December 08, 2023

Karen Zraick

Karen Zraick, J-School, ‘09 is a reporter on the Metro desk of The New York Times, where she has worked as a writer and editor since 2013, focusing on breaking and international news. She has also been on staff at the New York Daily News, The Associated Press, and community newspapers in her home borough, Brooklyn, N.Y. She is working on a book about the early Arab American press.

Karen speaks Spanish and some Arabic, and is a graduate of the State University of New York at Purchase and of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

Her investigation with Dan Barry into the deaths of three workers at a troubled construction site in the Bronx won the President’s Choice Award from the Silurians Press Club and a Sidney Award from the Hillman Foundation. 

Our Nadine Mansour sat down with her for this interview.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself currently - your Columbia school,where you live, what you do? 

I grew up in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn and I’m currently a metro reporter at The New York Times with stints on other desks. Right now I’m covering the war in Gaza. I started my coverage with a piece on Palestinian Americans in the New York area. After that, I stayed on the Gaza news briefing and I’ve covered the war out of the Times’s London newsroom. 

The situation in Gaza is heartbreaking. Between the inability of foreign journalists to go there and the frequent disruptions in communications, it’s incredibly challenging to report on Gaza, but we try our best.

What led you to your current career path?

I was always interested in writing and talking to people, and reading and making zines about punk rock, feminism, and environmentalism. That interest started when I went to high school in the West Village.

My career path became clear when I met my SUNY Purchase journalism professor Tara George, who worked for The Daily News. She inspired me to pursue journalism and from that moment on I realized my calling, I never looked back. I owe that to Tara and other mentors who guided me along the way.

Before The New York Times, I had started my career at a chain of local newspapers in Brooklyn called Courier-Life Publications, which included titles like the Bay News and Park Slope Courier. 

While I was studying part time at Columbia for my M.S., I found out about AMEJA, the Arab and Middle Eastern Journalists Association, where I now serve as a board member. After an AMEJA visit to campus, I joined and was paired in the mentorship program with Kareem Fahim, who was at The Times then and is now Istanbul bureau chief forThe Washington Post, and who is also a Columbia alumnus. I had already been freelancing for The New York Times on Metro, and got to work on some stories with Kareem along with many other reporters, which helped build my career.

Who were some mentors along the way?

Though I never met Anthony Shadid, I consider him a mentor. He established the gold standard for war reporting, telling intimate human stories and not embedding with the troops to convey a one-sided story.

Through his work at The Washington Post, and later at The New York Times, readers were able to get away from the idea that Baghdad is simply a byword for chaos and violence.

One of the challenges in emulating Shadid's work in the current situation in Gaza is that it is hard to keep in close contact with people. You’re sometimes only getting occasional messages and voice notes because of the intermittent cuts to communications, so there are gaps in access to on-the-ground accounts and information. This happened in Syria as well - it was very dangerous.

What do you know now about being a journalist that you wish you knew when you started out?

As a journalist you have to question your own assumptions to get the most accurate story.

Not being afraid to voice your perspective is key to making an impact. Young women who are inclined to ask for permission need to overcome fear and find the confidence to push through that.

This is difficult to do at first, but it’s important to remind colleagues that you have the same goal of putting out the best news report possible. Professionalism and collegiality will also go a long way.

How might we be able to foster media literacy in a world of misinformation and disinformation?

News organizations face a fundamental challenge of gauging interest in international topics – and the reality is that a lot of Americans don’t engage with foreign news. 

Everybody wants human stories, to understand and relate to personal details. As a journalist it’s your job to pique readers’ interest by showing humanity. People are more relatable when audiences feel like they can identify with some of the intimate details of their lives.

Americans are often more concerned with local and national issues, but New York is different as an international city. Reading a variety of outlets helps in forming well-rounded opinions. 

What is your favorite book written by or about Arabs?

It’s difficult to choose. In the early 1900s my great grandfather founded a newspaper in New York that was anti-Ottoman. I found physical copies in the New York Public Library which had been stored in an archive for decades. The editions were crumbling and every time I touched the paper, I was destroying it just by handling it.

There was no digital version at the time, but eventually the Moise A. Khayrallah Center digitized it so it could be accessed for generations to come.

I hope there’s more scholarship about the early wave of Arab immigrants in the United States. I’m actually writing a book about this topic, which will be out in a few years.

Unfortunately my great-grandfather returned to Lebanon around the start of WWI and he was captured and executed by the Ottomans for his anti-government stance.

What was your favorite place to hang out on campus?

I was a part-time student and during the time I did spend on campus you could find me in the New Media Lab. I lived in Prospect Heights while working and studying for my M.S. in Journalism.

What was your favorite class?

Human Rights Reporting with Bill Berkeley. His class exposed us to foundational texts and prepared us to report on complicated topics from a new perspective.

The class provided an important lens for us to examine stories, helping us grapple with international human rights law and standards.

What do you think CAAA can offer current or future alumni?

At The New York Times, we rebranded our affinity group from the “Arab Collective” to the “MENA Collective” so that we could be more inclusive. The Times newsroom is much more diverse than in past years with more Arab and Muslim representation across different desks and departments. ​​The CAAA can move toward greater inclusivity and a broader conception of the MENA region.

What advice would you give to future alumni in your field?

As an industry we try to remember our colleagues who risk everything to cover the news – and hope that young folks don’t write off journalism. It’s more important than ever to do reliable and independent journalism.

Journalism is really difficult. My hat goes off to journalists at the front lines. 

It takes a lot of resources and fortitude to cover difficult and sometimes unbearable news stories. But by fostering community and having a strong network, journalists can help each other navigate very complex, intense emotions.

I hope the next generation doesn’t become discouraged from careers in journalism because of the many challenges facing the industry.