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True to Her Word(s)

GameChanger_201687of168.jpgDuring a visit to North Dakota in 2016, BSC alumna Michelle Roberts interviewed fellow Pulitzer Prize winner, author Sonia Nazario, as part of the North Dakota Humanities Council Gamechanger event. When the two women hit the stage, Roberts listened hard, and asked the straightforward, simple questions that allowed her subject to tell her story in her own words.

It's the style that has characterized Roberts' journalistic career - an approach she calls "fresh-off-the-farm."

She says it was the naiveté of a rural upbringing - what she didn't know - that gave her an edge in a career that began at the Bismarck State College newspaper The Mystician, and included multiple journalism awards, including a Pulitzer Prize in Journalism.

She says her innocence helped her approach stories uniquely.

"Things that were obvious to everyone else, weren't to me. I'd ask questions that led to things no one else knew about."

Roberts was the first in her family to go to the traditional college path. A high school teacher helped by directing her toward theater and journalism scholarships at BSC, where she "took off" becoming editor of The Mystician.

After BSC, Roberts headed to the Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University to complete her degree. She was drawn to stories that made a difference. "I figured if I couldn't help someone, what was the point?" A series on girls and gang violence earned Roberts college journalism awards.

After earning her master's degree at Northwestern, she started working for a suburban Chicago paper. She earned national attention (and more awards) for a series on a neighborhood filled with small row houses, owned primarily by African Americans, and surrounded on all sides by a toxic waste disposal site.

"I thought, 'how can that be?' People were sick, and being driven out by fires at the toxic waste site. No one was paying attention. The residents owned the homes, but they were poor, and they had no property value. They were stuck."

The series of stories, the first to explore what later became known as environmental racism, put pressure on city government, leading to a neighborhood buyout by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

She moved on to the Chicago Sun Times, covering crime and the mob. In 1998, Roberts went to the Oregonian (in Portland, Ore.) where her investigative reporting of the inhumane practices and decaying facilities of Oregon's psychiatric hospital, led to the facility's closure and a Pulitzer.

Despite the awards, Roberts says journalism is a tough field, especially for women.

"Journalism is the worst boyfriend I ever had," she says. "I was so in love with him, but he's so bad for me! Journalism for women, especially if you want to rabble rouse, means you have to get over a million things to get anywhere."

As the journalism industry, and her love for it, began to change, she got laid off. Roberts realized what she'd loved as a journalist was leading her to a new career.

"My favorite part of reporting was immersion reporting with sources, having authentic conversations with people. I wanted that to be my career."

Today, Roberts is pursuing a Ph.D. in clinical mental health counseling at the University of Missouri - St. Louis, and serving as a Creative Director of Health Literacy Media (HLM), an international non-profit that focuses on health care literacy by simplifying medical documents and training medical staff on how to talk to patients.

True to her word, Roberts continues to help people.