ACP Story of the Year Spotlight Series: Natalie Daher, Editor-in-Chief, The Pitt News, University of Pittsburgh

By Denise Sciasci & Jessica SweeneyCMM correspondents

Last fall, Natalie Daher reported for The Pitt News on the emergence of LGBTQ members and traditions within the Greek community at the University of Pittsburgh.

The 3,500-word story is rich with sociological context and candid interviews with individuals ranging from Pitt’s openly gay Inter-Fraternity Council President to a Delta Chi fraternity brother who doubles as the student president of the school’s Rainbow Alliance.

As Daher, 21, the editor-in-chief of the Pitt News, writes, “In an increasingly sexually diverse society, the ‘Animal House’ fraternity reputation of boozing and pawing at women is slowly changing. As University of Pittsburgh Greek society members reveal their sexuality, Pitt’s decades-old Greek culture is being challenged by the membership of openly gay, lesbian and bisexual students.”

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The piece — headlined “Gay and Greek: Reconciling the Old with the New at Pitt” — has been named a winner of the 2014 ACP Diversity Story of the Year award. The ACP awards, informally known as the student press Pulitzers, are among the most prestigious honors bestowed upon college journalists and their media outlets. Like an Oscar nomination, simply attaining finalist status is a mark of distinction student journos can humble-brag about on resumés and in job interviews for their entire post-grad careers.

While not affiliated in any way with the ACP awards, this CMM special series aims to tell the stories behind some of the year’s most impacting college media work — in the words of the students who created them.

In that spirit, in the exclusive Q&A below, Daher, a Pitt senior from Broomall, Pa., discusses her reporting efforts on the story, the power of including a sociological perspective and the importance of occasionally asking what she calls “uncomfortable questions.”

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Natalie Daher, 21, a native of Broomall, Pa., is a senior at the University of Pittsburgh and the editor-in-chief of The Pitt News.

What compelled you to tackle this story?

I was actually approached by [a Pitt News editor]. He let us know what was going on in Greek life, but I kind of took it to a different level and expanded it to other areas of Greek life and also sociological perspectives of Greek life. I think everyone enters college with some kind of opinion about Greek organizations, and then those opinions are further changed by pop culture. I just saw “Neighbors” last summer and it presents a pretty one-sided account of what Greek life is like, so this gave me an opportunity to shed some light on the real fundamental values presented. …

I think it showed these longstanding traditions and rituals that are ingrained in Greek life may be changing, or should be changing, because every generation is different. And it’s something that makes Greek life sustainable when you have a generation of members who are more inclined to gear a little bit more to the social or liberal side.

What surprised you most during your reporting?

I was surprised by the fact that [Greek life] is not what everyone thinks. It’s not only about the parties and appearances and things like that. It’s not as superficial as people interpret it to be. But then you also have the sources. I had one anonymous source who is bisexual and she didn’t reveal that to her sorority sisters because she felt like it would affect her ability to do her job. Things like that show we’ve progressed and veered away from the “Animal House” presentation, but we still have a ways to go.

Why is it important for students to know that Greek life is changing some of its traditions?

Greek life is the type of organization that draws opinions from people who are and aren’t involved in it. It’s also notoriously had a stigma for exclusivity that is reinforced by pop culture portrayals, like “Animal House” or recently “Neighbors.” This is why I wanted to show students the parts of Greek life they might not otherwise see, even if they are members. I think it’s important for students to understand the types of relationships fraternity and sorority members value, especially if it contradicts the stereotypes frequently attached to Greek life.

“I learned most of all a lot about reporting. I learned that expanding a piece that might seem to narrowly focus on a few people’s stories with context makes it richer and applicable to more readers outside of my university.”

Who did you track down and interview to help tell this story?

Initially, my main source [the university’s Inter-Fraternity Council president Zach Patton] reached out to us at the Pitt News, and I took the story. Zach was able to provide me with contact information for some of his Sigma Chi brothers who were interested in speaking, as well as some alums from the 1970s. Then I sought out some sorority sisters on my own by word of mouth. I also interviewed an anonymous source who I’d been connected with through another sorority sister. And for the sociological angle, I searched through Pitt’s sociology department online to find someone whose studies aligned with the article’s subject — and Melanie Hughes was willing to interview with me.

What did you personally learn while reporting this story?

I learned most of all a lot about reporting. I learned that expanding a piece that might seem to narrowly focus on a few people’s stories with context makes it richer and applicable to more readers outside of my university.

1During your time with the Pitt News, have you reported on any similar issues?

I haven’t written about homosexuality other than in this piece, but I am interested in writing on diversity issues. During my sophomore year as a staff writer at the Pitt News, I localized a couple of national news topics on gender, like the lift on banning women in combat from the front lines and the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. I also really enjoy writing about religion since it alters the way we live our lives. I wrote on a group of religious students, particularly Muslim students, who were fighting for an on-campus prayer room last year. It grew out of another story I’d written about how students’ religious identification affects their experience at the university. At the start of this year, Pitt opened a newly renovated floor, which includes a reflection room.

What advice would you offer student journalists interested in tackling a similar story?

One thing I learned from this was definitely looking at the sociological angle of the story. I feel like that really rounded it out and takes a topic that may seem kind of narrow, like Greek life on Pitt’s campus, and expands it to Greek life as a whole or in our country — because most colleges have it. I would also say don’t be nervous to ask uncomfortable questions, but be careful about the tone you use. That’s definitely one thing I learned: Be sensitive to your subject and let them speak for themselves as much as possible.

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