What she experienced growing up in Baltimore and how she saw her community being portrayed to the rest of the country fueled Ashley Clarke’s interest in investigative journalism.
As audience engagement editor at the Center for Public Integrity, she’s helping lead the newsroom’s focus on reporting with and in service to the people and communities most affected by the issues it’s confronting.
Clarke joined Public Integrity in March 2021. She previously worked at NBC4 Washington as a production assistant and weekend assignment editor. She earned her undergraduate degree at the University of Maryland, where she studied multiplatform journalism and Arabic.
In addition to its own investigative reporting about inequality in the U.S., Public Integrity aims to build capacity for similar work at local news organizations primarily serving communities of color. In a short time, Clarke has worked to build equitable partnership models that put power in the hands of those closest to the communities affected.
She worked with dozens of local news organizations on “Criminalizing Kids,” an investigation finding that Black and Latino children and students with disabilities are disproportionately harmed by police presence in schools.
She’s also led Public Integrity’s year-long partnership confronting threats to Black homeownership in Washington, D.C., with the Washington Informer.
Along with Public Integrity journalist Amy DiPierro, Clarke published an investigation earlier this year that exposed years-long delays and mismanagement of a city program intended to help homeowners with crucial repairs.
We asked about her path into journalism and her work so far at Public Integrity:
What made you realize you wanted to work in the field of investigative journalism?
I have always had so many questions since I was a small child, and my parents encouraged it. I credit them for my never-ending curiosity with understanding how things work in the world. When I went to college, journalism as a major was a no-brainer for me, I loved to write, and I loved asking people questions. In my last year of college, I was taking a course on investigative tools in journalism. For one of our assignments, we had to submit a FOIA request for a class project on mental health care in prisons. I can remember the excitement I felt when I received the documents I had requested. From then on, I knew that I wanted to work in investigative journalism.
When I worked as an assignment editor at a television station, that giddy feeling never went away.
Coming to Public Integrity was huge for me because I get to pair my passion for investigative journalism with my passion for helping the underdog. I grew up in a community like the ones we sometimes write about: a neighborhood in Baltimore City often rattled by a lack of investment and systemic racism.
You’re a proud Baltimore native. What about growing up there taught you the importance and power of journalism?
I love Baltimore. It’s a city that gets a bad rep for its crime, failing school system, government corruption and rats, but Baltimore is a great city with such rich and vibrant Black history and culture. I was in high school when Freddie Gray died after being in police custody. I remember the days leading up to the jury reaching a verdict in the trial against the six officers involved in Freddie’s death, and I was released from school early the day it was announced.
I would usually take the metro bus home, but that day they had stopped running. Like me, most students at my school relied on public transportation to get home. The handful of parents that drove organized to make sure we made it home safely. On the ride home, I saw military tanks and heavily armed men lining the streets. I can remember seeing a city bus full of national guardsmen, thinking that it looked like something out of a movie. That night, my family was glued to the television watching what looked like the city burning to the ground. There was even a special appearance from Anderson Cooper. I felt embarrassed and ashamed watching the national coverage of the uprising. The world was watching and believing a warped version of the city I loved so much. That year I learned people will tell your story wrong if you’re not in the room. I knew I needed to be in the room. More poor people, more Black women need to be in newsrooms so we can get the story right. Journalism helps shape public perceptions, and that’s a big responsibility that I don’t take lightly.
What does an audience engagement editor do and what role does it play in Public Integrity’s journalism?
I produce live events in collaboration with our reporters and the communities we write about. I create different entry points into our work. Sometimes that looks like creating content for social media or a newsletter or writing a short resource article. It can also look like ensuring that audio versions of our longer investigative stories are recorded so our audience can listen to them in English. and for some stories, in other languages. The question I often ask myself is, how can we make our work do more? People are entrusting us to help tell their stories. In my role I want to ensure that our retelling is making a positive impact.
I manage collaborations between Public Integrity and outside organizations. This year I will focus on how we, as a national news organization, can build stronger, more sustainable relationships with news organizations led by journalists and publishers of color and those that predominantly serve marginalized communities.
And occasionally I do a little reporting.
Is there anything during your first year of work at Public Integrity that stands out as particularly meaningful?
Leadership at Public Integrity truly walks the walk. The most meaningful lesson that I hope to carry with me throughout my career is that I am a talented journalist who is worthy of investment and that my lived experience is a value add. I was taught that it would take decades into my career as a journalist to earn a livable wage and to feel like I am a valuable member of my newsroom. And while that is unfortunately true for many, Public Integrity has shown me that is certainly not the way it has to be.
Partnering with local journalism organizations closest to the issues we write about is a key component of Public Integrity’s work. Can you explain why this is important?
We want our readers to feel represented in our work, and collaborating with other newsrooms helps us do that. At Public Integrity, we value the diversity and creative thinking other newsrooms can bring to a story. My team is less motivated by being the first to publish a story, rather we are motivated by making sure as many people as possible have access to our work and that it has a real impact in their lives.
Public Integrity does not have paywalls or advertisements, and our work is funded largely by donations. Why should people reading this support our work?
The journalists at Public Integrity work extremely hard and produce amazing work. But what truly makes Public Integrity unique is our leadership’s commitment to making our newsroom and the industry a more inclusive place, and that’s reflected in the work. As an early career journalist, I feel empowered and challenged when I come to work. We need more newsrooms that aren’t toxic environments controlled by a small elitist population. By supporting Public Integrity you are supporting our diversity, and that means better journalism.
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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.