Editor’s Note: For our “Perspectives” series, which talks with New Orleans-based journalists, pod-casters, documentarians, and photojournalists about their place and role in the journalistic world, Renee Peck was interviewed by Talia Abed. Talia and Renee discussed Renee’s work as a journalist and editor at the Times-Picayune and how that led her to co-creating the arts and culture publication, NolaVie.
Who: Nora Daniels
A Quoteworthy Quote: “There’s more truth to those stories because the truth of our own existence is layered in experiences.”
Q: What are the themes that tend to draw you into a story, and what do you make of these topics in connection to your own experiences?
A: I look for women. More and more I realize that I’m drawn to things that are written by women. I just naturally go in those directions, whether the topic is women itself or just knowing something was written by a woman. That’s really been a big part of my reading portfolio.
With how it relates to my own work…I think that I try to draw upon my own, not femininity because that’s a complicated term, but womanness as a juxtaposition of masculinity in the way I communicate. Whether that’s making my writing and storytelling more empathetic or putting more of an emotional tone to my writing, which again is pretty weighted, I think that it’s about letting go of the idea that you have to be objective in storytelling because no one is really actually objective. For such a long time reporting and nonfiction writing were about objectivity. The idea that you can be subjective and draw upon your own experience in telling a story is a feminist way of communicating, and I think that’s important.
Q: How do you choose what and who you write about?
A: In looking for and interacting with women there’s the opportunity to draw from different areas and experiences that affect women, whether it’s race, economic standing (women still aren’t paid equally), emotional labor, fertility, or any number of things. So, I like to address that intersectionality. There’s more truth to those stories because the truth of our own existence is layered in experiences.
I wrote a story about a woman who had a fire in her house. I found out through the local media about her and wrote just a short piece, but I wanted to do an in-depth piece. Not only was she kicked out of her house and not given timely help from the state when she couldn’t live in her place, she also couldn’t get insurance for her children and the father of her children wasn’t contributing to her child support. There were also trolls online commenting on the original article, basically drawing conclusions about her as a ‘welfare mom.’ She was Black. So, these commenters were bringing up tropes of a ‘welfare mother’ taking from the state, saying she didn’t work. So, just by going to those kinds of subjects or being drawn to those subjects there’s always layers of things that I get. That’s just an example.
I also wrote an article on the legalization of weed in Massachusetts. I basically came across white men coming in and making a huge industry out of something that had criminalized and torn up primarily African American families, leaving women to raise children on their own. I remember getting this great quote. I was at a community meeting about the legalization of weed, and one guy who — I believe was from a company in Colorado — was starting to build up his business in Massachusetts. I asked him, ‘Are there any women in your company?’ I forget exactly how I phrased it, but it was as if he’d never thought of this before. And then, instead of thinking of equal opportunity for women, and people of color too, he went in another direction. His response went something like, ‘We’re bringing women into our consumer base by offering these specific products for women. Instead of women having girls’ night with wine, they’ll have a girls night with, like, weed!’ So it brought up all these things — gender, race, and economic inequality — that are readily apparent once you just start talking to someone or you look into a subject. It’s sort of just seeing something and being curious about what’s underneath it.
I am also drawn to other stuff too. I think inequality is something that’s interesting to me. I did a piece about Brad Pitt and the Make It Right Foundation in the Lower Ninth Ward; there weren’t really any women in that story.
Q: What is one way you would change the field of journalism?
A: I think we need more journalists from different backgrounds, particularly different racial backgrounds. That’s one thing. This is because of everything I just mentioned, like drawing from personal experience and what makes a strong city. Okay, here’s an example. I did an article about Nicole Deggins, from Sista Midwife here in New Orleans. She does fertility work and maternal care with Black women. I asked her if she had read a New York Times article about birth and doula care in the south and how women of color are turning to doulas because the conventional medical system is failing them. She said that no, she did not, as she doesn’t know anyone who reads The New York Times. She was sort of saying that her community doesn’t read The New York Times. And there’s a reason why. It’s because the issues traditionally covered by The New York Times do not affect people from those communities that Deggins was talking about. The New York Times’ writers have no context and cannot talk about such issues in a way that makes sense to large swaths of the population involved. So, I think that is particularly important.
And, I think there’s a part of this that plays into ethics, specifically what one should write about. You can write about anything, but you shouldn’t always pursue every story, like if someone is already writing about it. No matter where. Don’t step in and decide it’s your thing now if there is someone in the community that’s already writing about it. Just because I’m interested in a story doesn’t mean I’m going to pursue it. This can be bad when it takes away from the work that someone’s already doing. I really think that’s really, really important.
