Photo: Silvia Sala
Photo: Silvia Sala

Sarah Stillman’s Six Reporters to Follow

In most parts of life, I’m a fiendish scribbler of lists (to-dos, to-reads, to-repents, etc.), but when it comes to this particular assignment – enumerating some of the “emerging women reporters” I’ve relished of late – I’ve hit a simple hurdle. It’s not that I’m at a loss for names; right now, the world is so alive with female foreign correspondents and investigative journalists I admire that it’s hard to know where to start or stop. Nor is it the limitations of the format; as much as I nodded this past spring when Roxane Gay wrote for Slate, “I cannot believe we need to count and point out worthy women writers like we’re begging for scraps at the table of due respect,” I still appreciate the chance to trumpet the names of writers I value.

Really, the problem is this: the voices that have recently shaped my thinking belong to a genre-defiant hodgepodge, one that makes the very idea of tidy lists feel antiquated, and the concept of “emerging” too reliant on outmoded hierarchies to be of much use. Many of these women diverge across platforms, and they’re less likely than ever to count themselves among the established tribe of conventional magazine journalists – or even, in many cases, to call themselves journalists at all. Here, for instance, I’m thinking about Mariame Kaba’s Twitter feed, which has given me a more complex language for thinking about prisons, punishment and justice, or the equally kaleidoscopic online voice of the seasoned writer and filmmaker dream hampton, who not only shared her fierce intellect and wit across social media this year, but who also trained readers to recognize how much creative labor performed in both digital and off-line worlds gets coopted or outright erased by traditional news sources. I love the widely-adored e-newsletter of journalist Ann Friedman, and the online snatches of Twitter-poetry by Patricia Lockwood, and so much more that doesn’t seem to fit perfectly into certain rigid, pre-hyperlinked definitions of “reportage.”

Even so, magazine features remain my most gratifying units of consumption, and so, without further ado, a short list of women reporters—both traditional and otherwise—I’ve been admiring:

1. Kiera Feldman

I’ve appreciated Feldman’s work since I first encountered it in the unexpected investigative oasis that is This Land Press, a newish non-profit storytelling outlet based out of Oklahoma. “Grace in Broken Arrow,” her first lengthy piece for This Land, stood out for the quiet, unflinching manner in which it deconstructs a sex abuse scandal at a Christian school outside Tulsa. Feldman’s writing in the article is searing but never sensational, and her meticulous approach to reporting tough details has since carried over to other hard-to-tell stories.

Earlier this year, for instance, Feldman investigated the mishandling of sexual assault allegations at an elite evangelical college, Patrick Henry, for The New Republic. The result, “Sexual Assault at God’s Harvard,” showed how a reporter’s doggedness can complement her empathy, rather than undermine it. As the question of how to responsibly cover campus sexual assaults looms large, Feldman’s work stands out as a model for how to match narrative richness with required rigor.

2. Melissa del Bosque

Del Bosque is one of the most fearless, full-hearted reporters I know, and her work for The Texas Observer constantly brings fresh insight to the often-tired border beat. Del Bosque writes at every register: one week, it’s a short bit of breaking news from the U.S. side of the Rio Grande; the next, it’s an in-depth piece of foreign correspondence on “The Deadliest Place in Mexico.”

3. Sarah Topol and Glenna Gordon

This fall, Topol wrote a haunting story for Matter on the kidnapping of 276 Nigerian schoolgirls by Boko Haram; it brought the voices of girls who’d escaped such violence to the fore, where they belong. Reported at real risk under difficult circumstances, “If We Run and They Kill Us, So Be It. But We Have to Run Now” was published at a moment when many U.S. readers had already forgotten the mass abduction and the complex subplots that swirled around it. The story also came alive through the photography of Glenna Gordon, whose recent body of global work bears a powerful form of witness: she captures artifacts and haunted material traces of those who’ve been seized, slaughtered, or disappeared.

Bonus addition: Alexis Okeowo has done brave reporting on the Chibok abductions as well, and her wide-ranging work in the region is worth following.

4. Azmat Khan

One of the things I’m really looking forward to in 2015, as a reader, is following the migration of Al Jazeera’s Khan to Buzzfeed, where she’ll be working with their expanding investigative team. Last year, Khan’s multi-media work from Michigan, “No Seat at the Table: The Invisible Victims of Detroit’s Bankruptcy,” offered just what its title promised: portraits of those whose economic and emotional fates were radically altered by a set of financial policies that were rarely debated outside the language of wonk-speak, and certainly not in the language of intimate human impacts for which Khan has a gift.

Khan is just one of the extremely smart women raking muck for Buzzfeed now. Another is Jina Moore, who spent part of this past year doing the high-stakes work of covering Ebola, and whose earlier writings on responsible trauma coverage should be mandatory reading.

5. Mehret Mandefro and Lacey Schwartz

Although this film-making duo breaks the rules of this list a bit (I warned as much), they helped craft two remarkable movies this year that stand out as examples of how the journalistic eye can be brought to bear on diverse forms of visual storytelling. The first of the films, Difret (written and directed by Mandefro’s husband, Zeresenay Berhane Mehari, and produced by Mandefro with an impressive team, including Schwartz), dramatizes the true story of an Ethiopian teenage girl on trial for killing the man who abducted her for marriage. Cast and shot entirely in Ethiopia, the film sheds conventional victimization plotlines and offers a nuanced depiction of child-bride abductions – most notably, the cultural and legal forces that sustain them. At its center is the story of a remarkable woman attorney, Meaza Ashenafi, who waged a courtroom battle against those entrenched systems, and won. The second of the two films, Little White Lie, is a documentary that follows Schwartz as she digs her way out of the tunnels of racial secrets and silences that defined her own growing-up.

6. Paige Williams

Williams is a name you likely know already, if you’re someone who seeks out the best long-form writing in nearly any category: on crime, on health, on the art world and its challengers. Still, I rarely miss a chance to gush about her work, which I’ve followed since Atlanta Magazine published “You Have Thousands of Angels Around You,” her remarkable 2007 story about a young refugee from Burundi who sets out to build a new life in the American South. I teach the feature to graduate students who are routinely moved to tears by it – Williams’ tremendous powers of deep listening, and of reportorial craft, are woven into every word. More recently, Williams has tackled everything from death-row politics to illicit dinosaur-bone dealings; I hold my breath for each new piece.

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