Sheila Raghavendran

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Testimonial: It wasn’t until Voices that I worked with a minority-majority team

This testimonial for the Asian American Journalists Association’s VOICES program originally appeared on the AAJA VOICES blog.

I’ve lived all my 20 years in America’s Heartland. Because of that, I’ve been in several rooms – classrooms, newsrooms – where I am one of few people of color. It’s afforded me an inevitable toughness.

It wasn’t until Voices that I worked with a minority-majority team.

Over the summer, our class logged onto weekly virtual training sessions with minority professional journalists. One week, we talked with a journalist about how to combat prejudice in newsrooms. We shared challenges we faced as minorities in our newsrooms, and the minority journalist gave us sympathy and advice on how to speak up.

For me, speaking up had often been a lonely responsibility – talking with the group was a realization of solidarity. It was comforting and motivating.

That motivation only gained momentum from my group’s story. Over three months, we tackled an ambitious investigation into America’s newsroom diversity, fueling our adrenaline each time we scored another morsel of information or fiery quote. We talked to minority reporters and editors, inadvertently previewing what could be our future experiences as minority journalists.

Our Voices faculty championed us through the deadline. We posted the story at the end of a 15-hour day, with a memorable burst of excitement and relief.

My favorite moment of the program came when my class sat together and presented our stories in front of AAJA members. We finally had something profound to show for our months of deep reporting on minority issues. I smiled watching my classmates light up talking about their work. They revealed fascinating information and gracefully answered tough questions from the audience.

I was proud to sit next to these minority journalists, proud of the stories we told and proud to have been part of the Voices class of 2017.

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Risks to National Security Challenge Thorough Reporting

On May 10, President Trump exposed information about Islamic State operations to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak. Trump did not have permission to discuss this restricted information with Russia, and news organizations are now being asked to withhold reporting certain information that was shared. The journalistic mantra of whole-truth reporting is clashing with the national security commotion.

NBC News reported:

Trump told the Russian foreign minister and the Russian ambassador in the Oval Office that the Islamic State had used stolen airport security equipment to test a bomb that could be hidden in electronic devices and slipped undetected into an airplane cabin, the officials said. And he named the city in ISIS-held Syria in which the intelligence was gathered, the officials added.

U.S. intelligence officials have asked NBC News and other media organizations not to report the type of equipment, where it was stolen, and the name of the city where the intelligence was gathered, because doing so could harm U.S. national security, they say. But Trump told the Russians those things, the U.S. officials said, as he described intelligence that led to the new rules banning electronic devices in the cabins of certain flights.

Denying media access to problems in Washington is an issue. Jennifer Rubin wrote in The Washington Post that Trump is “impairing intelligence-sharing that is critical to our national security.” If safety in this country, safety on airplanes and alliances with other countries are in jeopardy, the people deserve to know. Not only may national security be at risk, but also free press.

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NYT’s Kids Section is the Fuel for Young Minds

I distinctly remember, at 11 years old, making a mental note that 11-year-olds were capable. Someone had just told me that they would explain something to me when I was older — unfairly, I thought. I wanted to make sure that when I became older, I would know that 11-year-olds can take it. I didn’t want to condescend to anyone, because I understood the barrier it created.

The New York Times’ special projects editor Caitlin Roper also understands that barrier. On Sunday, May 14, she unleashed the first-ever Kids’ Section. According to the Times, “For a paper that appeals to young readers, the editors were mindful not to talk down to them.” The section included an opinion page from P.S. 92 fourth graders, blurbs from professionals about how they became what they are, a center spread with tips for drawing on newspaper photos, and more.

The most crucial part of the section is the diversity it encompasses. There are pictures and drawings of people of different colors, hot international vacation spots and explanations of problems that different people face. I grew up in suburban Ohio and wasn’t exposed to this wide of a range in thought and experience. I can imagine that it’s especially insightful to kids growing up like I did.

The “How I Became…” blurbs are interspersed throughout the section. The first is from Senator Kamala Harris, who starts out by explaining school desegregation in one simple and understandable sentence: “(Making) schools more equal so kids who looked different could learn together”. Animator Kira Lehtomaki talks about her love for the movie “Sleeping Beauty” as soon as 3 years old. Wildlife Veterinarian Suzan Murray says she realized what she wanted to be when she was 5 and watching Jane Goodall on TV with her dad.

When I was in kindergarten, I had to write down what I wanted to be when I grew up. I came home in tears of frustration. I didn’t want to be an engineer like my dad, or a fashion designer like my mom or a teacher like my teacher — and since those were the 3 main adults in my life, I was stumped. It’s cool of the New York Times to introduce kid readers to careers that they otherwise might not know about in a way that’s understandable but not demeaning.

The section’s center spread encourages kids to pick up a marker and doodle on the newspaper’s pictures. It’s really genius — not only can kids practice on the pictures in the kids’ section, but they can explore the rest of the paper, and slowly expose themselves to more news.

