To get an idea of the type of reporting Hannah Dreier ’08 does, it helps to know that the 2019 Pulitzer Prize winner keeps a water bottle and tissues in her bag during interviews. Dreier has been recognized for her feature writing on MS-13 in a three-part series published by ProPublica, a nonprofit hub for investigative journalism. In the wake of her big win last Monday, The Argus spoke with Dreier about her work as an immigration reporter, her time at Wesleyan, and her VIP stint in Las Vegas.
The Argus: First of all, congratulations! You must’ve had a crazy week.
Hannah Dreier: It’s been crazy. I’ve heard from everyone in my life: random friends, friends that I’m not friends with anymore, their parents…. It’s been wild.
A: So, you graduated in 2008. Could you tell us about getting into journalism after graduation?
HD: When I was at Wesleyan, I was really politically active, and I thought I was going to be an activist and do some sort of social justice job in D.C. But it turned out I really didn’t like that kind of work. I think I’m naturally too skeptical and have some natural problems with authority. So that was a really rude awakening to realize that the thing I thought I’d do was not what I enjoyed.
And it was also the recession, so it was a scary time, but luckily I got an internship at a newspaper in the Bay Area, and they were just willing to teach me everything. I came in with very few reporting skills and really learned on the job, covering these small towns. I made a lot of mistakes early on, and the people there were really generous…. I got to work with these editors who were really excited to teach me things, so that’s part of why my trajectory isn’t the typical Wesleyan graduate interested in journalism, just because I had no idea that’s what I wanted to do until I got out of college.
A: What were those reporting skills that you developed on the job?
HD: I did a couple articles for The Argus when I was at Wesleyan, and I had this idea that journalism is all about giving voice to the voiceless. Now, I see that as so wrong. I think I had this idea that journalism was about going into communities and doing people a favor by telling stories that otherwise wouldn’t be told. Like, a savior complex. Now I see that, no, people have their own voices and don’t need outsiders to explain what’s going on in their lives…. I see my job now as letting people explain what they’re going through and then talking about what I see when I go out reporting. And I have fewer ideas about how I’m going to save the world by doing this job.
A: Could you talk about how features reporting is unique and different from news coverage or other reporting styles?
HD: It’s funny to win this prize with these stories because I don’t think of them as especially writerly. They’re also pretty investigative in nature, more than what people would expect from a feature. What’s good about these stories is that there’s a lot of detail. I try to get as much detail and texture as I can fit into the pages. That’s what I like the best about reading features: that somebody went and really understood a place or person and took in everything that was happening without bias. I’ve just become really interested in how you get people to read stories on these bleak topics. In Venezuela especially, I got obsessed with how I was going to get U.S. readers to engage with this story that’s just so depressing. So that’s one reason why I really like features writing. At ProPublica, a lot of people do more straight investigations or investigations that are more focused on fact-finding. I’m just interested in finding ways to get readers to read to the end of the story, even if it’s hard to take.
A: You were saying that your M.O. is to get the reader to engage emotionally with these difficult topics, but you’re dealing with them everyday. How do you maintain a kind of personal distance from these intense topics you’re writing about?
HD: That’s not always easy. One thing that’s been helpful is to be really up-front with my sources about what I’m going to do. When you’re seeing somebody every week or every day and you’re super interested in their lives, sources can get confused and think you’re a friend or an advocate, and so now I try to explain at the outset exactly what I’m going to do and everything that I’m going to use. I tell them that they may not be happy with the story that comes out. That helps with my fears that I may be betraying my sources.
And then, as far as self-care…. If you’re writing a story and you’re hoping to create an emotional reaction from a reader, you have to be emotionally connected to it yourself. If you want to write a story that’s going to make someone cry, you’re probably going to end up crying along the way. I don’t think that can really be avoided. If you compartmentalize too much, you run the risk of a story that lacks compassion.
A: How did you become interested in immigration and MS-13 more specifically?
HD: It wasn’t something I had ever thought about before. I moved back from Venezuela in 2017, and it was so complicated trying to move back from that country that I didn’t do any prep work before coming to ProPublica. So I got there, and they said, “You’re going to be covering immigration. Do whatever you want.” So that was pretty overwhelming. But Trump happened to give a speech on Long Island the month I started, talking about MS-13. I went out there and was thinking that this story was overblown, that immigrants were more scared of ICE than this boogie-man gang. It was a lesson in the importance of getting on the ground because that was not the story at all. When I got there, people told me that they were really terrified of this gang and that they were going to the police and they weren’t helping them. So that became the story, but that was something I never could’ve imagined from the office.
A: Could you tell us about your time working for the Associated Press in Las Vegas?
