Pomona Alumni in Journalism Write “The First Draft of History”—Leah Donnella ’13

Leah Donnella stands against a magenta wall.

Leah Donnella is an editor with the NPR Code Switch team, working on a podcast, blog and newsletter. She joined NPR in 2015. Donnella created “Ask Code Switch” in which team members answer listener questions about race, culture and identity in everyday experience. Before coming to NPR, she completed a summer internship with WHYY’s Public Media Commons, where she helped high school students in filmmaking and journalism and, as she put it, “spent a lot of time out in the hot Philly sun tracking down unsuspecting tourists for on-the-street interviews.” Donnella earned a degree in Africana Studies at Pomona College. She also studied Portuguese language at the Instituto Brasil Estados Unidos.

What attracted you to journalism?

I’ve always loved to write, and I enjoy having an excuse to ask people all the questions that I would never feel comfortable throwing at them in a normal conversation. Journalism seemed like such a good combination of getting to do those things while also nerding out on a huge range of topics. Since I started working at NPR, I’ve had to do deep dives on everything from beauty standards to housing segregation to the history of the Hawaiian language. Getting to learn so much every day–and to connect with people doing all kinds of fascinating things–is a joy and privilege.

How did your Pomona College experience prepare you for your career?

Majoring in Africana Studies is one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life. Seriously. The approach of that department is so interdisciplinary. While individual classes may focus on particular topics, the range of ideas you get introduced to is incredibly diverse. Being part of that department taught me how to research, how to think more critically and how to imagine the world from different perspectives. It also helped illuminate the ways that certain narratives get reified while others are marginalized. Those are all skills that I rely on every day as a journalist. When I’m writing or editing a story, I’m asking myself the same questions I was taught to ask in my Africana Studies classes: What do I know, and how do I know it? What do I not know? Where is my information coming from? Whose voices are missing, and why? What assumptions am I making? Why am I framing this story in this particular way? Who benefits?

What has surprised you about being a working journalist?

The biggest surprise is how subjective everything is. As a consumer of news, it’s really easy to read or listen to a finished piece and think of it as set in stone. But when you’re the person putting that story together, you realize how many thousands of different ways there are to frame it. And you start thinking really deeply about the consequences of all of those choices. If I describe someone I’m writing about as 6-feet-3, built like a linebacker and obsessed with heavy metal, it paints them one way. If I describe them as a pizza-lover who has two cats and calls their mom every day, that paints a different picture. All of those details might be true, but what someone decides to invoke at any given moment can transform the way a story is interpreted. I don’t think I fully processed that before getting into the industry–or how many hours I would spend dissecting those sorts of details with my colleagues.

What has been your most memorable experience so far in your career?

Well, there’s memorable good and memorable bad. One of the toughest moments early in my career was the week that two Black men, Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, were killed by police within the span of a day or two. I work on NPR’s race team, so that was a story we had to cover. And I remember so clearly the nausea I felt being in the office that day, trying to learn as much as I could about these incidents and to write in a coherent way while also trying to subdue my grief. That certainly wasn’t the last time I’ve felt that way. The past few years have provided many, many more examples, but it was my first glimpse into that type of reporting.

Memorable good? There are also a lot of those. One was traveling with two teammates to Hawaii to report on local efforts to revitalize the Hawaiian language. Many of the people involved in that effort had only learned Hawaiian as adults, after their parents or grandparents were basically coerced out of speaking it. These people had then made the decision to create communities, households and schools where their kids would be fully immersed in Hawaiian, learning it as their primary language. It was an incredibly difficult undertaking to try to preserve a language and culture that colonialism had almost killed. Being able to meet some of the leaders of that effort was a real honor.

What energizes you as a journalist?

Being surprised energizes me. I’m kind of a naturally jaded person, and it’s easy for me to sometimes think that everything is the same and nothing matters. Then I interview someone who says something I’ve never thought about before. Or I’m researching something and realize that there are entire historical movements that I have never even heard of. I usually hate it when people talk about “being humbled,” but I think being a journalist really is humbling in the best way. You spend so much time being like, “How are there so many things I don’t know?” “How am I so unbelievably ignorant?” “How did I go my whole life making this assumption that is not even close to being true?” And then you feel amazing, because the world has just opened up to you in this unexpected and beautiful way, and you have an invitation to explore it.

How does a journalist do work to be proud of in these polarized times?

It will sound simple, but I think one of the most important things I’ve learned is to try to center your audience in your work. Journalists love to tell ourselves that what we’re doing is for Truth or Democracy or Bearing Witness–these lofty, somewhat distant ideals. I find it more helpful to think really specifically about who will read or listen to my work. That audience can be large or small. It can be individuals or groups. It can be extremely powerful people or extremely marginalized people. But whoever it is, I want to ask: What is useful or enlightening for them to know? What are they owed? What do they owe others? What can they do with the information they’re given?

Good journalism, to me, provides people with accurate information and context that can help them interpret it. That, in turn, can people help lead richer, more engaged, more ethical lives. Not every piece of journalism has to do all of those things, of course. But ultimately, we’re just humans communicating with other humans. So it helps to step back and think–who is this actually for, and why?