Joe Killian of NC Policy Watch talks about Nikole Hannah-Jones, UNC, the art of reporting, fairness and the faults of journalism

Check out the full NC Local newsletter from July 14, which includes related reporting on this UNC story, details about courtroom access issues impacting journalists across the state, the inspiring story of a mother and daughter who became community health workers and more. Sign up to get NC Local in your inbox every Wednesday. 

By Eric Frederick, NC Local Newsletter Editor

Joe KillianI caught up late last week with investigative reporter Joe Killian of NC Policy Watch, who broke the biggest stories in the saga of UNC and Nikole Hannah-Jones, to talk about that story, about his philosophy of reporting and about the triumphs, challenges and faults of local journalism.

Killian came to Policy Watch five years ago after a decade at the News & Record in Greensboro, where he reported on police, courts, higher education, politics and government. His work now “takes a closer look at government, politics and policy in North Carolina and their impact on the lives of everyday people,” his Policy Watch bio says. 

Here’s our interview, edited for length and clarity:

Give me a rough outline of your approach to reporting.

I was brought into journalism by this group now called Youth Journalism International. It’s a nonprofit, and at the time it was just a handful of teenagers they were working with, and now they have kids on six continents. It’s really kind of remarkable. And the two reporters, Jackie and Steve Majerus-Collins, who I worked with were reporters for The Bristol Press, a small-town daily newspaper in Connecticut, where I was going to high school. My dad was a Marine, so we bounced around a lot. 

And they taught me some fundamentals of daily newspaper reporting — have your facts right, check things out. But I think one of the most important things that I learned from them was sourcing — that it’s important to build relationships with people. And over the course of your career, you don’t know where that will go, you know — you may end up writing a relatively small story one day about something that you don’t think is terribly important, but a year later, somebody in that story could be a senator or could be at the center of a scandal. So I just try to maintain relationships with people. 

And I think that’s where the best stuff comes from. Of course, getting your hands on documents, meetings, things like that are important — but knowing people and having people know you, I think, is maybe the most important thing. One of the things I am proud of is that there are people who might say, “I’m a conservative Republican, and I don’t like NC Policy Watch, or I don’t agree with everything that Joe Killian might say, but he’s a fair reporter.”

What’s the most disturbing thing you encountered while reporting the Nikole Hannah-Jones story?

For me as a journalist, the thing that disturbed me was the way in which questions of journalism, and perversions of conversations about journalism and how it’s done, how it should be done, were used to try to have a political fight. And it’s disturbing that every other Knight chair at the University of North Carolina, going back to the early ’80s when they started doing it, just got tenure. And they were all white, and the only person who was paid this sort of scrutiny was a Black woman. 

But the way in which people suggested that a woman who has won the Pulitzer Prize, the Polk, the Peabody national magazine award — who went from working for The Chapel Hill News all the way up to The New York Times — might not be qualified to teach journalism to teenagers. That is the part that was most personally disturbing to me — people who don’t do what I do for a living, and really have a very rudimentary understanding of it, making judgments about journalism, about the journalism of someone who is so revered in the industry. But they’re political appointees, so they get to make these judgments.

To be clear, you’re specifically talking about trustees.

Yeah. You know, trustees, or people over at the Martin Center, people who I just don’t think have the background or the expertise, you know, the CV to judge someone like Nikole Hannah-Jones. You know, when I interviewed Walter Hussman, he’s saying, “Well, you know, we’re both journalists, I’m a working journalist, you and I are both reporters.” And I just think to myself, really? Because my understanding is that the last time you were a reporter, you were 27 years old. Then your family handed you a newspaper and you took over a media empire. You know, would I have trusted the philosophical journalism judgments of a 27-year-old reporter on an issue like this? Perhaps not. But for sure, someone whose experience is that he inherited a media empire — I don’t think that’s really ethical or career experience sufficient to lecture someone like Nikole Hannah-Jones about journalism, because she’s done it. She’s done it her entire career. And she earned every position that she ever had. And she went out and got every story that she ever got.

In covering a story like this, what’s the difference between working for NC Policy Watch and working in a legacy daily newsroom?

You know, our newsroom is stacked with reporters who have worked at dailies. (He mentioned his admiration for Lisa Sorg, Greg Childress, Lynn Bonner and the team’s newest reporter, Yanqi Xu.) So the working environment is not dissimilar to any newsroom that I’ve worked in. But I do think that one of the nice things about not working for a daily is there are different expectations. You get a little more time, you’re able to craft stories with a little more nuance, and you can get into things that provide more context.