HD: That was such a funny job. How did that even happen? I had never been to Vegas before taking that job. I had been an intern at the Associated Press [AP] in California, and that was the job they had open as my internship was ending, so I took it. It was a really fun, different kind of reporting. Like, no one asked me about self-care when I was doing that job. AP was the only national news organization in Las Vegas, so people would lobby me to come to things. So I was 24, and everybody was begging me to come to their casinos or see the opening of Britney Spears’ residency. I would pull up in my beater car and then go see this Britney show and write a review, and the review would go everywhere because the AP was the only thing there. That really helped me learn to write for a national audience and got me interested in issues of framing and making people interested in somewhere they’ve never been. All journalists should have something like this: pure joy and no drama.
A: You’ve talked some about how important it is to frame your stories and make them appeal to mass audiences. What was the message you wanted to send with these three prize-winning pieces?
HD: I’m really glad that people are reading them again now because of this prize…. My goals were pretty simple. There was actually policy impact that followed from these stories, like the DHS [U.S. Department of Homeland Security] started an investigation, and both the school systems and police departments on Long Island made some adjustments. It’s also been great to hear from people who haven’t thought about these issues in this way. Someone wrote to me and told me that, for the first time, they feel compassion for an illegal immigrant…. I think that’s the highest thing these stories can do, to open people’s minds to a more empathetic view of the world. My editor and I talked about how we wanted to work on stories that not only appealed to people who already cared about immigrants, but also to people who support the border wall.
A: You just mentioned instances when a white audience might discover things about immigration that they didn’t realize before. How do you navigate your own position as a white-presenting, highly educated American? How do you work with this “outsidership” when you enter these spaces?
HD: I try to exploit my privilege as much as I can in the service of these stories. On Long Island, I could often just go into meetings, and no one would notice me. So I saw a lot of things that police officials would’ve been a lot happier if I hadn’t seen…. I do have a lot of privilege, and to work with that is not by denying it, but by using it…. Another thing I try to do is to report deeply enough so I can tell a story that feels true. That’s a luxury that not everyone can have, but at ProPublica I have the luxury of time to look at all sides. I grew up with a single mom, and we got evicted, and we didn’t always have that much money, and I still feel offended by the coverage on broken homes. They’re often portrayed as really tragic and that single mothers are these saintly women, or they’re portrayed as the scourge of society. Both of these portrayals are false. In my own reporting, I try to be very diligent in really seeing what’s happening.
A: I think it’s a general challenge to tell someone else’s story when you know you’re not coming from the same place.
HD: Yeah, but I haven’t written about single-mother families, and I don’t think we should ghetto-ize people by forcing them to cover what they come from. If only immigrants could tell immigrant stories, that’s where we might end up.
A: How do you build trust with your sources?
HD: I think it’s so important to be upfront at the beginning and to make it clear that I’m not their advocate. A lot of the people I was reporting on, both in Long Island and in Venezuela, had very little concept of what journalism looks like. On Long Island, some of these families were low-literacy, so I doubt they could read my stories all the way through. I tried to talk to them about the fall-out of these stories…. With the MS-13 informant, we actually gave him the opportunity to have us kill the story, just because the story might increase the risk to his life, and we wanted to make sure he completely understood that.
I’m also worried that people might have too much trust in me and that I might violate it because they don’t understand what I’m really doing. I don’t find that people are so mistrustful that they won’t let me in. If you show up and are really interested in what’s happening, I think most people will be glad and will let you follow them around. What I worry about is how they’ll feel when the story runs.
A: Is there any practical knowledge you could give to aspiring journalists?
HD: I used to worry more about retraumatizing my sources…and I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable doing an interview where the person just cries for five hours, and that’s the interview…. That kind of thing used to make me stop and feel like I was doing it wrong, but now I know that that’s just part of the process. Some people will cry a lot, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want to tell their stories…. My advice would be not to be timid and not to worry so much about whether people really want to be talking to you. Immigrants, especially, are so resilient, and I think I used to treat people like they’re more fragile than they are. My other advice is to always have tissues and a bottle of water in my bag.
A: What’s next for you?
HD: Right now, I’m working on a straight investigation, so a total departure for me. It’s been nice. You all were asking about self-care, so it’s nice to do a story that doesn’t require self-care; it’s a basic exposing-wrongdoing story. Generally, I feel like I have so much more to learn. I’m so inspired by all the long-form work that everyone’s doing. I’m excited to keep doing that kind of story and figuring out new ways to get people to read all the way to the end. Right now, that feels really good to be doing and such an urgent time to be covering these immigration and social justice issues.
A: Is there anything else you want to say to Argus readers?
HD: Yes, I want to talk about Wesleyan! I feel really grateful to have gotten to go to Wesleyan. Wesleyan gave me enormous amounts of financial aid, and it was incredible to be able to go there. Wesleyan taught me that journalism could be really fun. I lived with the Argus Editor-in-Chief my senior year, and everyone on the paper was so smart and nerdy and full of energy, and I feel like that’s what it’s like to be in a newsroom. Wesleyan is where I got to see that for the first time.
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