Recent Duke graduate Andrew Kragie is the winner of the 2015 Melcher Family Award for Excellence in Journalism for his behind-the-scenes reporting on the university’s decision to cancel a weekly Muslim call to prayer at the school’s iconic chapel. Kragie is being honored for his February 2015 article (“A Second Best Decision”) in Towerview — a magazine published by Duke’s student newspaper, The Chronicle.
In a telephone interview with Jillian Apel, the 2015 grad discussed how the process of reporting and writing this article led him to pursue a career in journalism. This is a lightly edited transcript.
What first sparked your interest in journalism?
After publishing my first article in sophomore fall for Towerview magazine, I slowly started writing more and realized I enjoyed the dialogue you can have through written pieces. My love for this kind of conversation was solidified when I spent two semesters as a columnist for The Duke Chronicle. My first column was actually advocating for parents drinking alcohol with their teenagers in moderation. It got me into great conversations with various people on campus, like a staff member at the Wellness Center.
How did your time as a student reporter shape your Duke career?
To be honest, I wish I’d been more involved with The Chronicle, where I could’ve learned a lot from having a larger role. I never was a news reporter. I was always writing opinion columns or pitching my own pieces for the magazine. The column made me see myself as a writer, but it was really the question surrounding the call to prayer that turned me into a journalist. I wasn’t sure about pursuing journalism until the experience of this article.
What was the question surrounding the Muslim call to prayer? What about it made you want to write such an in-depth story?
There were three things that drew me to this particular story. First, I’d been involved in interfaith relations, so I knew a good amount of the students involved in the Muslim Student Association. There was a question of them being in danger, but there was also a question of were they being unsupported by the administration. I wanted to ask why a minority group on campus was experiencing what it was experiencing.
Second, I really love Duke, and because I love it I’m open to holding its leaders accountable. Students were spreading rumors that the administration was canceling the call because of big money donors, so I wanted to do an investigative piece that tried to figure out what the real reasons were that the original plan was cancelled. Third, I realized I knew most of the people who were involved and thought that I could be the person to dig deeper. I had gotten to know various people in the administration, from [Vice President for Student Affairs] Larry Moneta to [Vice President for Public Affairs and Government Relations] Mike Schoenfeld to the Chapel Dean [Luke Powery] — and I knew the interfaith community.
What was it like reporting on this particular story? What were some of the biggest obstacles?
It was a three- or four-week process of 20 to 25 interviews. I was late on a lot of homework and missed a couple of classes, but fortunately it was spring of my senior year and nobody really cared. (Laughs.)
First I started getting answers to the basic questions about timelines: what happened when, in what meetings. Once I knew that, I was able to approach the next level and say in the interviews, “This is what I know, I’d like to get your perspective. Can you answer these questions?” Having that background made the bigger fish willing to meet with me. I started working up the chain of leadership.
President [Richard] Brodhead had monthly office hours for students, so I signed up with the intention of asking him some questions or trying to get an interview. Once it was confirmed that I had this 15-minute spot, I realized it was kind of ethically dubious, so I made it clear that I wanted an interview. I thought he would cancel, but instead they got back to me and said he’s willing to meet with you for an interview but wants a different time to give you more than just 15 minutes. Once I was sure I knew what I was talking about, the administration was very cooperative. They hadn’t been able to actually give answers and it was almost like they were looking for an avenue to address some of the questions.
[After writing the story], I had a really good editor named Danielle Muoio. She gave me very good advice about how to approach people and was a very steady, knowledgeable hand. Danielle showed me how much editors matter, even at an undergraduate level.
How has the process of writing that story helped you in your current journalism endeavors?
I might not be pursuing journalism if it wasn’t for that article. I wasn’t getting paid or earning class credit. It was out of personal interest and a desire to serve the public. It confirmed an interest in looking at how a larger American society interacts with minorities, whether religious, racial or otherwise.
What was the reception like on campus?
I got some very thoughtful notes saying thank you for looking into this. The different parties involved were happy to have a fuller airing of events and to establish the timeline of who was in what meeting, when, etcetera. And I did get a couple positive reactions from the administration, which made me think, what did I miss? (Laughs.)
I personally can’t claim to know everything, and I hope the article does not give the impression of being a total exoneration. I didn’t get to look over funding records, and didn’t get to learn too much about what communication with donors looks like. So there were things that the article did not do, stones still left unturned.
What have you been up to since graduating Duke?
I moved to Houston [after graduation] with no job but with an email connection from [Duke professor] Phil Bennett to an editor at the Houston Chronicle. That was my foot in the door. I started freelancing for the Chronicle, and that developed into a series about refugee resettlement in Houston. I wrote about what it is like to be a refugee and why Houston is the No. 1 resettlement city in America. I also did other news stuff. I wrote 15 to 20 freelance articles while working at a restaurant before joining the Chronicle full time in January. Now I’m a copy editor and reporting more on the side. [In the future] I’ll probably be transitioning to a suburban beat and covering a specific area of Houston.
What does winning this award mean to you?
It’s an honor, thrill and great affirmation. It is really special to me because this investigation is what encouraged me to try out this uncertain and scary field of journalism. As I’m still very early in this career, it was definitely a nice, invaluable affirmation to say, yeah, I should keep trying this out.
Jillian Apel (Trinity ’18) is a student research assistant and writer for the Duke Reporters’ Lab. She also is the satire editor for The Rival.