When word spread that migrants were dying while trying to cross the Rio Grande to enter the United States illegally, Zolan Kanno-Youngs left his apartment in Washington D.C. to get the story.
Kanno-Youngs, the homeland security correspondent for The New York Times and a Northeastern graduate, went to Del Rio, Texas, followed border patrol agents along the riverbank, and witnessed families cross the treacherous river.
The Rio Grande, which forms the border between Texas and Mexico, is known for having strong undercurrents, sharp rocks, and a 6-foot-long alligator that lurks beneath the surface.
Kanno-Young’s recalls that the bank of the river was littered with clothing that migrants had lost during the crossing.
“[The crossings] were nonstop,” he says. “And it was pretty emotional. I mean you see these families that are describing the situations they’re escaping from, and for them it’s worth it because they see the United States as a sanctuary, as a safe haven that they need.”
Two weeks after he surveyed the scene on the Rio Grande, his story on the dangers of crossing the river ran on the front page of The New York Times under the headline ‘Death on Rio Grande: A Perilous Migrant Route.’
The front-page story typifies Kanno-Young’s experience as a reporter for the Times. Since he landed the job in March, he’s covered the conditions within migrant detention centers along the border and the ongoing Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids to deport people living in the United States without the proper documentation.
“I think it’s the most important story in the country right now,” says Kanno-Youngs, who graduated from Northeastern in 2016 with a degree in journalism. “In terms of what I’m working on now, a lot of it is immigration and everything going on at the border.”
Kanno-Youngs credits his experiences at Northeastern with helping him find his career path. He covered high school sports as a co-op at The Boston Globe; wrote about culture and entrepreneurship as an intern at The Cape Times in South Africa; and edited feature stories for The Huntington News, Northeastern’s student-run paper.
“Any bit of journalism I could get, I was tapping into,” he says.
Every reporting experience at Northeastern taught him new lessons about the craft of journalism that he says he’s been able to apply to his work at the Times.
He says he solidified his desire to be a reporter while working at the Globe. That’s where he says he learned how to manage his own beat and handle the responsibility of telling stories fairly and accurately.
Kanno-Youngs also worked nights at the city desk, where he listened to police scanners, covered crime, and learned how a newsroom operates on deadline.
“It was right around deadline so you would see all these reporters that I’d been reading since I was a kid,” says Kanno-Youngs, who grew up in Cambridge. “I was able to see how it happens, how reporters interact with editors. It was awesome to be around that. From there, I was like, ‘this is 100 percent what I want to do.’”
He says he discovered the power of journalism to shape the way people see the world at The Cape Times, a daily paper at which he was given a lot of responsibility.
“When you’re in a different country, you learn about mistakes,” Kanno-Youngs says. “I remember I got an error wrong in a story and I had 40 calls the next day. When you’re experiencing that, which is people getting so angry and passionate because of what you’re writing about, that’s when you realize how important this is.”
These experiences opened the doors for Kanno-Youngs to work at The Wall Street Journal, where he covered law enforcement in New York City for three years before leaving for the Times.
He says he likes to return to Northeastern to give back to the place that helped mold him into the reporter that he is today. At the graduation ceremony for the School of Journalism in April, he gave advice to students who wanted to know how to get into the industry, and reflected on the need for diversity in the newsroom.
“I try to be involved,” Kanno-Youngs says. “I had a lot of people who gave me a shot, and I want to be able to help out the next person just the same. I’m always accessible to any graduate who has any questions or needs any help.”