There are also several “How To” articles, such as “How to Win an Argument Against Your Parents” and “How to Speak Your Mind”. Both encourage kids to say what they think and take action. Throughout the section, there are messages to kids to start topic-specific groups at school, call local legislators and write opinion pieces for local papers. I think it would be empowering for kids to see adults believe in them, and for kids to believe in themselves. As Hilde Kate Lysiak, a 10-year-old who created a newspaper in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania says in the article “How to Read (and Write) the News”, “If kids take themselves seriously, then adults will take them seriously, too.”

As a young journalist, I’m inspired to see a large, established newspaper experiment with new ideas. I’m a fan of breaking templates, reaching unreached audiences and going big — which is exactly what the Times did with this section. Although Roper, the Times’ special projects editor, said the section wasn’t trying to create a calculated influence, which I think makes it even better. She said, “I would love to say that it was part of some bigger strategy, but truly the idea was just to do something really fun.”

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Asma Khalid

The first time I read Asma Khalid’s reporter’s notebook from the 2016 election, I was struck by the authenticity. My sister had sent it to me over Facebook the day it was published. My sister and I, like Khalid, are brown girls from the Midwest. Khalid, a Muslim, wrote candidly — in the first paragraph, she says that she cried multiple times during the campaign season because of the derogatory comments she received.

I felt for Khalid while reading her essay, and came away from it with a new perception of journalism. We’re often taught objectivity — separating our personal identity from our reporter identity. But rarely is it mentioned that identities cannot be separated; they can, however, enhance each other. We can’t ignore inherent biases — but we can keep them in check in order to tell fair stories. Khalid exemplified this on the campaign trail. She used her Indiana upbringing to relate to small-town, working-class, white voters who looked at her, and her hijab, and struggled to trust.

I was curious to know more about the relationship between person and journalist that every reporter has to balance. I had the honor and pleasure of meeting Khalid a few weeks ago, and I asked her about it. Listen to our conversation below:




“We the People”

Today I hosted American Student Radio’s first show of the semester, “We the People”.

I brooded over the theme for a long while, and finally chose “We the People” to tie in with Friday’s presidential inauguration. I wanted to create an outlet to talk about what is next for the people of this country. We crafted the show around the uncertainty that comes with a change of power.

It was a great opportunity to talk about newsworthy topics at a relevant time. I am proud of the show and thankful to my dear friends who produced pieces and worked on the episode. It came together so well thanks to their dedication!

I produced a piece on campus activism in the 1960s and the parallels and differences of today’s youth. Finding the relevance and purpose of the piece was a challenge — I knew that young people were affected, but at times felt that it was too early to tell the story. I soon realized that the story was exactly that: Young people, and all people, don’t know what is next, but things are happening to affect them.

All of the pieces in this episode have to do with that motif. It resulted in an interesting array of stories about people in a state of limbo, just waiting to see what will come next.

Link to the show: 

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NYT Mag’s ‘The Lives They Lived’ & Feeling Good in 2016

2016 has somehow become notorious for “the bad stuff”. International tensions, political uproar, tragic, violent deaths.

It’s some of these deaths that The New York Times Magazine has taken a spin on. In its “The Lives They Lived” issue each year, writers highlight the influence of prominent deceased people, often with unique anecdotes. In 2016’s issue, published December 25, the story that caught my attention particularly was that of Gwen Ifill.

Gwen Ifill. Photograph from The New York Times.

Gwen Ifill. Photograph from The New York Times.

Role models often appear with a thunderclap, a bright flash on a dark horizon, but can feel remote and evaporate just as quickly. Gwen Ifill was different.

In this piece, writer Sara Mosle tells Ifill’s story through her profound impact on two of Mosle’s former journalism students, Sophie Sabin and Isabel Evans. These girls’ journalistic aspirations quickly became tangible thanks in part to Ifill’s strong encouragement.

Sophie had the chance to interview Ifill via Skype in 2014, and she asked Ifill why “this important person, who had this really busy schedule” was taking the time to talk to her. Ifill answered, “Well, Sophie, it’s because I was you.”

Isabel had learned that race, ethnicity and gender were hurdles she had to jump. Her admiration of Ifill began when she noticed that Ifill, despite her own race, ethnicity and gender, had “never been held back”.

Sophie’s and Isabel’s mindsets remind me of my own — starting out timid, but quickly becoming imbued with a drive to ask the hard-hitting questions and tell the important stories, and facing the challenges of being a young, female person of color. Even though I never had a relationship with Ifill akin to those of Sophie and Isabel, I can find my role model in her through the lives she touched.

The editor of the annual “The Lives They Lived” issues, Ilena Silverman, talked on the podcast Still Processing, another product of The Times, about the purpose of the issue: finding humanity.

“Everyone is sort of looking for the deep humanity in their people,” Silverman said, referring to the writers’ goals. On the general audience for this issue, people who are moved and upset about these deaths, she said, “I feel like at its best you’re reading these stories and you’re going deep into people’s lives and deep into particular eras and that you just actually feel good.”

