Those community connections have been evident through much of Jennings’ reporting career. She is not afraid to draw on her personal experience — as a non-native, a Black woman, a wife and mother — in her story selection and approach.
At the 2021 Power of Narrative conference, hosted by Boston University, Jennings shared her thoughts in a session titled “Mine Your Life Experience to Find and Tell Authentic Stories.” It also could have been called “Bringing Yourself to Work.”
The talk, followed by a vibrant Q&A, drew on a range of Jennings’ work: intimate stories with relatives of slain rapper Nipsey Hussle; the profile of a Black Santa working a shopping mall in South L.A.; a heartbreaking story of a nurse who watched, helpless, as her father died of COVID.
Jennings said she feels an affinity for Issa Rae, who created and stars in the HBO hit series “Insecure,” about a young professional navigating the challenging terrain of Los Angeles. She also criticized “unbalanced” media coverage of South L.A., where the community’s rich Black history is eclipsed by stories about gangs and violence.
Her Zoom Q&A touched on being in the community, building trust and balancing the personal with the objective. Our highlights of that conversation have been edited for length and clarity.How do you reconcile the traditional journalistic notions of objectivity and detachment with the idea of drawing on your own life experiences?
We are taught to not bring ourselves into our work — like we don’t have to bring ourselves into the work. Objectivity and neutrality are the backbone of journalism and we should definitely strive for those things. At the same time, truth and fairness should be more at the forefront of telling stories that actually elevate communities and people — and those are human experiences.
What kind of receptivity are you seeing from editors to elevate journalists with authentic voices on community experiences? For example, does it feel like it’s a priority for editors to have L.A. natives reporting on L.A. stories?
I’m not from L.A., so I bring a different perspective. I come with a different lens, and that’s good and bad. So much of what we see is how we process what we see in real-time. I do think it’s important to try to elevate people from the community, and we tried to do that in a variety of ways, such as broadening our selection of sources. In my new role, I’m hoping to engage a little bit more. But right now, it’s the normal application processing to bring in voices from the community.
How do you build trust with various communities in ways that help identify authentic story ideas?
Being in the community. That’s the easiest way to build trust. And you don’t have to live there to be there.
We’re working from home now; you can see my virtual office in the background. But even before coronavirus, every couple of days I would work from what I call my satellite offices in South L.A. I had a Starbucks in Compton I would work at. I had a coffee shop in Limerick Park. Another, like my favorite Starbucks in Ladera Heights, closed down because they had built a drive-thru. They actually called that Starbucks the “Blackbucks” because it was just so rich with Black culture. There would be people who would play chess and stay there all day. I was there listening to people, introducing myself, talking about the stories I was working on.
I didn’t just stay isolated in my newsroom. That’s so easy to do. The hard thing to do is to be out in the community and be vulnerable and experience what they’re experiencing.
This is not just about communities of color. This is true if you’re covering the cop beat or city hall or all these stories about policy and politicians. At the heart of them, they impact people who live – taxpayers, residents, people who call this community home, who elected these people to these positions. So you should really be out in the community trying to find and put people into your phone, grabbing numbers, business cards, so when something happens, you have a Rolodex of just ordinary people that you can reach out to and help you to add context to a story.
I’m wondering if you have ever been kept off of a story that’s deeply related to your life experience because the editors worried about bias. How do you push back against that and fight to cover those stories?
It’s disheartening to hear that people are being told they couldn’t tell stories because of how they grew up. That’s just not a fair narrative, to think that people cannot tell stories because they have some kind of personal connection to it. I have not had that happen to me. In fact, I’m able to tell these stories because my editors probe me to go deeper: What are the things that have impacted you? Is that happening here? Is there something different?
I would tell an editor that it’s unfair for them to say that you cannot tell a story that is unbiased because you lived a certain life experience. In fact, you will be able to tell it better, because you have the nuances of knowing the flip side of things, of knowing the motivations, the desperation, the aspirations, the emotional toll. All of those things will inform your writing and make the narrative that much better.Bonus: Jennings mentioned people to follow who exemplify the power of narrative informed by personal experience:
- Saidu Tejan-Thomas Jr.: In his podcast “Resistance,” he tells his own story then brings in voices of people from the community.
- Kurt Streeter: The New York Times reporter reflects on the police killings of Black men in an essay about the vigilance required when he heads out for a jog, which he sees as a parable living as a Black man in America.
- Marissa Evans joined The Los Angeles Times earlier this month as a health reporter after reporting at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis and The Texas Tribune. In a story last year for The Atlantic, she wrote about “The Relentlessness of Black Grief.”
You can watch the full recording of Jennings’ session here:
Rachael L. Kelley is a Boston University graduate student studying journalism.