SPOTLIGHT: Walking — and covering — a beat, student hones her journalistic talents

For a feature story she produced last year for the National Public Radio affiliate WSHU, Yale College junior Michelle Hackman walked the beat with two New Haven police officers in the city’s Hill neighborhood, talking with them about their work.

She also spoke with residents of the neighborhood, as well as with New Haven police chief Dean Esserman and a noted criminologist at John Jay College in New York City.

Her nearly six-minute piece, “Walking a beat: ‘Community Policing’ in New Haven,” won a second-place honor for a hard feature by a student in the annual Public Radio News Directors Inc. (PRNDI) awards, which recognize the best public radio reporting in the nation over the course of a year. Winners of the 2013 awards were selected this past summer.

For Hackman, her excitement over winning the award doesn’t quite compare with the thrill she felt while producing “Walking a beat.” She beams when she describes some of the elements of her radio feature, which explored whether New Haven’s then newly re-implemented community policing program works to reduce crime.

“People talk about ‘color’ in radio, and that was the first time I got to play around with color, with painting a picture with sound,” says Hackman. “I found myself walking on the street and taking stock of the blend of hip hop music and the sirens, or the clinking of forks and spoons at a restaurant the cops frequent. That’s what I love about radio — the intimacy of the medium, the poetic picture that can be created with sound.”

Hackman produced the award-winning news story during the summer of 2012, during a 10-week internship with WSHU. The experience not only taught her about radio reporting, it offered further confirmation that her future lies in journalism, she says.

The Yale student recently spoke with YaleNews about her passion for reporting. Here is what we learned.

First honors — for science: “It sounds really cliché, but I’ve wanted to be a journalist since I was a little girl, before I really understood what a journalist is,” says Hackman. “It seemed alluring and a little bit glamorous, and it still does. I saw the anchors on TV and thought, ‘I want to do that.’”

She began writing for her high school newspaper on Long Island, where she grew up as the daughter of Jewish Iranians who fled their home country during the revolution in 1979.

But for a time, as the second-place winner of the national Intel Science Talent Search, she found herself as the subject of news articles, being featured in stories by such major media as Newsday, CNN, and CBS News.

Hackman won the Intel honor for her project investigating the psychological effect of separating teens from their cell phones. To her surprise, she found that teens become more sleepy than anxious. She won a $75,000 prize as the second-place finisher, and was feted with other finalists by President Barack Obama at the White House.

Grateful for the timing: While Hackman was in the spotlight, much notice was made of the fact that she is blind, the result of a congenital defect. She had vision in one eye only until the age of 8, and believes that she was lucky to have lost her sight so young.

“I was old enough that I can still remember what things look like but young enough that I was able to adapt to change,” Hackman comments. “I think it would have been harder if I had lost my sight as a teenager.”

Sometimes misunderstood: Having screen-reading software on her computer and iPhone allows her to do her academic and journalistic work with relative ease, Hackman says, but she has sometimes been held back by well-meaning people, either out of concern for her or a misinformed idea of her capabilities.

“As a freshman in high school, I wrote the requisite number of articles to be promoted as an associate editor, but when the day came that editors were announced, everyone who applied was promoted but me. When I asked my journalism adviser about it, she said that editing involved too much layout. I got an opinion column instead. I was very unhappy; I hate opinion writing.”

Likewise, she says, while covering last year’s school shooting tragedy in Newtown for the Yale Daily News (YDN), she was prevented by her editors from traveling to the town at the outset to provide firsthand reports, out of fear that she would be too challenged navigating around in the midst of the mayhem. While she appreciates their intention, Hackman says she thinks she would have done just fine.

Not about bravery: While Hackman acknowledges that not having sight poses some particular challenges for her, she chooses to live life by not anticipating hardships.

“My approach has been that I don’t know what I cannot do until I try,” she explains. “I always choose to try first.  If I sit down and really think how I’m going to go out and report a story, I would realize that yes, it is really tough and scary. But for me, there is no room to be scared; I just do whatever it is that I want or have to do, and I don’t ever really think about it in terms of courage.”

Learning by doing: At Yale, Hackman has been an active reporter for the YDN, advancing from her role as a reporter during her freshman year to serving last year as the paper’s political correspondent and this year as its city editor.