And in a year end that dramatized and dwelled upon the bad, I think it’s valuable to search for that humanity and cause for celebration, and just actually feel good.

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Lucky: an ode to high school journalism

I recently talked to a friend of mine who attends Kings High School — which is the school 17-year-old Leelah Alcorn attended for some time before switching to the Ohio Virtual Academy.

Leelah, a transgender girl, committed suicide on December 28, 2014 because she felt like she could never truly be who she wanted to be because of the surrounding environment and people, including transgender conversion therapy.

You’d think that, after this tragic event, Kings School District would have implemented some policies for tolerance, for anti-LGBTQ bullying or creating safer spaces for LGBTQ youth. According to my friend who is a junior at KHS, there hasn’t been much of a change, though a quick search on WCPO let me know that counselors were made available by phone and the basketball teams held a moment of silence. KHS also held a candlelight vigil shortly after her death. I didn’t find any information regarding policies or programs advocating for LGBTQ safe spaces or against LGBTQ bullying.

I asked my friend if someone who we know at Kings who is gay is taking his boyfriend to prom. He replied that no, he didn’t think it wasn’t allowed. I don’t have information about whether or not gay couples are allowed at Kings’ proms, but my friend said most of the gay students at his school weren’t out. He said he could only think of five openly gay students, whereas at Mason High School the list never ends.

We both thought it was a little ridiculous that gay couples weren’t allowed at Kings’ prom, or at least that their appearances weren’t common, and that gay students felt uncomfortable or unsafe bringing a same-sex date.

I asked him if his school had a newspaper and he nearly laughed at the question. He pulled up an online news site on his phone, populated with quick tidbits of news, but it doesn’t have an opinion section or any kind of forum for student opinions. So students who feel strongly about Leelah’s call to “fix society. Please” or who may have known her personally can only sit idly by watching as their friends stay hidden in the closet, at prom or elsewhere.

It’s times like these when I notice how lucky I am to be attending MHS and to be working as editor of the newspaper. Our opinion section thrives, thanks especially to the incredible work of Jessica Sommerville, Madison Krell and our columnist staff. Our staff editorials consistently take an intelligent perspective on light and heavy topics alike — ranging from our generation’s desensitization of terrorism to bathroom graffiti. We have Tweets to the Editor which allow MHS students to use social media to voice their opinions on our hot-button questions like how far is too far when directing social-media angst toward the superintendent.

The Chronicle is also fortunate enough to have Emily Culberson, the Business Manager, and Ashton Nichols who is diligently learning how to take Emily’s place next year when she graduates. Through advertising with various businesses, Emily and Ashton supply all of the money to print the newspaper. We receive no additional funding from the school — because we don’t really need it. Emily and Ashton do such a great job that we are able to operate completely self-sufficiently.

Some other schools, like Steinmetz College Prep high school in Chicago, didn’t have enough money to support its printing. Luckily, Hugh Hefner, a graduate from Steinmetz, pitched in money to keep the newspaper running for five years.

But not every school has an Emily or an Ashton or a Hugh Hefner — many school newspapers have been forced to fold because their staff cannot support the funds.

According to The Chicago Tribune:

In 1991, nearly 100 percent of Chicago public high schools surveyed in a study byRoosevelt University‘s College of Communication had newspapers. By 2006, the number had dropped to 60 percent, according to Linda Jones, associate professor of journalism at Roosevelt.

This can be attributed to a bigger interest in social media, teachers’ focus on standardized testing and diminishing interest in the news media in general.

Further in the same article from The Chicago Tribune:

At Morgan Park High School, English teacher Keith Majeske used to have to hide stacks of newspapers in the school’s main office so students wouldn’t grab them before they were ready for distribution. Today, stacks go untouched for days — unless it’s an issue with prom pictures or Valentine’s Day personal ads.

This is particularly interesting to me — especially since we spend so much time working the kinks of our cover page. We try to make something appealing to a huge demographic, hoping that everyone will be eager to pick up our paper. But lack of interest is lack of interest, and we’re very fortunate that our student body (on the whole) thinks highly of The Chronicle.

Journalism has the potential to make change. At Kings High School, it could allow gay couples to safely attend prom together, or for the school to implement anti-bullying policies. And I hope it does. High school journalism in particular is crucial because it provides a forum for students to be heard.

We’re lucky.

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First Amendment, second chance

Last night I watched “Inherit the Wind” performed by Gallatin County High School. The play is a fictionalized version of the Scopes Monkey Trial, which brought John T. Scopes to court because he taught evolution in a Tennessee high school, which was against the law in 1925.

I critiqued the show for the Greater Cincinnati Cappies program, a group of high school theatre students who review plays and musicals in the area. During our pre-show discussion, our discussion mentor explained the background of the play and said something along the lines of, “If you don’t think this theme is relevant today, think about it this way: this debate over creationism and evolution is a matter of free speech. Controversies over free speech still exist — just take a look at the news around the nation of high school newspapers being restricted on what they can print because of administrative concerns.”


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