Journalist Sonia Nazario never used to get involved in her stories. She saw her role as that of an observer, presenting impartial narratives to readers without intervening in her subjects’ lives. She wrote about schoolchildren so hungry they passed out on the playground, and followed the children of addicts into crack dens, all the while maintaining the journalistic distance required for unbiased reporting. “I focused on people I felt didn’t get enough ink: women, children, poor, Latinos,” and considered her choice of stories a form of activism, she said during a keynote address at the College of Communication Power of Narrative Conference last Saturday. “Sometimes I had to witness people in pain or danger to write the most powerful story that might bring systemic change or reforms.” Still, “some readers were blistering. Was I a reporter or a human being?” she recalled being asked.
It was “Enrique’s Journey,” a six-part Los Angeles Times series that netted her a Pulitzer Prize in 2003, that transformed Nazario into an advocate, and it was the subject of her address. The annual three-day conference brought journalists from across the world to the George Sherman Union, where they shared advice for developing their craft, delved into the complex ethics of investigative journalism, and compared strategies for storytelling in a digital age.
“Enrique’s Journey,” which Nazario expanded into an eponymous bestselling book, centers on 16-year-old Enrique, one of the tens of thousands of children (52,000 in 2014 alone) who journey every year through Mexico to the United States to reunite with mothers who had left them behind in a desperate search for work. Nazario retraced Enrique’s 1,600-mile route from Honduras through Central America and Mexico, often riding atop freight trains. Many of these children are beaten, robbed, and raped by gangsters, who steal—then ransom—the scraps of paper with their mothers’ phone numbers. Children as young as seven leave home to come here, because the alternative is worse, Nazario told the audience. In their own country, they are conscripted into gangs and raped, under the threat of death and the annihilation of everyone they love: “That will tell you everything you need to know about whether a wall will work,” she said.
That wasn’t the weekend’s first—or last—reference to the policies and actions of President Donald J. Trump. The theme of this year’s conference, Telling True Stories in Turbulent Times, was in direct response to the president’s “scornful notion that journalists are ‘the lowest form of life,’” wrote conference founder and codirector Mark Kramer, a COM journalism lecturer and a former COM professor, in his program notes. The day before the conference opened, Trump fired off a tweet at the media for its reporting of alleged ties between his administration and the Russian government: “Just watched the totally biased and fake news reports of the so-called Russia story on NBC and ABC. Such dishonesty!”