New York Times multimedia reporter speaks to journalism students

Jonah Kessel, who has reported in more than 50 countries, advised students on starting their media careers.

Jonah Kessel, a multimedia journalist at The New York Times, shows clips of his work and discusses his role on the Pulitzer Prize-winning team to Journalism Department Chair David Mindich's Journalism and Society class on Thursday. | JEREMY ELVAS / THE TEMPLE NEWS

From following a Tibetan man fighting for language rights through China to documenting the views of North Korean citizens on the United States, Jonah Kessel has traveled the world, covering stories that often go untold.

After working in more than 50 countries including Singapore, Romania and North Korea, Kessel now lives in New Jersey and works for The New York Times as a senior staff video journalist.

On Thursday, Kessel spoke in the introductory journalism course, Journalism and Society, taught by David Mindich, chair of the department. Kessel showed students his videos and gave tips about pursuing a career in journalism.

Kessel has won several awards for his work. A reporting team he was on at The New York Times won a Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Journalism in 2012. 

“He interviewed people with addictions, Chinese officials, NGOs to find the root of the problems associated with jade trade,” Mindich told The Temple News. “It’s the kind of journalism that we like to teach here at Temple. Investigating difficult stories, telling stories that others may not tell.”

At The New York Times, Kessel documented the jade trade’s connection to Chinese markets and how a lot of the miners experienced an addiction to drugs. This type of trade consists of mining and distributing the highly-coveted jade gem, mainly produced in Myanmar.

Kessel has also covered issues like the human trafficking of Burmese refugees and immigrants who have been flagged for deportation from the United States.

One video followed Tashi Wangchuk, a Tibetan man who fought for the right to have Tibetan language courses taught in Chinese schools. Kessel documented Wangchuk as he spoke to government officials and tried to increase public interest in the issue.

After Kessel’s 2015 documentary on Wangchuk was released, Tashi was imprisoned when the Chinese government believed he was actually fighting for Tibetan independence.

As the video got attention, international publications like The Japan Times covered Wangchuk’s story, and the United Nations Human Rights Council condemned his sentencing.

Kessel first crossed paths with Professor Mindich as a journalism and mass communications student at Saint Michael’s College in Colchester, Vermont, where Mindich taught from 1996 to 2017. Kessel was a student in Mindich’s Mass Communication and Society course.  

“He stood out as an inquisitive student that challenged a lot in class,” Mindich said. “It was seen from an early age that he would succeed.”  

After graduating from Saint Michael’s College in 2005, Kessel worked as a photojournalist for more than four years. He then freelanced before relocating to China to produce videos for The New York Times.

Kessel said he feels guilty and responsible for Wangchuk’s imprisonment, but that Wangchuk knew the consequences he faced in his language activism.

The uncertainty of how Wangchuk is doing weighs on him.

Freshman journalism student Aliyah Kimmey said it was fascinating knowing someone who was in the exact seat as her, in Mindich’s class, could reach this level of success.

“Listening to his presentation, it definitely opened my eyes as to how many different fields of journalism are out there,” she added.

Freshman journalism major Jeremy Elvas, an aspiring photojournalist, felt a personal connection to Kessel’s discussion.

“He has my dream job, having to work for a renowned media outlet like that,” Elvas said. “Seeing him do exactly what I want to do, it was inspiring.”

Kessel advised the room of aspiring journalists to be persistent.

“Trying is more important than succeeding,” he said. “Oftentimes in digital culture…likes, views and analytics and metrics are surrounding us as the high bar for success. I don’t think that should dictate what we should do journalistically.”

Mindich said he hopes his students leave the discussion understanding how broad the industry is, how to think outside the box and the different ways to tell news stories.

While the industry is competitive, Kessel added it shouldn’t be the main motivator to succeed in journalism.

“It isn’t the reason to follow your dream,” Kessel said. “There is room for storytellers and a thirst for storytellers. Documentary video has a renaissance going on right now.”

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