Local Journalist Heroes: Michelle Kanaar and Nissa Rhee
This Q&A is part of Local Heroes: Journalists Covering COVID-19, PEN America’s series spotlighting local journalists across the country in celebration of World Press Freedom Day 2020, elevating the importance of a free, vibrant, and inclusive press.
Name: Michelle Kanaar and Nissa Rhee
Outlet: Borderless Magazine
City: Chicago, IL
What do you consider to be the biggest threats to a free and vibrant press in the midst of this crisis?
NISSA RHEE: I think the two biggest threats right now are a lack of money and a political climate that demonizes journalists. So many news outlets in Chicago and elsewhere are hurting right now, and many are cutting back their staff or coverage during the pandemic because of cuts in ad revenue or donations. While there is a real hunger for great journalism right now, our work is being undermined by a narrative that reporters are just fear mongering. It’s a hard narrative to dispel because we are living in such scary times. But we’re doing our part at Borderless Magazine by uplifting stories of resilience and hope.
“There’s so much bad news out there, but it’s been amazing to see people work together to protect each other and push for larger systemic changes.”
How have the advent of the COVID-19 outbreak and social distancing requirements changed your reporting and the way your newsroom operates more broadly?
MICHELLE KANAAR: The style of our reporting has had to shift in order to prioritize the safety of those we interview and photograph, as well as ourselves. Before the pandemic, we usually conducted interviews in person and spent one to two hours photographing in order to build trust and intimacy. Now, we have to conduct all of our interviews over the phone. We are trying to incorporate more illustrations and user-generated photographs. When we do photograph, it is only from at least 10 feet away, outside and with a mask. We are constantly making sure the other person feels safe and comfortable with the process.
What stories have you reported on that have given you the most hope?
RHEE: I have been inspired by the people who are working hard to support those in danger during the coronavirus pandemic, whether they are people in immigrant jails or people in nursing homes. There’s so much bad news out there, but it’s been amazing to see people work together to protect each other and push for larger systemic changes.
About Michelle Kanaar and Nissa Rhee
Michelle Kanaar is the art director and a cofounder of Borderless Magazine. She is thoroughly committed to social justice issues and is the proud daughter of immigrants from Colombia and the Netherlands. She grew up speaking Spanish and English and studied Arabic and Middle Eastern studies for her bachelor’s. She has a master’s in journalism from the University of Missouri. She is also a cofounder of the Prism Photo Workshop, whose mission is to provide resources and support for young photographers of diverse backgrounds to tell the stories of underrepresented people and communities with dignity. She’s a big fan of plants and kindness.
Nissa Rhee is the executive director and cofounder of Borderless Magazine. She is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor and Chicago Magazine. In her decade-plus career, she has covered global issues as a producer at Chicago Public Radio, served as a foreign correspondent in South Korea and Vietnam, and reported on police abuse and gun violence in Chicago. In 2019, she received the Chicago Headline Club award for best online feature story. Previously, she served as a reporting fellow at the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma and a juvenile justice reporting fellow at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. She holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago and a master’s degree in international studies from the University of Queensland.