Finding Refuge in the Newsroom

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Photo of Amna Nawaz

This Pakistani American journalist adds “complexity and nuance” to a wide range of issues around the globe.

Amna Nawaz C’01 learned from her parents to “do what you love and throw yourself into it,” she says. “I always thought that would be law because I love to write, I love to argue, and I love learning new things. I thought every new case would offer that.”

But after graduating from Penn, she needed a break from school and accepted a yearlong fellowship at ABC News’ Nightline. A few weeks later, she was covering the 9/11 attacks. “That changed everything,” she says. “It changed our country. It changed our world. It certainly changed how I was perceived as a Muslim woman in this country. It really just pulled the rug out from under me.”

Amid rising Islamophobia, she felt scrutinized for “being a visible brown woman in America.” On the subway, she nervously turned her grandmother’s prayer ring around to conceal its Arabic script. The newsroom became a refuge—“a place that was just in search of the facts,” she says. “And that kind of focus, I think, really grounded me.”

It still does. At difficult moments, she recalls the advice of one mentor, the late political reporter and analyst Cokie Roberts, to just “duck and file.” After stints with ABC News and NBC News, Nawaz is now a senior national correspondent and primary substitute anchor for PBS NewsHour, as well as host of NewsHour’s arts and culture series, Beyond the Canvas.

The PBS gigs capitalize on Nawaz’s diverse interests and ability to segue from charm to toughness. She can quiz singer Reba McEntire about the country music scene, then grill Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan about his mass imprisonment of journalists and political opponents. In December 2019, she became the first Muslim American to moderate a presidential debate, memorably asking Democratic contender Andrew Yang to react to being the only candidate of color left in the race. “I don’t see anything incongruent with being able to one day have a tough interview with an administration official, and then the next day turning around and interviewing Yo-Yo Ma or talking to Ray Allen about his NBA career,” Nawaz says.

At a Fortune magazine conference, Nawaz brought rigor and scarcely concealed outrage to her interrogation of former US secretary of homeland security Kirstjen Nielsen about the Trump administration’s policy of family separation at the southern border. The encounter reflected Nawaz’s passion for stories about women and children, and especially immigrants and refugees.  

Journalism is the family business, though Nawaz never expected to enter it. Her father, a Pakistani broadcast journalist, came to the US in the early 1970s to attend Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and stayed. Her mother joined him soon afterwards, abandoning her medical studies in Pakistan and devoting herself to raising three daughters. 

“We had kind of a dual upbringing,” Nawaz, the middle child, recalls. School years were spent in Alexandria, Virginia, and summers in Pakistan, “to see our family and learn our language and our culture and our history,” she says. “We grew up straddling both worlds and cultures, something a lot of first-generation kids can relate to.”

At Penn, she captained the field hockey team; majored in politics, philosophy, and economics; and spent the spring semester of her junior year studying abroad at the University of Zimbabwe. Researching her senior thesis on “the viability of democracy in fledgling states,” she saw, in the country’s descent into violence, “what happens when a democracy crumbles.”

After Nightline, Nawaz completed a master’s degree in comparative politics at the London School of Economics. Meanwhile, though, “the US war in Iraq started,” she says, “and I immediately felt this pull, like I had to be there.”

She knew she had found her path. Still, she sometimes felt isolated. “One of the things I’ve always felt I was lacking was other women who look like me, and I think that’s been a challenge,” she says, “and it continues to be a challenge for a number of women of color. Because oftentimes you look ahead at the job that you know you can do, and that you think you need a chance to do, but there hasn’t been someone like you in the role.”

After working as a producer and investigative journalist, Nawaz became the Islamabad bureau chief and correspondent for NBC, reporting on Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the region. Her background, including her fluency in Urdu, “absolutely was an advantage,” she says. She covered the US raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound and the Taliban attempt to murder Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani activist for female education who later won the Nobel Peace Prize.

During her first pregnancy, Nawaz relocated to New York City. She covered foreign affairs, oversaw a new multiplatform project aimed at the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, and shared an Emmy Award for an NBC News Special, Inside the Obama White House.

In 2015, ABC offered her a job anchoring its livestream coverage. “It was a chance to help build something,” she says. She joined the network seven months pregnant with her second child, and after a few weeks of maternity leave, plunged into anchoring election coverage and other breaking news. (Her husband, Paul Werdel, a fellow journalist and former product director for the New York Times, has since become the primary caregiver for their two daughters.)

At ABC, Nawaz reported a documentary from the Texas Panhandle, Roberts County: A Year in the Most Pro-Trump Town, and hosted a podcast, Uncomfortable, about issues dividing the country. When Donald Trump W’68 won the presidency, she says, “we knew it was going to challenge us, and I think that definitely proved to be true.” Forcing the press to confront the spread of misinformation and polarizing political rhetoric, she adds, “pushed us to be better.”

In 2018, she accepted an offer by PBS NewsHour to combine anchoring and reporting, along with “thoughtful storytelling and space for thoughtful conversations”—what she calls “the dream job for a journalist.”

For NewsHour, Nawaz followed the journey of an asylum-seeking three-year-old Mexican girl, Sofi, separated from her grandmother at the Texas border. They were reunited seven weeks later in California, where Sofi’s mother also was waiting. “I lived every minute of that story,” Nawaz says. For another piece, she traveled to Brazil to report on the welcome extended to Venezuelan refugees fleeing economic and political chaos.

“There are no good guys or bad guys, or good countries or bad countries,” Nawaz says. “It’s our job to add the complexity and nuance. And the Brazil trip hit perfectly at the intersection of the things that I always try to guide my journalism with: you give a voice to the people who don’t have any power, and then you hold the people who do have power to account.”

During the pandemic, Nawaz has covered the experience of frontline medical workers and vaccine rollouts in Virginia and West Virginia, and hosted a podcast series, America, Interrupted: The Longest Year. She reported from the US Capitol grounds during the January 6 riots and, in March, traveled to the southern border to explore the plight of unaccompanied children and other migrants.

With the ongoing public health and economic crises and America’s attempt to redefine its place in the world, “there are so many problems that need urgent addressing,” says Nawaz, now back in her childhood hometown of Alexandria. “Anyone who thought things would slow down after the Trump administration was sorely mistaken. If anything, there are more stories that we need to be telling right now.”

Julia M. Klein

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    4 Responses

    1. Wendy

      Congratulations, Amna, on your very recent promotion at PBS. I so hoped that you would be chosen when Judy announced that she was leaving the NewsHour. You are a strong, warm, intelligent journalist. Thanks for all you give to us!

    2. Lynn Bresnen

      Amna, you are a regular visitor in our home every evening, along with your colleagues at PBS. You are consistently interesting in your presentations of the varied news you present. We count on your honest and factual commentary.

    3. Congratulations, Amna, on your stellar career and gutsy reporting. I watched you on January 6 reporting from the Capitol, which, like 9/11, will probably be seen as a turning point in recent US politics. I’m a NewsHour regular!

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