I remember what it’s like to be at a daily newspaper and to be cranking out hundreds of stories a year, and on daily deadline, with the expectation that you are the paper of record. And that’s what I don’t have at Policy Watch. I’m allowed the space and the time to figure out which pieces I think are important and not getting covered. You know, there are coverage gaps, there are context gaps. And that’s kind of where I do my work, whether I’m covering higher education or something else. I’m not really interested in writing a story that others are writing, not because I disagree with what they’re doing, but because they are doing it. And I think this story proves that you need all the media. The News & Observer got pieces of it that I couldn’t get, and the reporters there are very good — Kate Murphy, Martha Quillin — they’re good reporters, and they’re doing it daily. John Drescher with The Assembly — great, great stories out of The Assembly. The Chronicle of Higher Education. INDY Week. The Daily Tar Heel. They’ve all had really good stories. So there’s no sense being bloodthirsty competitive on something like this. We’re all in this to get at the truth, and as much of it as we can get, and if we all do it together, we’ll get all the meat off the bone. 

Where does the UNC story go now?

I think that everybody’s probably looking at a couple of things. One is, what are the effects of this? Not just this, but the fact of the racial moment we’re living in, and the university’s failure to reckon with it on everything from Silent Sam to the fact that students, faculty and staff of color at the university don’t feel as if they’re heard, to the fact that faculty and staff and students and alumni are leaving the university, or deciding they’re not going to give money to the university, looking for other opportunities. 

The Assembly just did an excellent story about what comes next on the Board of Trustees. A number of people cycled off, and there are people cycling on. I know some of these people and yeah, they’re hardliners. So that’s an important story. 

You know, the other thing is … the fundamental problem of the leadership of the university, from the campus-level leadership up to the Board of Governors, is political. It’s brazenly political. The boards don’t look anything like the students, the faculty, the staff, the alumni. The boards are much more heavily male, much more heavily conservative, and that tension between those board leaders and the people who make up the university, who are the university, is a continuing story and a continuing problem. And the way that it leads to decision making. I wrote a story maybe a month ago now, just outlining the way in which we’ve seen decision making — fundamentally and arguably disastrous decision making — that comes out of this political tension to move completely away from race or the politics of race in history. 

Look at the response to COVID-19. At UNC-Chapel Hill, the students, the faculty, staff, alumni, were all very, very, very concerned about how they were going to have their semester — should it be in person, should it be remote, should it be some hybrid model; were people really going to come and live in dorms, which was never going to work, particularly to have them come to full-capacity dorms. But that’s what the Board of Governors wanted. They made that clear — our priority is getting people to these schools, we think that’s the right thing to do, we’re worried about losing money if we don’t do that. We also just think it’s better educationally. And it was a highly charged political issue, right out of the gate. And the schools were kind of made to do that, in the face of county health officials telling them not to, in the face of their own health experts, some of whom are people who have advised the CDC and the WHO on pandemics and were saying this is a bad idea. And one weekend, there’s so many infections, they had to send everybody home. It’s just a disaster. And it’s entirely avoidable. It was foreseen by almost everyone and ignored. And that’s politics. It’s at the heart of the Silent Sam thing, building renaming, COVID-19 — you know, which programs are getting what kind of money. The basic functioning of the school.

Eric Muller, law professor on the UNC Press board — he was up for a third term (as chairman), he was unanimously made the chairman of that board, and they’re (the governors are) not voting (on him). They’re not voting him down, they’re just not voting. Why? Well, they say, we think these boards should turn over more often. Well, that’s funny, because you gave a third term to somebody else from that same slate of candidates. Also, David Powers, the active Republican lobbyist who is the chairman of the committee tasked with making that decision — he’s in his third term (on the Board of Governors). You know, the explanations don’t make any logical sense. And what’s really going on there is, they don’t like what he’s expressing about the leadership of the university and whether some of the things that they do are legal. He’s been proven right, by the way — the court ended up invalidating the Silent Sam agreement. But if you’re gonna say that out loud, there could be consequences.

You’ve expressed some strong opinions here (and in a recent Twitter thread and a post on the Editorial Board blog). A lot of journalists would not comment publicly on a story they’re covering. I was curious about why you do that.

Yeah, I think there’s a constant conversation about how much we can talk about how we do what we do, and how we feel about it. I was talking with somebody last night who’s been in journalism longer than I have, and he was pointing out to me — at the advent of American journalism, it was all part of it, and a bunch of it was first-person. And it’s only really in the last 100 years or so that we’ve come up with this idea that journalism should be kind of a science — like, you know, we can turn this into chemistry, we can turn it into biology, we can turn it into a math problem, where, you know, we’re as objective as possible, and we’re not in any way affecting things. I just think that’s silly. And I think you have to ignore broad swaths of journalism history in order to have this idea that our work should be objective, that we can’t talk about writing our stories, and we can’t talk about our experiences, and how they inform what we do. I don’t think any of my readers or sources are dumb enough to think that I’m not coming from somewhere, that I don’t have experiences that inform what I do. Of course, they know that. Pretending that I don’t is an insult to their intelligence. 

