By Kristen Shortley and Jenny Zhao.
Nia-Malika Henderson is a political reporter for The Washington Post. She completed her bachelor’s degree in cultural anthropology at Duke University, and then continued her education at Yale University and Columbia University where she earned graduate degrees in American studies and journalism, respectively. At The Washington Post, she covered the 2012 presidential election, hosted the paper’s television show “On Background,” and contributed to “She the People.” She now writes for the subsection of The Post called “The Fix,” which addresses the cultural and demographic aspects of politics and power. On January 20th, Ms. Henderson sat down with undergraduate students in Duke’s Washington study-away program.
Ms. Henderson began by discussing her background in cultural anthropology and how her academic studies contributed to a greater understanding of the political environment. She said that she often “writes about politics as an expression of culture,” viewing politics through the unique lens of race, gender, and pop culture. For example, she highlighted how former Senator Jim Webb (D-VA) began focusing on the injustice suffered by working-class white men – a demographic group Webb claims the Democrats are failing to reach out to.
When asked about how the partisan atmosphere of Washington affects her work, she claims that it makes news stories repetitive. Reporters, grasping to the familiar talking points of each party, routinely write the same stories as one another.
When pressed on how she keeps her writing unique in this environment of routine and repetition, Henderson says she tries not to be on the scene. She says that many reporters tend to adopt a pack mentality, and so she has to make a conscious effort to think outside of that pack and not always agree. But at the same time, she pointed out, reporters have to “feed the beast”—the beast being the Internet, comprised of hungry readers and audiences who want to consume news at all hours.
In This Town, Mark Leibovich mentions the corruption that permeates the actors of Washington, including reporters. It is easy for reporters to get caught up in the scene and become friends with the people they write about, which affects how they write. In order to steer clear of this so-called corruption, Henderson suggests that reporters do not necessarily need access to Washington to write about it, and instead can report and analyze on their own. She referenced Senator Rand Paul’s (D-KY) claim that he is the most staunch defender of civil rights in Congress. Henderson simply had to look up the records of the Senator to refute that claim. Furthermore, access to politicians, she states, is not necessarily a prize. The information granted through on and off the record meetings is usually not anything particularly scoop-worthy. It is predictable.
When asked if she ever found the media to be giving out too much information, Henderson agreed that she and her colleagues often “do too much” – engaging in what she describes as a “flood the zone” strategy. She says that the Internet has given anyone the opportunity to write about even very minute topics, leading to a culture overtly focused on story production.
Henderson spoke about her experience covering Barack Obama’s presidential campaign when she worked for Newsday. She talked about her job, the self-described “girl on the bus” role she played on the campaign trail, and called that time a “dream come true” for her. Yet, she also qualifies that she would not repeat the campaign coverage experience in 2016 because it was an exhausting role.
When asked to talk about Obama’s policies, Ms. Henderson commented that lately, there has certainly been a movement towards progressive policies. In particular, she noted Obama has succeeded in getting attention for raising the minimum wage. As a result, Republicans like Mitt Romney have championed policies that will help the lower class – a departure from their previous focus on helping small business owners, the middle class, and the wealthy.
Ms. Henderson spoke about her unique role as a female involved in the political world. In journalism, she thinks that the gender ratio is relatively balanced. However, many of the “big anchors” in news, such as Chuck Todd, and the majority of head editors, are still male. Overall, she declares females were better represented than racial minorities and calls women and minorities who were interested in political reporting to go into the field and challenge that balance.