Emmanuel Felton, Hunter’s new investigative reporting professor, wants to talk to you. After all, that’s what he enjoys most about reporting — finding people, talking with them and amplifying their stories for the good of the public.
For years, Felton, an investigative reporter at BuzzFeed News, has done just that. He’s worked at various nonprofits, news organizations, and now at the independent digital media company, whose high-rise Union Square headquarters, with its myriad glass doors, endless snacks and brightly colored hallways covered in hashtags and quippy sayings does leave him with what he confesses is a bit of “imposter syndrome.”
But Felton doesn’t need a flashy backdrop to do good work. Since the beginning of what he describes as his career’s “weird path,” he’s been determined to uncover important stories. That began with his job at the advocacy organization, the Southern Poverty Law Center, or SPLC, right after graduating from Emory University in 2010.
“I thought I would be a banker, so I majored in finance,” he laughs. Instead, the time he spent working for SPLC was in part what inspired him to pursue investigative work.
‘My favorite part [was] collecting stories, understanding where the issues were, from the perspective of real people.’
“My favorite part of that job,” he said, “was going door to door around New Orleans, Mississippi and Alabama looking for plaintiffs for new cases, collecting stories, understanding where the issues were, from the perspective of real people.”
Aronson award leads to teaching gig
By 2012, Felton turned to journalism in earnest, applying to Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and beginning to write for publications like The Atlantic and The Hechinger Report, where he covered the intersection of race and education.
Felton found that what he enjoyed about gathering plaintiff information wasn’t so far off from collecting investigative stories. “I like talking to people, I realize,” he said. “I find people placing the issues in their own context, in their own words, really important.”
So what brought Felton to Hunter College? He met Sissel McCarthy, director of the school’s journalism program, at the 2018 James Aronson Awards for Social Justice Journalism, where he was accepting a prize for his groundbreaking story about school segregation in Alabama.
McCarthy recalled: “I immediately thought he would be a great instructor for our investigative reporting class. Since that night, I’ve been semi-stalking him. And lucky for us, he is able to teach this spring.”
Bringing passion for change to classroom
As a first-time teacher, Felton hopes to bring this passion for change to the classroom. “I have a few ideas —bad landlords, shady nursing home operators, or lying cops — but I’m going to open it up to the class to see what they want to spend the semester digging into.”
He wants students in his investigative reporting class (MEDPL 372) to tirelessly pursue an issue as a team and learn by doing: “I think that makes the most sense, because so often stuff doesn’t work out. Having a goal that everyone can work together on is probably a good thing.”
‘I’m excited to learn how to do this by working with students.’
But Felton also hopes that students will inform his teaching. “I’m excited to learn how to do this by working with students. … Hopefully, not as much lecturing and more talking.”
Meanwhile, at Buzzfeed, Felton has continued reporting on public policy and race. “That is my thing. That’s my beat here,” he explained. “I’m doing some environmental justice work, some voting rights stuff, just all over the map.”
Felton added that by providing public information on why these massive socioeconomic disparities still exist today, he believes that investigative reporting work can create public pressure for change.
“People are making active decisions, on a day-by-day manner, to maintain that segregation and devaluing of black and brown communities,” Felton said. “I think that is what my reporting is about so much of the time.”