As political correspondent, the Yale student had the opportunity to report from Chicago during the presidential election (where she interviewed voters at polling stations) and to cover Obama’s inauguration in Washington, D.C.

She has also expanded her journalistic experience via school break and summer internships, working with WSHU in 2012 and this past summer at the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, where she served as a business reporter.

“Michelle is self-possessed beyond her years and has the sharpness, stick-to-itiveness, and boundless curiosity that are the hallmarks of a great journalist,” wrote WSHU reporter and host Mark Herz in a recommendation he wrote for her and shared with YaleNews.

He added, “As she progressed through crafting smaller pieces for our newscasts, learning to be handy with the tools of public radio, she impressed us all with her attention to detail, and hunger to tell a compelling story.”

In fact, so confident were WSHU staff members of her reporting abilities that they got in touch with their former intern on presidential election night, while she was on assignment for the YDN.

“In our live coverage coordinated with NPR that evening, we made time to call her, knowing it would make smart, engaging radio,” Herz says.

Politics and passion for fairness: A self-proclaimed political junkie, Hackman relished the chance to be a YDN political correspondent, and she laughs as she recalls one encounter in that post.

“There was a press conference happening with Senator Richard Blumenthal [LAW '73] on an acres-wide agricultural campus, and I was wandering around looking for ‘humanity.’ I finally found someone to ask where the press conference with the senator was happening: It turned out I walked right up to the senator himself!” recalls Hackman.

Her various journalistic assignments, Hackman says, each serve as a learning experience for her.

When the Newtown story broke, for example, Hackman says she was deeply focused on getting the facts straight, such as the number of children who were killed or injured. During continuing coverage of the tragedy over the semester, she got to know some of the parents and children who were deeply affected by the shooting.

“I was talking to lawmakers and others about their responsibility to prevent such a tragedy from ever happening again,” says Hackman. “It was the most emotionally charged topic I ever covered, and made me realize the importance of what I was doing. I went to a gun-control rally in Hartford, where there were some people wearing NRA [National Rifle Association] caps and a group of women wearing pins that said ‘Moms for Gun Control.’ The debate was so impassioned from both sides. That really helped me as a journalist to put my own feelings aside, to see that every issue has its complexities, and that I’m not doing my job if I don’t recognize that.”

Learning, teaching: At Yale, Hackman has honed her skills in a seminar — “Behind the Headlines: The Press, Business and the Economy" — taught by former Wall Street Journal columnist Tom Herman ’68, now on the faculty of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

“Michelle is an extremely talented young writer,” says Herman. “I especially admire how carefully Michelle did her research for each of her stories. She packed her articles with color, context, background, and humor. She picked excellent topics and organized her stories carefully. Her writing flowed gracefully and smoothly. One of my favorite stories was her article on The New Haven Register and The New Haven Independent. The title was ‘A Tale of Two Newspapers: How New Haven's Two Competing Dailies Represent the Future of Journalism.’”

Hackman is now imparting some of what she learned as a journalist to those newer to the field, spending many hours most evenings working at the YDN. She oversees about five dedicated city beat reporters as well as a cadre of freshmen journalists who write occasional stories.

“We talk about how a journalist has a lot of power and a lot of responsibility, and we talk about fairness — how you should talk to as many people as possible to get a story right,” Hackman says.  “It’s a huge time commitment, but I see it as giving back. I spent two years at the News learning to be a journalist. Now I get to be a mentor, helping to teach new writers with absolutely no experience how to be journalists.”

She is now also thinking about her summer plans, and where she might head next to further develop her journalistic skills.

“I still haven’t tried television, so there’s that,” she says. “But so far, I have to say my most rewarding experience has been radio, and if I end up having a career in that, Mark Herz will have been my inspiration. He’s one of the most intelligent journalists I’ve met. He thinks critically and really knows how to flesh out a story to make it beautiful, skeptical — everything it should be.”

A beat she can’t refuse: A political science and psychology major, Hackman is unequivocal about where she’d like to be immediately after she graduates from Yale.

“I want nothing more than to land on the 2016 campaign trail,” she states. “That’s inevitable, right?”

Hear Michelle Hackman’s award-winning ‘Walking a beat: ‘Community Policing’ in New Haven,” her 2012 report for WSHU.