Jerrel Floyd, ProPublica Illinois’ first reporting fellow, arrived after completing a fellowship at the Investigative Reporting Workshop, a nonprofit investigative newsroom based at American University in Washington, D.C. In the 11th of a series of Q&As with ProPublica Illinois staffers, Floyd talked with ProPublica Emerging Reporter Andrea Salcedo.
What inspired you to become a journalist?
I originally wanted to go into law. But after my first legal internship, I figured out it really wasn’t for me. In doing that internship I got to work with some local journalists. I got to see what they were doing and I was like, “Oh, I kind of like what you’re doing. It seems fun.” I did not know where to start so I joined the school paper and came in as the advertising manager. I didn’t have much journalism experience. While I was doing that, I was taking journalism courses to work on my writing. I thought, “Once I do that, I’ll apply for a writing position.” After that, I became features editor at the school paper at Morehouse College, then eventually ended up as managing editor. That propelled me to think, “This isn’t something I’m doing for fun anymore. This is something I want to make a career out of.”
What has been your most rewarding experience as a journalist?
When I was with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, I got to do an investigative internship there the summer after I left Morehouse College. I got to work on a project looking into doctors accused of sexual misconduct with patients. In doing that, I saw the power of journalism. Before that, I had done some investigative stories but nothing on that level. It was getting to see what we could do in terms of storytelling. There were so many women who were just sitting on these awful stories and these awful interactions with doctors. They really didn’t have the resources they needed to get their stories out there. Being able to be a part of that and being able to tell those stories and hold the people in those positions accountable, it showcased to me how powerful and how important it is what we’re doing.
What stories are you interested in investigating with ProPublica Illinois?
The most exciting thing about coming here is that I have a clean slate. I don’t necessarily have a specific focus. Throughout the years, I’ve had opportunities to work on environmental reporting and looking into low-income housing. For me, it’s just taking all of those experiences, going out there and telling stories in an investigative format. I’m just excited to have the opportunity to be around these amazing reporters, learn from them and see where I want to align in terms of my investigative reporting.
Who are some of your journalism role models?
One person I’ve always had in the back of my mind is Ida B. Wells. Her experiences are so relevant. There was a lack of coverage of the issues that were affecting people that looked like her. That pushes me to keep doing what I’m doing because I want to do investigative projects that cover people who look like me or have experiences like me. In terms of writing — and this is kind of random — but for me it’s George R. R. Martin. He has such a narrative voice. That’s something I want to carry into my journalism. I want to do investigative projects, but at the same time I don’t want to neglect the writing component of it. I want to put people into the stories that I’m writing about. I always try to combine the Ida B. Wells component in terms of covering racial inequality, telling stories of people that look like me, but in terms of my writing, I want to have that narrative and that immersive quality of George R. R. Martin.
How do you hope your stories with ProPublica Illinois will spark change?
That’s always the main goal with investigative journalism. You do these long projects for months, but at the end of the day, you hope that someone reads it and it changes someone’s life or it changes some kind of system. As long as someone’s story is being told, I feel like I’m happy. At the same time, I want to see things changed from the investigative projects that I do. I don’t necessarily know what that change looks like, but I want to affect something — whether it’s an institution, whether it’s a person, whether it’s a group of people.
What reporting and/or storytelling techniques would you like to experiment with at ProPublica Illinois?
One of the things that I’m really excited about that I’ve never had the opportunity to do is callouts. Networking with the people out there and getting stories from them, versus waiting for that one tip from a source or waiting from that one phone call from a political official. It’s basically asking people to bring their stories to us or asking them to tell their stories of specific subjects. It’s us saying, “Hi! We are looking to cover this. Do you have stories that connect to this topic? ”It’s something ProPublica has done before, but it’s something I’ve never done before.
As a young reporter, what would you say are some of the advantages and challenges when pursuing journalism?
There are these moments when I come at certain issues from a different perspective than from a lot of the veteran reporters. That’s sometimes really good and sometimes really bad. When getting from point A to point B in a story, I could take different loops and obstacles to get to point B, but then the veteran reporters sometimes tell me, “All you had to do was hop and you could have got to point B.” The beauty of it is I can admit that I still have a lot to learn, but I’m in a great place where I can learn it.
What has been the biggest lesson journalism has taught you?
I would say persistence. There are so many twists and turns — whether it’s a Freedom of Information Act being delayed, whether it’s this person that doesn’t want to talk to you. It takes persistence not giving up, to keep reaching out to that one individual, keep focusing on that FOIA request or finding other avenues to get the same information. Whatever investigative project you’re doing, it’s not always going to come easy. It’s not always going to be simple. You’re sometimes going to have to deviate and work around to get close to the story.