Isabel Wilkerson, Journalism


Isabel Wilkerson is a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist, a professor of ethics, and a historian. Above all, she's a teller of stories. She is known for her narrative reporting, referred by some writers as 'the journalism of empathy.'

"Storytelling is as old as fire," she says. "People will always want to hear a good story."

The James M. Cox Professor of Journalism arrived at Emory in 2006 after having served as the Chicago Bureau Chief of The New York Times. In that capacity, she won the 1994 Pulitzer Prize in feature writing for "First Born, Fast Grown: The Manful Life of Nicholas, 10," the story of a boy growing up on the South Side of Chicago, and for her heart-rending dispatches on the aftermath of the Midwest Floods of 1993. Good narrative reporting requires an intensive engagement in the world being described - a commitment to understanding everyday life from an insider's perspective. The narrative journalist, says Wilkerson, "draws from the strengths of ethnography" to understand both the cultural contexts and the private lives of those whose stories she is telling.

This in-depth form of journalism means that Wilkerson often spends months researching and writing a story. Hers is not five-minute-phone-interview reporting. To prepare for "First Born, Fast Grown," she spent weeks with ten-year-old Nicholas Whitiker, his mother, and his siblings, all of whom lived in a third-floor walkup in the Englewood section of Chicago, which Wilkerson described in her article as a "forlorn landscape of burned-out tenements and long-shuttered storefronts." She accompanied Nicholas wherever he went, immersing herself in the world of a young boy whose mother, a recovering drug user, was struggling to put herself through college.

In 2005, Wilkerson returned to do a follow-up piece, "Angela Whitiker's Climb," which became the final installment of a major New York Times series, entitled Class Matters, and a subsequent book by the same name. The article told the story of Nicholas's mother as she worked her way through nursing school, earned her degree, found a job, and tentatively entered the middle class. Later, that year, The Times assigned her to cover the uprooting of people scattered far from home in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

For Wilkerson, drawing readers into the worlds of people like Nicholas and Angela Whitiker requires more than time. It also demands ethical representation. Especially in the United States, where standards for objective reporting preclude the previewing of an article by the people written about, journalists must be "absolutely fastidious" about their standards, she says. "You have to make sure that you truly understand this other person's world if you're going to presume to write about it."

Wilkerson's current project demonstrates a similar passion for ethical storytelling. She is completing a book about the "Great Migration" of African-Americans from the American South to the urban North during the first two-thirds of the twentieth century. The research has taken her back to 1915, when newspapers in the North began to comment on what would become one of the largest demographic shifts in the United States in the twentieth century.

At the heart of Wilkerson's book are the stories of three individuals who were migrants in the early- and mid-twentieth century. She screened more than 1500 candidates to find her three interview subjects. Then she spent the better part of eight years gaining the trust of these elderly respondents, listening to their stories of uprooting and resettlement, retracing their journeys out of the South and conducting research on their lives and the lives of others like them in six states across the country.

Says Wilkerson: "They faced a heartbreaking choice, living in the South at that time." They could stay in their home towns, where Jim Crow laws remained in effect; or they could leave the only places they had ever known, pull up stakes, and move themselves and their families to new cities - usually sight unseen. Those who chose to migrate often did so, Wilkerson says, because they could not tolerate a life without dignity.

"Each of them experienced different outcomes and fortunes," she says of her respondents. "But none of them regretted their decision."

Over time, the project has taken on a new urgency, as all three of her main subjects have passed away. For Wilkerson, who attended each funeral, their deaths make retrieving these stories all the more necessary. "The work went from journalism into history overnight," she says of the challenge of completing the work without her respondents and only archival material to rely upon. She continues to stay in contact with their family members.

In the classroom, Wilkerson prepares students to become the next generation of journalists in an age of media transition. Next spring, she's teaching an interdisciplinary course, "Storytelling and American Society," which will integrate resources from anthropology and journalism. She examines with her students the identity crisis facing today's newspapers. As financial pressures increase and new media become faster providers - and deciders - of headlines, some say the era of print journalism is approaching an end. Wilkerson disagrees. Newspapers possess two strengths that faster outlets lack: a deep bench of seasoned journalists and a tradition of in-depth reporting. "I'm a huge believer in newspapers," she says. "Studies have shown that what pulls readers in the most, what draws them, is the narrative element."

And with storytellers like Wilkerson, those readers keep coming back.