couldn’t always feed their children three times a day, how children arrived to school without having eaten, and how these children couldn’t focus and disengaged from learning. I showed how the political motives of adults left several children hungry at a middle school where there was a ready remedy: federal breakfast programs.
I try to put readers in the shoes of the people I am writing about, so they can understand, even empathize. That doesn’t mean they will agree with all of their choices—I often don’t—but they can start to understand.
I also think writers must focus not only on problems but on offering solutions. Reporters have often covered issues for decades. We are experts. We have ideas about what would work. But we continually only point out problems. I think that is a turn off to readers. I know it is for me.
Note: Sonia’s technique clearly works. The articles she mentioned here about the children’s breakfast program earned her first George Polk Award in 1994, which helped her spread awareness about this issue.
Check Out The Rest of This Series for Writers
These 5 unmissable articles brim with writerly insights, The Sonia Nazario Series for Writers. Did you catch them all?