2017 Daniel Pearl Intern: Emma Johanningsmeier

Emma Johanningsmeier

Emma Johanningsmeier has been chosen as the 2017 Daniel Pearl Memorial Journalism Intern.

Johanningsmeier is a junior double-majoring in Comparative Literature and Italian. She has studied in Italy and lived in Germany, and previously interned at the Omaha World-Herald in Omaha, Nebraska, her hometown. She loves learning foreign languages, and is currently studying her sixth one.

A committee of Stanford Department of Communication faculty members evaluated applicants for the internship. The Wall Street Journal made the final decision.

The internship was established to commemorate the work and ideals of Pearl, a Stanford graduate and Wall Street Journal foreign correspondent who was kidnapped and murdered in Pakistan in 2002. Pearl, a 1985 graduate of the Department of Communication, was kidnapped in Karachi on Jan. 23, 2002, while working on a story retracing the steps of “shoe bomber” Richard Reid. A month later, on Feb. 21, his captors released a videotape of his slaying. He was 38.

Explaining the untranslatable

By Emma Johanningsmeier

It looked by all means like a paradigmatic college scene: some housemates and I hanging out in our kitchen at 3 a.m. one night recently, avoiding homework. But there was no inane conversation or beer pong going on here.

Instead, all eyes were on me as I explained what had struck me the most while studying in Italy: the way Italian eyes follow you, full-body-scan you, and meet your gaze and hold it in a way American eyes rarely do. It wasn’t just a meaningless habit, I argued — it revealed something deeper about Italian culture. Sometimes, it was deeply disconcerting.

“Maybe,” I concluded, “some cultural things are just untranslatable.”

Untranslatable, though, does not mean unexplainable. Since returning to the U.S. this August, I’ve found myself engaged in many conversations like that one, doing my best to interpret for others the subtle “cultural things” I now feel so attuned to. I’ve realized that I learned about Italy not just because I speak its national language, but because I’m a careful observer, because I really listen when I talk to people, and because I have an uncontrollable habit of connecting everything I learn. I’ve realized, too, that when you sense you can read people and cultures in a way not everyone can, you feel an obligation to articulate what you see.

At each of the publications I have reported for, I have used journalism to do exactly this — explain cultures to each other — and the results have been deeply rewarding, particularly in my hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. In telling the story of an Ethiopian immigrant community struggling to thrive, presenting alternate perspectives on America’s dropping of the atomic bombs in World War II, and profiling a African-American man running wonderful summer programs for kids in a still quite segregated city, I was able to show readers things they wouldn’t otherwise have seen.

You don’t always walk away from these stories smiling. Some people were upset about my Hiroshima story, and even thoughtfully written pieces about Trump supporters certainly don’t leave people reassured. But these things have to be explained, especially because “big-picture” things — international conflicts, religious extremism, and economics, for example — often have deep roots in seemingly innocuous “cultural things.” Who, for example, would claim that America’s foreign policy has no connection with values held by everyday Americans?

As a journalist, it’s easy to unintentionally use ordinary people as stock characters, a way to put a human face on a predetermined agenda with the goal of effecting “bigger” changes. Many journalists, including me, struggle with this. As a student of literature, though, I have learned this: main characters in any good story, literary or journalistic, are firmly themselves while at the same time being something beyond themselves in that they relate to a larger “plot.” Daniel Pearl certainly knew this. A good journalist can relate human stories to the “plot” effectively and respectfully, using people as characters without minimizing their personhood or the dignity of their individual stories.

I have taken a break from journalism recently, but I am eager and ready to come back. The events of the past year, from the U.S. elections to terrorist attacks to the escalating migrant crises, have impressed on me the urgent need and high demand for serious, meaningful journalism. Meanwhile, my own experience becoming an “interpreter” of American and Italian culture has reminded me that like Daniel Pearl, I have both the ability and responsibility to help continue the proud tradition of journalism that is simultaneously “human-interest” and hard- hitting. The two are not mutually exclusive, and never have been. I hope I can take that to heart in my work next summer and beyond.