Rising Star Q&A: Jemele Hill

Jemele Hill is a 1997 journalism graduate from ComArtSci, and in 2007, was honored as the recipient of the ComArtSci Alumni Board's Rising Star Award. Hill has enjoyed a successful career as a sports journalist with roles at the Detroit Free Press, The Orlando Sentinel and ESPN. Hill currently works as a contributing writer with The Atlantic and hosts a podcast: Jemele Hill is Unbothered. In addition, Hill is a co-founder (along with fellow ComArtSci alumna Kelley Carter) of a media production company called Lodge Freeway Media. Originally from Detroit, Hill resides in Los Angeles with her husband.

What was your favorite class at ComArtSci?

My favorite class was news media management taught by professor Steve Lacy. It was a great class when I had it because I was managing editor at The State News. So, the entire class was about ethical situations and how to manage people, so its timing couldn't have been better. 

What was your favorite study spot on campus?

My favorite study spot on campus was the women’s lounge at the Student Union. Granted, I may have done more sleeping than studying there. I would go in there with the intention of studying, and somehow, I would always get lulled into a fantastic nap—the best place to sleep on campus. Completely quiet, very soft cushions on the couches; it was great.
What was your favorite thing to do around East Lansing?
Once the weather gets warm, and the flowers start to bloom, the campus is just gorgeous. I mean, it's already gorgeous but especially in spring. You're getting closer to the semester being over with, and everybody is outside. People are playing with hacky sacks and tossing frisbees and footballs around. It's just a great time. The energy on campus is just unbelievable.

What’s your favorite MSU Memory?

The one that comes to mind was in 1995 when we beat Michigan [in football] on a last-second drive, and everything was just electric. And that was a great weekend because not only did Michigan State beat Michigan on a last-second touchdown, but it was also the same weekend that The State News won the Pacemaker Award, an award given to the top college newspaper in the country. So, it was just a magnificent weekend of celebration and one of my favorite weekends I have ever had.

So, you earned your degree in journalism at ComArtSci, can you speak about how things have evolved in your industry since you graduated and where you foresee things going from here?

So, when I graduated from college, there was a much more distinct line between print newspaper reporters and television reporters, but now they all kind of blend together. People are on TV, they write, they're on podcasts and the radio, etc. This is the age of the multimedia journalist, and that was something I never had to deal with. When I graduated from Michigan State, I only wanted to write for newspapers. Now for today's journalists, you have to be able to do a little bit of everything. As technology continues to get even faster, this is the place that journalism will be in where you have to edit video and know how to be on camera. I only see that increasing, as well as giving people things in soundbites whether that be on digital media, social media, or on television.

What was your biggest lesson learned during your time at ComArtSci? And what was your biggest lesson after ComArtSci?

The biggest thing I learned at ComArts was that your credibility is everything. In our profession now, I think we have lost a little bit of that because of the expediency of social media. Many people want to be first rather than right, and accuracy and the basics have really fallen by the wayside. It's mind-blowing talking to some journalism students --I don't think they all have this mentality -- but that they get into this profession thinking you should be famous. It’s amazing to see the switch now that younger journalists have a much higher expectation than what we did. We just did it for love.

I do love that the foundation I was able to gain at ComArts was all about being dedicated to the craft. Accuracy, fairness, thinking intelligently about the questions you're asking and holding people accountable. All of these basics of the job that we cannot abandon because technology has changed.

In terms of the biggest lesson I learned after ComArtSci, the most significant thing was to be loyal to the profession and not the institution. For many younger journalists, you should have the place in your mind where you want to work at. Whether it be ESPN, Fox, CNN, I think that's a great aspiration to have. But realize that all of those places are just places. That's not to belittle their importance. It's just that what matters is the work that you do and the type of journalist they will develop you into. If they're not meeting the mark for you, it doesn't matter how big the name is. I hope that younger journalists aren't caught up on the institution. Be into the journalism and the content you’re able to create.
Fast forward to the end of your career. It’s your retirement party and everyone is there celebrating your achievements. What do you hope people say about you?
At this point, and I say this in a candid and non-conceited way, I have been able to do some pretty cool stuff. I’ve been able to win an Emmy, I’ve won a Webby, I’m up for a couple of NAACP awards this year, I’ve been able to work at the largest sports media power broker there is in ESPN and collected a few famous friends along the way, too. All that being said, the only thing that matters to me from this point out until I lay my pen down is that I had a legacy of helping other people. The one thing that hasn't changed in this business is that there are not enough black women in sports. It's just not diverse enough at all. And I am going to use whatever platform that I have and whichever resources in my reach to change that. 

Now I'm at this stage in my career where I want to uplift and amplify others. I don't want to stand alone and be known as the only black woman at ESPN that had an opinion commentary show. I don't want that to live and die with me. Being first is great, but you know what's better? Seconds, thirds, fourths, fifths, and sixths. That's the only way I see my legacy being worthwhile. I'm at the point now where I just don’t want to get my foot in the door; I want to through the door into the room and change up the whole room.

To those students who are confused, overwhelmed, not sure what they want to do, unsure about what a degree from ComArtSci can do for them, what would your message be to them?

The biggest message I have, which is really for any Michigan State student, is don't let anybody tell you who you are. Your sense of your own identity is just as critical as the piece of paper that will be in your hand when you leave Michigan State. It matters because you will go into a lot of situations and a lot of places that will challenge who you are and encourage you to compromise who you are. No matter where you go, you have to know who you are before you walk in the door. You can't let the place you work for change the essence of who you are. Otherwise, everything you stand for, everything you try to write and create, will be on a very shallow house of cards.

To me, the key component in being a success is not compromising who you are for somebody else. When I was doing television at ESPN, nobody looked like me that was doing what I did. My thought process was, “I'm not going to do someone else's version of who I should be. I'm going to be me and if they like it, great! If not, I can always go back to doing something else.” Don't let anybody tell you who you are. Don't let the business change you.

By Joe Strother