Q: How do you define alternative and how do you see your work fitting or not fitting your definition?
A: What we were talking about with the first question, scrapping objectivity and recognizing where you fall in whatever you’re talking about, is alternative. I also think that anything that expresses itself in a way that is not standard newspaper writing or even longer writing is alternative. Essays can be alternative, because whatever you’re experiencing, especially for women or people of color, you’re bringing to the table an experience that encompasses issues that are journalistic and news-worthy, but you’re putting them into a format that’s alternative. So, instead of reporting that, say, Donald Trump said transgender people can’t join the military, a transgender person can write about his or her experience. That would be alternative. There are even more formats; comics can be journalism.
Q: So, do you see your work being alternative?
A: It depends on what we’re talking about. If we’re talking about [my] Women of the Crescent City [series], that was pretty straightforward. And then the article I mentioned about the fire probably wouldn’t be alternative because I don’t place myself in it; it’s more of a long-form piece. I don’t consider the article about legalizing weed alternative either. However, if we’re talking about the other, longer pieces I’ve done, it’s different. Definitely the piece about Make it Right and Brad Pitt was alternative, especially because of the two pictures I contrast at the end. There are some things that I haven’t published or haven’t even written about yet, more on the essay side of things, that I would consider alternative journalism. There are some things I still want to get out that I haven’t; now I don’t have time or money to do so, but what I have in mind would be alternative journalism.
Q: Okay, this is kind of fun. What makes a strong city?
A: Equitable education, in terms of the quality of the education and access to the education, if that means price or enrollment processes. I think equitable and accessible work and health care and access to health care make a strong city. All those things play into the foundation of happiness and economy, the city’s economy. So there’s that part over there, the citizens of the city, and then also the leaders of the city. I think there’s a need for dedicated and devoted leaders who spend time with the constituents, come from the constituents, are not alienated from the constituents, and aren’t too reliant on outside companies or corporations.
I guess I’m talking about socialism, but that’s what I think. The culture of the city makes it strong too. Especially in New Orleans. But you can’t have, well I guess you can because that’s sort of what happens here, but without the infrastructure and making sure there’s equal opportunity to resources, you aren’t going to have the arts and culture communities forever. Those people are not going to be able to contribute to the arts and culture or they’re going to leave. So, it’s a balance of all those things.
Q: There’s one more question. What sets you apart as a journalist and what do you think makes you different?
A: It hasn’t necessarily worked for me all the time, but I think that the instinct to insert myself into a story sets me apart. It’s not that I want to be a part of the story. I feel like I do this in an effort to be transparent, to show how I’m thinking. There have been times when I’ve been told to take it out, so it hasn’t always worked. But, I think even having that thought is a good thought to have. I haven’t been funny during this interview, but I like humor a lot; I really like to laugh and I’m pretty goofy. I’ve been told, especially by my mother who is a writer and reads my stuff sometimes when I give it to her, that she can’t see anything of me in something I write because it’s so straightforward.
My writing can be intense in a way that borders on sad or emotional. Then, there’s none of me in it; I’m a goofy person. That’s something I want to work on, that balance. Either I can write something that’s funny, like an article about snowballs, or I can write something that’s just straightforward. So, I think being able to find that balance would be really cool. I think that Tom Wolfe did that. Susan Faludi does it a little bit. But that’s that. What was the second part of that question?
Q: Oh, just kind of what sets you apart, what makes you different. Your answer is interesting. I’m an international development minor and we discuss how, if we were to become researchers in the field, our perspective would affect our research. In some of the things I’ve read, the author or the researcher will acknowledge that his or her identity influences the research. So, it’s interesting when people are navigating how to insert themselves in their work.
A: I read a lot of sociological texts, just over the course of being at Smith, and I started noticing that authors would include a part at the beginning explaining what brought them to this research and a general bit about them. So, maybe not saying their identity will influence their work, but instead just stating it. I started to notice that more.
Also, I noticed this while completing my capstone at Smith. This is happening more and more. It’s a trend in media and in academia; people are inserting themselves and drawing on their own experience more even in academic texts. Or they’re questioning the idea of objectivity. With the #MeToo movement and what’s happened with it, people are okay right now questioning the status quo that’s been there forever. You could say it’s almost post-facts because while it’s based on facts and it’s real, it’s more emotion driven. Maybe because that’s what worked for Trump, so people are identifying that it can go the other way too.
This interview was completed for the class Alternative Journalism, which is taught by Kelley Crawford at Tulane University. The interview has been edited and configured for publication.