In 2020, grantee Victoria Mckenzie won the Pulitzer Center’s first $10,000 Breakthrough Journalism Award, which recognizes Pulitzer Center-affiliated freelance journalists who produce excellent work covering underreported issues. Mckenzie, who was chosen from a pool of 94 applicants, won the award for the project Nowhere to Turn, in which she collaborated with the Associated Press and National Native News.
The project investigates the high rates of sexual assault against Alaska Native women and the systemic failure of law enforcement to get survivors justice, or, in many cases, even complete a report on the allegations. Mckenzie zooms in on Nome, a remote Alaskan town overlooking the Bering Sea, and chronicles the stories of several local Alaska Native women who have had their experiences of abuse erased by the authorities they went to for support.
“Media coverage of the #MeToo movement has mostly ignored women of color, especially American Indian and Alaska Native women, even though they are at a higher risk of sexual violence,” Breakthrough Journalism Award judge Rhitu Chatterjee said. Mckenzie’s vivid reporting and nuanced portrayal of Native women, not solely as victims, but as agents of change, set her project apart to the judges.
Pulitzer Center Outreach and Communications Intern Naomi Andu spoke to Mckenzie about reporting on such an emotionally fraught topic, her circuitous path to journalism, and what winning the Breakthrough Journalism Award meant to her. Applications for the second annual Breakthrough Journalism Award are due on March 1, 2021.
The following Q&A has been edited for clarity and length.
Naomi Andu: You studied Asian studies, Chinese literature, and music, and worked as a professional musician for a while—how did you end up in journalism?
Victoria Mckenzie: Oh, I feel like it was kind of inevitable considering my interests. Music was ... I just could not give it up for the longest time. So I really wanted to do journalism, but I had the music bug. So eventually, when I could close the door on that, I was able to switch.
In college I knew I wanted to work with community writing projects, and I did that when I first moved to New York. I did book projects with kids. It was very much community reporting: They were walking around with recorders, and throw-away cameras, and interviewing people, and we would then publish it as this book. So I did a few of those. And I was always interviewing people that I met. You would have thought that [journalism] would have come to me before, but I feel in retrospect it was inevitable.
I did get a scholarship to J-school here in New York, but it was going to be too much money; I couldn't afford to live in New York and not work full time. So I decided to go to Colombia—the opportunity presented itself—and work there for the first time in a newsroom, and it was a real trial by fire. It was great. I worked on the conflict issues and then some longer-running corruption projects. So that's where my interest in public corruption and public malfeasance really grew.
NA: Your project, Nowhere to Turn, focused on Alaska Native women whose sexual assault allegations were being ignored in Nome, Alaska. Nome is such a small, remote town—how did you know there was a story there?
VM: I was looking at Alaska because prior to leaving my job—I was deputy editor at The Crime Report—I had done a long piece on the Ninth Circuit case, which includes Alaska, in which the plaintiffs are trying to decriminalize sex work. And then I became familiar with some strange laws in Alaska and what effect they were having on women on the ground. I started really taking a critical look at the role of traditional crime reporting in the United States and feeling like it tended toward being quite credulous of authorities. So I was paying attention to Alaska. And then, I listen to National Native News—they have a five-minute news story every day that I listen to regularly—and I heard about these women in Nome, and I was really curious. Here were some women working on the ground, advocating for themselves. These were not professional advocates. I really wanted to find out what was going on. I spoke with the news director at National Native News, and he was very interested in that story.
NA: You were in the field for three months, 100 miles from the Arctic Circle, reporting on an extremely emotionally charged subject. What was the most challenging part of the reporting process for you?
VM: I think reporters can deal with a lot in the field. I think we're tough people. I think the most important thing is support from colleagues, and as a freelancer, that can be really difficult to find. You don't have daily contact with other peers necessarily. I think as a freelancer on a story like this, you need to have emotional support. Make sure that you've got it because this is not just for your own health and sanity, it's for the story. You need to make sure that you have enough money to take a day off. And in Nome, that's a little bit hard when everybody in the town is your source. So I think that's the most difficult thing: really wanting somebody else there to talk about what was going on. And of course, everything's confidential, so [you’re] getting these stories that are just tearing you apart, and you can't talk to anybody about them.
[Associated Press photographer Wong Maye-E] came for the last few days, and that was wonderful. I really wish we could have spent more time together in the field. But that made such a huge difference, to be able to discuss what we were seeing, different angles of it, doing these debriefs at the end of the day. Just commiserating over some frustrations in the cold.
You can deal with a lot as a freelancer, but some sort of cohort support is very important. I feel like I got that through Pulitzer, through IWMF [International Women’s Media Foundation], and through some informal organizations.
NA: It’s been about a year since your stories published in the Associated Press. Since then, what kind of change have you seen come out of your reporting on Alaska Native women in Nome?
VM: There was a case filed in federal court by the ACLU on behalf of one of my sources, [Clarice] “Bun” Hardy, and on behalf of all other women in Nome, Alaska Native women specifically, whose report was never taken, or it was never investigated, or simply never got any news or closure about the case. So that's a federal lawsuit against the city of Nome and against a former police chief and the lieutenant who was named in one of the medical reports that I obtained.
I think [change] takes continued media pressure. And that's why it was really good to have multiple people looking at it, and multiple outlets looking at it. But the last time I talked to women in Nome, there hadn't been significant change. And then of course, when COVID hit, they were an already financially struggling town, and a struggling police department was hit with another disaster.
I am very indebted to local news for really focusing on the topic and paying attention to what's going on in Nome. But I feel like I took a bit of a different approach; at least, I hope I did. My focus was state-sponsored harm and state-sponsored violence, so in other words, the focus wasn't on who's committing these assaults, unless it was a CPS worker, or a police officer, or somebody with power. I wanted to focus on the public sector responsibility: who's not having any consequences for not doing their job, at best, and then at worst, inflicting harm. I immediately saw an effect, too, because other sources came out and contacted me, and they felt so emboldened and felt not alone anymore. There's so many behind-the-scenes effects of just being there, and I think that we had a big impact, too. As I was there, I saw public agencies and the hospital, which is a private hospital, kind of changing their media policies and starting to think about their records policies.
NA: You won the Pulitzer Center’s first $10,000 Breakthrough Journalism Award in April 2020, just after the pandemic shut everything down in March. The year was tough on the journalism industry, and especially freelance journalists. What did winning the award mean for you at this point in your career?
VM: First of all, it was an immediate morale boost. It came at a time when I was sick with COVID, and following that I had multiple [family] deaths, and it was a calamitous year. So it was an enormous boost as a freelancer working in a vacuum to have somebody appreciate your work like this; it feels amazing. I was left pretty speechless by it. And the second part, I think, is to come: the impact on my career. I feel like going forward in the new year, I anticipate that my relationship with Pulitzer and this award will really keep having a cascading effect.