NewsXchange 2012, a gathering of journalists and executives from the media world, started with a hit by American singer Kelly Clarkson, "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger."
Moments later, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Sonia Nazario is invited to take to the stage. Clarkson's song could not have been more apt. It celebrates strength, resilience, falling down and getting up again. Nazario has done all of this – all for the love of journalism.
A writer with more than 20 years' experience under her belt, her heart lies in social issues, many of which are complicated, tricky and risky - the lives of illegal migrants and drug addicts, among others. Her interest lies not in superficial collections of data with jargon punched in, but features and stories for which she has risked her life.
Nazario won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing in 2003, after an earlier nomination for the same category in 1998. She won it for series called Enrique's Journey, which became a book and a national bestseller that won two book awards and was published in 8 languages. That's enough to make her special. But after listening to her talk, her audience knows there's more to her than this list of achievements.
Nazario's real achievement is the stories she has told, stories of ordinary people which became real to her readers. Stories of pain and resilience. Stories like that of Enrique, a boy from Honduras who makes a perilous journey in search of his mother in the United States.
Nazario's beginning, or childhood, was tumultuous in some ways. As she told those of us in the audience: "I learnt early on in life that journalism does matter."
She was born in Wisconsin to Argentinean immigrants, which is why a part of her always related to immigrants. She grew up in the U.S. and Argentina. At 13, she knew fear. Fear made sure that she walked to school in pairs. Fear – a by-product of her seeing blood on the streets, and knowing that journalists could be killed for telling the truth.
In her words, "a certain kind of journalism matters. Stories that show complexity and a certain shade of grey."
"Migration is in my blood. I understand what it's like to have a foot in two worlds," Nazario said.
In documenting Enrique's story, Nazario documents how migrants suffer. Poverty forced Enrique's mother Lourdes to leave Honduras, leaving behind her children including 5-year-old Enrique, whose quest to find an answer to the question "¿Donde esta mi mami?" (Where is my mum?) is what the story is all about.
"I look for stories that move me," Nazario said. "If they move me, maybe they’ll move you."
In order to truly capture Enrique's story, Nazario went through some very perilous situations, travelling on top of a train like one of an estimated 48,000 children who enter the United States from Central America and Mexico each year. Illegally. Without parents. On these journeys, Nazario says she experienced "moments of cruelty and kindness".
She wants to make her readers feel they are on top of that train to the U.S. with Enrique.
Nazario is still in touch with Enrique and his mother. Follow-up journalism is a dying art.
One writer's story, written with a heart, helped humanize the faceless and nameless migrants in the U.S. They became more than numbers and data.
In an age where successful journalism has begun to be gauged by the number of blogs churned out daily or weekly, Nazario continues to set an example for journalists who want to tell stories, move hearts and make a difference through this powerful tool. "Doing this kind of story telling is important," she said. "Don't we have an obligation to tell people what's what?"