MacArthur Fellow Sarah Stillman Helps Journalism School Sustain Long-Form Reporting

November 16, 2016
Sarah Stillman MacArthur Genius Grant Winner

Photo courtesy of John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

When the call came, Sarah Stillman was just sitting down to write, her head filled with anxieties about her work. “I’m a stereotypically angsty writer,” she laughed. “Every single story I’ve ever done, I’ve had moments of being entirely lost and confused.”

The 32-year-old journalist then learned that she had been named one of 23 “geniuses” to win a 2016 fellowship from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, a prize that carries with it $625,000 in grant money.

“It was a surreal and gratitude-inducing call,” Stillman said. “The award is a wonderful injection of confidence in the work.” Stillman was one of three Columbians to be recognized by the MacArthurs this year. Art historian and curator Kellie Jones, an associate professor in the department of Art History and Archaeology and poet Claudia Rankine (SOA’93) also won grants for their work.

A New Yorker staff writer who also teaches and directs the Global Migration Project at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, Stillman has every reason for confidence. Over the last five years, she has made a name for herself in the world of investigative journalism for richly empathetic stories that expose policies and institutions affecting society’s most vulnerable.

“The MacArthur grant will give me the breathing room to pursue investigative projects where the outcome isn’t preordained,” Stillman said. “Sometimes you have to go down complicated roads and trust that it’s okay to take a risk and follow your intuition.”

For journalists squeezed in the vise of shrinking newsrooms and the 24-hour news cycle, taking risks on time-consuming, research-driven stories has become exceedingly rare. Deeply researched, long-form journalism has long been a pillar of the Journalism School, where Stillman’s Global Migration Project has helped students pursue stories with worldwide scope, from unofficial refugee camps in France to child marriage in the U.S. She now works alongside a team of graduate students covering gender and migration.

“This is journalism that doesn’t necessarily sell newspapers or advertising or get eyeballs, but it’s journalism that’s nonetheless important,” said Professor Sheila Coronel, director of the Journalism School’s Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Reporting. “Sarah has shown us how it can be done through deep research and compelling storytelling.”

Growing up in Washington D.C., Stillman always wanted to write in a way that would have an impact. As an undergraduate at Yale University, she was founder and editor of a campus interdisciplinary feminist journal, Manifesta, and co-directed the Student Legal Action Movement, a group devoted to reforming the American prison system.

In 2008, after finishing a Marshall Scholarship to continue her studies in cultural and social anthropology at Oxford, Stillman traveled to Iraq as a reporter for the first time. She was unsure if she was temperamentally suited to the male-dominated, adrenaline-fueled style of conflict reporting. Talking with dozens of warzone journalists and members of the armed forces helped her understand military procedures, meet trustworthy Iraqi sources, find translators and deal with every type of logistic. The prospect was daunting, but she was eventually embedded in the 116th Military Police Company as a freelancer for online news site Truthdig.

“I didn’t know much about what I was getting myself into,” Stillman said. “I bought my body armor from some random website—bullet-proof-me dot com.”

With an award from NYU’s Carter Journalism Institute, Stillman traveled to Kandahar in the summer of 2010 to investigate the lives of workers brought to U.S. military bases under false pretenses by Pentagon sub-contractors. She hoped to tell the story of these men and women from around the world who gave soldiers pedicures, cleaned their bathrooms and were often starving or victims of sexual abuse.

Back in the U.S., editors wary of readers’ war fatigue and Stillman’s untested reporting, rejected the idea, so she just wrote the story. “It made me realize you can’t just drop a story you’ve spent a year of your life on and expect that things will instantly change,” said Stillman. “Most issues are complex and can’t be solved with a single silver bullet.”

She sent her draft to The New Yorker and in 2011 they published “The Invisible Army,” which sparked a shake up among policy makers and human rights advocates. Congresswoman Karen Bass of California referenced the article when introducing an amendment to the Defense Department appropriations bill prohibiting funds from being used for human trafficking. In 2012, President Barack Obama (CC’83) signed an executive order banning noncompliance with existing policies on human trafficking in government contracting.

In the last few years, Stillman has worked on a slate of tough pieces that chart the human toll of systemic problems, including civil asset forfeiture, the kidnapping of migrant children along the U.S.-Mexico border and the privatization of parole.

At Columbia, working through the day-to-day reporting knots with students is one of Stillman’s favorite parts of teaching. The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, which provides resources for reporters and trains students for the challenging work of conflict reporting, has been a particular refuge.

“It’s wonderful that Columbia has been such a font of resources,” Stillman said. “They’re thinking about the self-care to let us sustain this work for decades. It’s really special.”

—By Acacia O'Connor