Emily Steel keeps a sign on her desk at The New York Times that reads: What good shall I do today?
That has been her guiding principle since she was a journalism major at UNC, putting in long hours, late into the night, for The Daily Tar Heel. She interned for the highly regarded St. Petersburg Times, and moved to China for four months as a feature writer for the English-language newspaper Shanghai Daily.
In her reporting classes, Emily could get to the heart of a news story in ways that got her noticed — by professors and then by major news outlets. Her first job out of college was as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, a position that many in her field have to work years to attain. She won awards for her investigative pieces at the WSJ, including bringing to light Facebook’s privacy breach, and was a finalist for a Pulitzer. She discussed her stories on National Public Radio and Good Morning America.
Emily moved on to the Financial Times, where she covered the proposed merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable. In 2014, The New York Times hired her for its media beat, and Bill O’Reilly soon felt a shadow move over his life. Emily began investigating his exaggerated claims of on-the-ground coverage of the Falklands War when he actually was in Buenos Aires. She kept on digging, even after he threatened her.
So when the Times wanted to investigate the sexual harassment scandal that brought down Roger Ailes at Fox News, Emily and Times reporter Michael Schmidt were assigned to find out more about multimillion-dollar settlements O’Reilly had made to female employees. Six months after Emily began her dogged reporting, O’Reilly stepped down, the #MeToo movement stepped up and Emily stepped away with a Pulitzer Prize for public service.
What the public didn’t see was the diligence and sensitivity she applied so that people would open up to her about sexual assault in environments that tend to discredit victims. How she waited for days in front of one woman’s house until the potential source emerged. How she flew to California and took a Pilates class with another potential source to establish a bond so the woman would tell her story. How she got kicked out of lawyers’ offices for asking questions, then went back to ask more.
Little more than a decade into her career, Emily has received the Gerald Loeb Award for Online Enterprise and the Sigma Delta Chi Public Service Award (both for her work at the WSJ), the Livingston Award for the best young talent in journalism, the Pen Center USA Freedom to Write Award and the inaugural Matrix Incite Award from New York Women in Communications. Vanity Fair inducted her into its Hall of Fame in 2017.
Most recently, Emily spent several months in Hong Kong as protests intensified over an extradition bill. When she returned, she also covered the Christchurch mosque massacre in New Zealand and new developments in sex trafficking charges against financier Jeffrey Epstein.
There’s a thread here: She cares deeply about social justice. She strives to bring light to dark places. She brings out the best in reporting partnerships and stays undeterred and upbeat, even in the lonely early stages of an investigation. Walking away is never an option for her.
She just wants to find out what happened and tell a story that might improve lives.
Emily already has covered many of the most important stories of her time. So what’s next? Maybe a book or two about what she has discovered in reporting on systems that let wrongdoers flourish. Human nature and the seductiveness of power being what they are, there will always be dark places that need light. And Pulitzer Prize winners don’t have to stop at just one.