And that’s not a new thing. The journalists who trained me were having a conversation about what we were then calling the New Journalism in the ’60s and ’70s — Tom Wolfe and Truman Capote and Joan Didion and Pete Hamill. This is an old, old conversation. And, you know, I’m not impressed by people who don’t realize that and want to have it again — like we’ve never had it before. I’d challenge anybody who has a problem with my writing something like that (thread): Go through there and tell me where you think I made a factual error. I’m always glad to correct a factual error. If you’re just upset because I let you know what was going on in my head when I was news gathering, then, I mean, that’s a problem for your psychiatrist or your priest. It’s got nothing to do with me. 

A lot of reporters would not do it for practical reasons — they would think that, well, somebody’s not gonna pick up the phone now when I call.

I mean, it might. But I’ve been doing it my whole career. I was a college freshman in 2000, and when I got to college, it was the beginning of this big boom in blogs, and I had a personal blog all throughout college. When I got a job at the News & Record, I would write stories, and then I would write a blog post on my personal blog about the experience of having reported the story. And there were certainly people I worked with who thought that was inappropriate, and it was hard to blame them because that was something that got drilled into our head as newspaper reporters.

But to just say, you shouldn’t be sharing your personal experiences, and people might realize that you’re a person — and that would make them not want to pick up your call? All right, fine. But I don’t hide the fact that I’m a human from my sources … and that I have certain experiences and things that inform my writing, like the fact that I, you know, grew up in trailer parks and military bases, or the fact that I come from an interracial family.

But for me, I think that adhering to all the rules — OK, I won’t put a bumper sticker on my car, I won’t put, you know, a yard sign in my yard, I won’t make political donations — I can do all that and it’s not gonna affect the reporter I am, one bit. It’s a performance. It’s Kabuki theater. It’s trying to, with shadow and light, convince people that I’m some sort of robot that writes stories — and by the way, it’s not productive in terms of getting good stories. You know, the relationships that I build with people, on beats or in my reporting generally, are based on, they know I’m a person. Occasionally we find things we can connect over. And they know what my values are.

You’ve said we need to discuss the failures of journalism today. What do you think we should we be talking about? 

The biggest danger is that people who are making decisions about journalism aren’t journalists. I don’t think I ever worked at a newspaper where I thought the people who were really making decisions, people who owned the newspaper, people who were publishers, were actual journalists. Hitching journalism to, can we sell enough personal ads, or, is Craigslist gonna eat our lunch, or, can we get people to subscribe to a product that’s getting thinner all the time with fewer resources — that’s a huge problem. Moving to Policy Watch, for me, was a big deal. It’s a nonprofit newsroom. It’s a newish model. And it felt a little dangerous, right? Because I came up in daily newspapers — I came up in the most mainstream way. 

But the truth is, there’s a lot of that happening right now and it’s working. I mean, look at NC Health News. Look at The Assembly. Look at, you know, the sort of alternative methods of keeping journalism alive. I think a lot of us who came up in newspapers are really depressed to see newspapers cutting their staff. But the thing is, I don’t love newspapers — I love journalism. I love doing the work. I love that it’s important. I love that you can see the way that it changes the world. I like hanging out with reporters. And surely, we’ll keep that alive. We’ll do it in ways that are different. And it’s time for that.

So what’s the greatest unmet need in local journalism in North Carolina?

Resources. They’re making it financially unfeasible for people to stay in journalism. 

But is there anything we could be doing with the resources we have?

I think that prizing certain types of news over others is always a problem. You know, if there’s a fire, if there’s a shooting, if it bleeds it leads, you know? And I understand why that is the case, but at the same time, why don’t we find out why there was a fire? Why don’t we find out why there was a shooting? There are vital things we need to be reporting on, there are disinvestment issues, there is over-policing. And, you know, I think we don’t go deep enough. Some say that’s a resource problem, but that was happening when newspapers were enormous. 

I have a special interest in LGBTQ issues. I’ve got trans friends, trans relatives, and so I have a special interest. But I gotta tell you, for years, it’s like pulling teeth to get someone to cover that stuff. I mean, they’ll let you cover it at a mainstream publication if there’s an HB2 happening. But what about when the big health plan is denying basic healthcare to trans people? You know, every day? Are we covering that, or are we just doing it when there’s a big splash? That is a problem that has not gotten a whole lot better.

Anything else you’d like folks to know?

Yeah. Our nonprofit newsroom, and other nonprofit newsrooms, need their support. If they like what we’re doing, kick in a few bucks, and feel good about the fact that every time you see it, you’re paying for it.

NC Local News Workshop