Daffodil Altan remembers when she first started thinking about storytelling in news. It was 2000, and she was in her early 20s, teaching English and rhetorical analysis in Spain. She was paging through different outlets’ coverage of the EliÌÁn GonzÌÁlez custody battle–the fierce controversy over whether a child whose mother had drowned getting them to Florida should be returned to his father in Cuba–thinking about how different outlets chose to frame the story in different ways.
The Bay Area native had been a literature major at the University of Arizona in Tucson, “and I was looking at it through that lens,” she said. “Why are these stories being told the way they’re being told?”
Her curiosity propelled her into her first newsroom, and she’s been thinking about stories and how to tell them ever since. After learning the ropes at a bi-weekly paper covering her home turf south of San Francisco, she started studying narrative writing at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. In that pre-Facebook, pre-smartphone world, the J-School was heavily siloed by media track, Altan said; multimedia journalism wasn’t part of the landscape. But she found herself drawn to other storytelling techniques. One reporting class traveled to Latin America to cover oil and politics, and she was struck by what the documentary students had captured when everyone reconvened in Berkeley.
“The people who did video started playing their material back, and I remember thinking, ‘This is incredible,'” she said. “You were hearing directly from the people they were with.”
It made Altan rethink print.
“I wanted more than just my own filter as a writer to convey what was happening,” she said.
She expanded her studies to include documentary, and since graduating in 2004, she has worked jobs that have called on her full range of skills: She’s been a Kaiser Media Fellow at the Los Angeles Times, an editor for the multiethnic news collaboration New America Media, a long-form print reporter for The OC Weekly in Orange County, and a writer and producer for an NBCUniversal network aimed at young Latinos.
A job as a reporter and producer at the Center for Investigative Reporting brought her back to the Bay in 2013. Her first project there, a multiplatform report on juvenile solitary confinement at Rikers Island in New York that earned a national Emmy nomination, helped remind her how much she loved the kind of collaborative work she first explored at the J-School.
“Print is lonely,” she said. “You’re in the field, and you’re like, ‘That was crazy! Who do I talk to about it?'” The projects she has tackled in recent years—multimedia investigations with video, audio, print and animation elements—require teams of colleagues who can work and think together.
“Everyone has their hands in it, and is touching it in a different way,” she said. “You feel collectively attached to it.”
Some of her teammates were familiar, too. She worked with former J-School classmate Andres Cediel on “Rape in the Fields,” a PBS Frontline and Univision documentary about the sexual abuse of migrant women in agriculture produced by the J-School’s Investigative Reporting Program and CIR.
That project sparked another when a source told them similar systematic abuse was taking place in other industries that rely heavily on immigrant labor.
“Rape on the Night Shift,” the film co-produced by Altan and Cediel, focused on female janitorial workers. The work wasn’t easy, she said: It was hard to find victims of workplace violence, many of them undocumented, who were willing to share what had happened to them; hard to dig into an industry unwilling to grant reporters access; hard to grind away, week after week, on an issue as painful as violence against women. Rolling Stone’s disastrous mishandling of a story on an alleged campus rape had recently made national news, a reminder for journalists that scrutiny of stories about sexual assault was sharp and the stakes were high for their sources.
It was Altan who built and maintained the relationships with those sources on the project, working with them to corroborate every detail of their stories of abuse.
“I had to say, ‘I can’t tell you that this story is going to make things better for you,'” she said. But still, women told her their stories. “No one had ever really talked about this,” she said. “They hadn’t been asked.” And they did it on the record, which Altan was proud of.
“We ended up getting every woman on camera with her real name and her face,” she said. “Some are older, younger. They’re very different, but the pattern of abuse was sustained.” It underscored the fact that if you’re a sexual predator, “you’re not really discriminating,” she said. “You’re looking for vulnerable people to prey on.”
The collaborative project, produced by the J-School’s IRP, CIR and KQED, aired on Frontline and Univision in June 2015, and included radio and print stories on KQED and CIR’s Reveal. It was nominated for two national News and Documentary Emmys and won a number of other awards. But Altan said the real reward was seeing immigrant women who recognized their own stories in the piece rise up and demand change. A grassroots campaign to require more oversight and sexual assault prevention training for janitorial workers pushed the California legislature to pass what was dubbed the “Rape on the Night Shift” bill, signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown as AB1978 in September 2016.
By that time, Altan had joined the staff of the Investigative Reporting Program. She said she loves being back in the orbit of the J-School, working with IRP director Lowell Bergman. “I keep learning from him,” she said, “and giving back to a community that helped her early in her career.
“Her critical intelligence combined with a unique ability to gain the trust of victims of sexual assault and get them to cooperate was key to the success of the documentaries,” says Professor Lowell Bergman. “Night Shift ends with a major case of labor trafficking that involved the use of sexual violence. Daffodil was keen to continue that reporting, and we were too. We hired her and today she is our lead reporter on that project as well as co-teaching IRP classes at the J-School.”
Since having her daughter, she’s come to recognize the value of having a network of trusted peers who are also balancing ascending careers and young families. And as a person of color and a child of immigrants, she’s glad she can be present for aspiring journalists who are carving out space for themselves in a field that’s still largely male and white.
As a young reporter bouncing from print to emerging multimedia, “I was trying to figure it out as I went along,” Altan said. There are times she still feels that way, but she’s glad to be sharing what’s she’s learned.
“Seeing people that look like you reflected in this industry is not insignificant,” she said. “It matters. As you move up in your career, you move into places where you can take up space, be seen, be heard, do important work that has impact. And have people see that it’s possible.”
By Graelyn Brashear (’17)
November 22, 2021
Photo: Wesaam Al-Badry (’20) November 22, 2021 Dear Berkeley Journalism Community, I write at a time of deeply felt gratitude. Gratitude for our extraordinary faculty, students and staff, all working…