The art of accurate storytelling

Dr. Tonjanita Johnson, chief deputy to Stony Brook University’s President Samuel Stanley, talks to the Greene Team about her career. Photo by Wasim Ahmad.

By Joshua Odam
Baldwin Senior High School

Dr. Tonjanita Johnson has a bit of advice for budding journalists: get the facts straight.

“When you see errors, you start questioning the people who have written the document,” she told a room full of students in the Robert W. Greene Summer Institute for High School Journalists. “Because you do not want the errors to interfere with the telling of the story.”

As the “arms and legs of the president to Stony Brook University,” the former journalist who got her start at a similar journalism boot camp is constantly telling Stony Brook’s success story.

“We have students from all over the world,” said Johnson, . “We have probably some of the most brilliant students in the world.”

Johnson, who is who is chief deputy to President Samuel L. Stanley, initiates many projects with other departments to ensure that the university is moving toward its vision.

From humble beginnings in Butler, Alabama, Johnson’s love affair with journalism began in 1987 after attending a workshop intended for high school journalists.

Although many of her peers told her she had writing talent, she was still nervous. However, due to Ms. Johnson’s “eagerness to learn and her curiosity about the world,” her skills were able to shine through.

While enrolled at the University of Alabama, she majored in English and journalism.

Shortly after graduation, Johnson found work at the Decatur Daily, a small family-owned newspaper in Decatur, Alabama. Her beat was post-secondary education but she also wrote about other controversial topics in her region.

Her focus later shifted to public relations as a communications specialist. She also went on to earn a master’s degree in mass communication from UA and a Ph.D. in urban higher education from Jackson State University.

One of her most memorable journalistic experiences was meeting with a source in a public park. The area that she was assigned was known for racial tension. In fact, she had reported on a Ku Klux Klan rally there a week before.

Johnson said she was “frozen with fear” when she noticed the hooded individual in a white robe walking toward her. She began to giggle when she realized that the menacing figure was nothing more than an asbestos removal worker who was still wearing his protective equipment.

She panicked because she didn’t have the facts straight.

Tonjanita Johnson’s career has taken her from Memphis, Tennessee to Mississippi, Louisiana and, eventually, Stony Brook. The only reference she had in regards to New York City was watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade  on television.

Johnson said her desire to know more about the world around her brought her to Stony Brook University and that the great diversity on campus brings her joy.

She spends a lot of her time talking with student groups, mentoring, and sharing her experiences.

As a former journalist and administrator, a main focus is diversity on campus and in newsrooms. She feels that more minorities should realize the necessity of the journalist in society.

To all budding journalists, Johnson stresses the importance of eliminating factual errors and being as accurate as possible, urging people to remember that people’s work not only reflects themselves but the institution they belong to.

However, the mark of a true journalist in the eyes of Tonjanita Johnson is the one who “wants to tell a story.”