Writing about home is complicated, reporter says

One of my favorite classes of the semester was hearing from Pulitzer Center reporters Jenna Kunze and Alice Qannik Glenn. All I want to do with my life is write stories like they do, stories that really touch people’s lives and educate people on things they might not have known about otherwise. Listening to the complexities and nuance in their reporting was incredible. For my assignment after they visited class, I chose to focus on the challenge Qannik Glenn faced writing about her home, as well as the most interesting new information I learned about Alaska.

Coffee &Quaq podcast host Alice Qannik Glenn overlooks the frozen Arctic Ocean in February. Image by Jenna Kunze. United States, 2020.

Jenna Kunze and Alice Qannik Glenn explained their reporting process and the challenges they faced writing about underrepresented communities to a journalism class on Friday and led a discussion on media coverage of the North Slope of Alaska.

The pair worked together to produce “Alaska Natives on the Frontlines,” a reporting series funded by the non-profit Pulitzer Center that promotes underrepresented indigenous voices and seeks to address climate change from a native lens.

Kunze and Qannick Glenn reported as two of 16 journalists granted funding as part of the center’s Connected Coastlines initiative. The nationwide project documents the impacts of weather patterns on coastlines, including in Hawaii and Alaska, from where Kunze and Qannick Glenn reported.

For Kunze, preparing to write about Alaska was much like any other assignment. The Pulitzer Center grantee traveled abroad after graduating Marist College in 2016. Upon returning to the states, Kunze settled in Alaska as a way to continue to challenge herself as a reporter and found a job at a local paper.

Kunze said she prepared by reading beforehand, connecting with community members while she was in Alaska and relying on her reporting partner, Qannik Glenn, who she said she could not have done any of her reporting without.

 “The idea that she was willing to trust me and let me into her home and introduce me to these different people so then they in turn trusted me… What she’s saying about a lack of trust in journalism, I felt palpably.”

But for Qannik Glenn, reporting on Alaska meant reporting on the place she grew up. Qannik Glenn is Iñupiaq born and was raised in Utqiaġvik, Alaska. After going to Florida to pursue her bachelor’s degree in aerospace studies from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Qannik Glenn moved back to Anchorage and started a podcast called “Coffee and Quak,” which is how she connected with Kunze.

“Coffee and Quak,” celebrates and dives into the lives of Native people in Alaska. The stories she brings to listeners on her podcast are the same narratives she explored with Kunze, and are the issues from her own community.

“I moved back to Alaska, here to Anchorage and was just so inspired by people and place and connection and culture … but then also a little bit disappointed about the representation of Alaska native media,” Qannik Glenn said. “To come home to my home state and still see a lack of representation in media kind of bugged me, so I decided to start my own podcast.”

As a Native woman, Qannik Glenn said she wanted to ensure that the storytelling she and Kunze worked on was representative of her community, and those around her.

“We need to be really careful with this because there’s a history of exploitation of our Native communities,” Qannik Glenn said. “It was a little nerve racking for me because I want to represent myself in my community as best as I can, and in order to do that I felt like I had to do it a certain way.”

One example Qannik Glenn gave was the media coverage of a young man who was whaling and caught a whale that fed his entire community. While whaling is a legal practice in Alaska, media coverage of the event in the lower 48 states focused on the “barbaric” and “disgusting” nature of the story, Qannik Glenn explained to students.

While covering the impacts of climate change on Alaska, Kunze said she had to address her own misconceptions about Alaskan people. Similar to the lower 48 states viewing whaling differently than Native people in Alaska, Kunze said she previously thought Alaskan people would advocate against drilling for oil, or other acts that could contribute to global warming. But for many, including Qannik Glenn, oil extraction afforded people opportunities and funds many Alaskan industries.

“I interviewed the mayor … and he’s like we’re not into renewable energy, but until someone else comes up with an idea for renewable energy and introduces it to our community and it works, who are you in the lower 48, who drives cars and use cell phones with these resources that we extract from our land, to say that we shouldn’t extract them?”