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Guest Perspective: Al Neuharth Award Honoree Isabel Wilkerson Shares the Power of Narrative Nonfiction

The following is an excerpt of Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and author Isabel Wilkerson’s remarks on accepting the Freedom Forum’s Al Neuharth Award for Excellence in the Media. Watch the program here.

It is such an honor to receive this award in particular, because I remember being a student dreaming of going into journalism when the USA TODAY building went up in my hometown of Washington, D.C. – just outside of Washington, D.C. And it became a new way of understanding and presenting the news from a national perspective in a mainstream way. And I recall the excitement that came along with that.

And also, I recall that Al Neuharth was a pioneer, a leader, in diversity before diversity was the watchword of our era. And so it is a tremendous, tremendous honor to receive an award in his name.

Then when I look at the names of the people who have been bestowed it before me – Walter Cronkite, and Carl Rowan, and Tim Russert and Gwen Ifill – people who were either heroes to me when I was growing up, dreaming of becoming a journalist, or those who I came to know later, it is such an honor to be in the company of such lions of our industry.

The path that my own career has taken me has been from the foundation of journalism itself, and then into an expansion from my perspective of looking at the world and describing the world through a genre known as narrative nonfiction.

And it’s a way of interpreting, a way of expanding, it’s a way of presenting journalism in such a way that we can spend a tremendous amount of time researching, and doing participant observation, and immersing ourselves in a phenomenon and then attempting to tell those stories through, in some ways, the interior lives of the protagonists that we find. And I like to think of narrative nonfiction as the closest that anyone will come to actually being another person because this is using the literary tools that might be more connected to novels [but with the rigor of reporting], and then applying them as a way of bringing the reader – the audience – into the life of other people that they otherwise might never know. And so, for that reason, I am tremendously honored to be counted among those who have gone before me.

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