"Instead of going dark, which is my natural inclination, I was asked to try to provide some inspiration for you all. Those who know me know that's going to be a challenge," quipped Nikole Hannah-Jones.
"What an amazing feeling it is to stand before so many journalists whose work I admire, whose work I read and watch and for whom I have so much respect. It's kind of one of those moments when you have to take stock of how far you've come," she continued, "because in many ways, I'm not supposed to be here."
Hannah-Jones recounted the story of how her grandmother loaded Hannah-Jones's father and his siblings on a Mississippi train bound for Chicago with nothing but "a suitcase and a bag of fried chicken and hopes and determination that her children were not going to pick cotton she had been forced to do."
Hannah-Jones's family wouldn't make it to Chicago. Instead, they put down roots in Iowa. And though they believed they had escaped the racism of the South, they would soon learn they had not.
"After fleeing the cotton fields of Mississippi, [my grandmother] got pretty much the only job available to black people of her lot. She cleaned the homes of white people in our town, and in fact she would clean for white people her entire life."
"I never forget for a second the tremendous debt that I owe by grandmother and all the people across this land that share a story similar to hers," Hannah-Jones said. "And I repay that debt, or at least I try to, by telling the stories of people like my grandmother and their progeny, and by showing how power is so often wielded against them, and by amplifying their voices in a media landscape that, even now, too often ignores their stories altogether or distorts them when we tell them at all."
She also touched on the lack of transparency and the surge of misinformation coming from the new presidential administration. Every day, she said, news organizations like The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Politico, BuzzFeed and many others continue to push the boundaries with their political coverage and watchdog investigations.
"I'll say it again: What an amazing time to be a journalist."
Hannah-Jones then took a moment to applaud the fact that news organizations have found a way to demonstrate their value to a society that had long accepted that it should not have to pay for news. Readers are once again opening their wallets to pay for subscriptions to The Washington Post, The New York Times and many other publications.
"Like I always say, 'Bad for humanity. Good for journalism.'"
But she also remained firm on the profession's failures to truly reflect America's racial diversity. "The trust we hope to build is sabotaged by the way that our newsrooms continue to reflect an America that is long gone."
"One can even look around this room and understand that in investigative reporting, the most critical of reporting, the lack of diversity is glaring and should be shameful," Hannah-Jones continued.
"It is not enough for good people to wring their hands about the problem," she went on.
"Hire people like me," Hannah-Jones said, "who no one ever saw as an investigative reporter until one person took a chance on me... And I feel like we're not taking enough of those good bets on journalists of color." The result of this failure, Hannah-Jones said, is that we are sabotaging trust in our communities, leaving talent on the table, and most importantly, missing so many stories.
"We must do better. We can do better. The only question is, will we do better?"
In closing, Hannah-Jones cautioned against the idea that the Trump presidency is the root of all social ills.
"It's true that for millions of Americans, they felt let down long before Donald Trump took office. They were neglected, they were often abused by those in charge of taking care of them. They feared — justifiably — that their government was not working in their own best interests."
"It was not under Donald Trump that the residents of Flint, Michigan, were made to drink poisoned water. It was not under Donald Trump that Philando Castile was killed by a police officer when he was just trying to get his family home for the night. It wasn't under Trump that states passed, all across the country, laws that made it harder for black, Latino, and low-income citizens to exercise the very fundamental aspect of their citizenship, which is their right to vote. And Trump is not the first president to snatch people from their families and order them back to their home countries."