Melissa Hellmann joined the Center for Public Integrity in August 2021 as a reporter covering racial, gender and economic equality. She was formerly a reporter with the Seattle Times, where she covered marginalized communities, and artificial intelligence including bias in facial recognition systems and the changing landscape of labor. She previously worked for Seattle Weekly, the Associated Press, YES! Magazine, TIME Asia and SF Weekly.
Her investigations have taken her to the homes of migrant families on the outskirts of Beijing to write about child trafficking; Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank to report on global surveillance; and a Tacoma, Washington, detention center where detainees alleged their medical needs were ignored. She was recently the president of the Seattle Association of Black Journalists, which she helped restart after several years of dormancy. She has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and religious studies from the University of Pittsburgh and a master’s degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley.
We asked about her career and work at Public Integrity so far:
What made you want to become a journalist? What keeps you inspired in this field?
As a child, I was a voracious reader with an overactive mind. I always dreamed of becoming an author and illustrator. But in high school and college, I became enamored with studying other cultures and imagined becoming an anthropology professor.
I fell into journalism while I was teaching English as a second language in Shanghai, China, in 2011. I kept a blog on the side about my experiences as an expatriate, and a friend who read it suggested that I apply to an associate editor position at the now defunct digital publication, Shanghai Expat. It quickly became the most exhilarating gig I’d ever held. For two years, I freelanced as a music and culture reporter for local and international publications, edited stories and helped launch a magazine. When I decided to return to the United States to pursue a master’s in journalism my mom said, “Duh! I’ve known you were going to be an author since you were 7.”
I’ve stayed in the field for the same reasons I entered it: to feel deeply connected with my surroundings, delve into the nuances of a situation, meet people I never would otherwise and to make sense of human experiences. As my career has progressed, I’ve grown inspired to highlight the voices of underrepresented communities and hold power to account.
What does reporting on race, gender and economic equality look like? Tell the average person what day-to-day life in this beat looks like.
When I’m working on a newsletter, I look for reporting holes on stories that I find particularly interesting and think about other angles to explore. Once I’ve conceived a couple of ideas, I’ll pitch them to my editor, then I’ll reach out to sources for several days, read academic studies or other coverage on the topic and then write the story over a day or two. Then my editor and I will go back and forth on edits for a couple of days before it’s published.
I’m on the second draft of a longform story I’ve been working on for the past three months, and with that piece, I spent a few days researching and writing a pitch to the editors. Once it was approved, I delved into previous coverage on the topic, tracked down and interviewed sources, looked for data, created an outline and then started writing. Some days look like me driving to a small town in Montana to interview a source at a coffee shop, other days look like me pouring over a 70-page study and having dozens of tabs open in my browser.
Why do you think race, gender and economic equality deserves its own beat?
Race, gender and money undergird all aspects of our society, from policing to jobs and family structure. For instance, Black people are overrepresented in the prison system, the gender pay gap has persisted, and Native Americans are disproportionately impacted by climate change.
I think that all reporters should cover their topics in recognition of these nuances, but historically, news has been written from a lens that reflects the majority culture. This has done a disservice to underrepresented people whose stories have not been told, or have been told inaccurately. Journalism helps inform the public about injustices and holds power accountable. But when a large swath of the population is ignored, policies are passed that don’t take into account their experiences, and issues that affect their community aren’t solved.
To me, my beat is an intentional step toward looking at the entirety of a situation, and ensuring that Public Integrity’s coverage reflects our increasingly diverse nation.
Power is a consistent theme in reporting on inequality: some people have more of it, and others want a slice of it. To solve some of the most pressing problems in our society, we must create a more equal balance of power.
Our inequality reporting helps inform policymakers and the general public about issues that deserve greater attention.
Our journalism is advertisement- and paywall-free. Why should the person reading this support Public Integrity?
To keep food on the table and the lights on for dozens of astute reporters! Filing records requests and suing institutions costs money, and we can only deliver our groundbreaking reporting with the help of our readers.
Help support this work
Public Integrity doesn’t have paywalls and doesn’t accept advertising so that our investigative reporting can have the widest possible impact on addressing inequality in the U.S. Our work is possible thanks to support from people like you.