18 Jul A Life in Full
Being uncomfortable is Amna Nawaz’s default mode by choice
Pioneering PBS NewsHour co-anchor Amna Nawaz has reached the pinnacle of her profession by bringing her wholeself and an array oflife experiences to her work
By Jackie Krentzman
Named the co-anchor of the PBS NewsHour in January, Nawaz is the first Asian American and first Muslim American to anchor a nationally broadcast news program. The fact that she has fit in seamlessly is in large part a tribute to her lifelong ability to lean into and navigate uncomfortable situations in which she has frequently been the “first.”
Nawaz, 43, grew up in Alexandria, Virginia, just outside Washington, DC, with her parents and two sisters. Her father, a TV reporter and anchor in his native Pakistan, moved to the United States for better opportunities for his children and to work at the IMF and World Bank. Theirs was one of the few families of color in Alexandria. As a result, Nawaz had to figure out from an early age how to both fit in and retain her identity.
Adaptation became second nature and, as her career progressed, her great advantage.
“I had a unique upbringing, as I would spend the entire school year in the States and all summer in Pakistan,” she says. “I grew up thinking it was normal for everyone to speak two languages, have two sets of friends in different countries, and eat different foods.”
Every Wednesday at the Episcopalian school Nawaz attended, students were required to appear at chapel. “The pastor led us in prayer and hymns,” says Nawaz. “The school told my parents, ‘Amna does not have to go.’ But my parents said, ‘No, she will go. Her friends are there, and she can learn about her friends’ faith this way.’”
The outcome of Nawaz’s upbringing was a comfort level with unfamiliar and discomfiting situations. “I learned it’s OK to be a little uncomfortable, to carve your own path and live your own way,” she says. “I learned how to feel at home wherever I was.”
When Nawaz graduated from the University of Pennsylvania (where she captained the field hockey team), she planned on pursuing a law degree. She had never considered a career in journalism. But in August 2001, Nawaz took a gap year before law school and accepted a fellowship at ABC News in New York. A month later came the World Trade Center terrorist attack. “Everything changed for me,” she says. “I saw what the best journalists in the world did under the very worst of circumstances. At that moment I knew I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”
Her rise was meteoric. In 2003 Nawaz was hired at Dateline NBC in its investigative unit. “In 2010 she shared an Emmy Award for the NBC News special Inside the Obama White House. She was promoted to bureau chief and correspondent at NBC’s Islamabad bureau. In 2015 she moved to ABC News, anchoring election and national political coverage.
She joined PBS in 2018 and received a prestigious Peabody Award the next year for her reporting on a PBS News-Hour documentary series The Plastic Problem. In 2019 she became the first Asian American and first Muslim to preside over a presidential debate when she co-moderated the 2019 Democratic debate in Los Angeles.
Nawaz became a familiar presence to TV viewers. Her straightforward, calm, and incisive reporting went over well with viewers looking for information and sometimes comfort when learning about such distressing and momentous events as Hurricane Katrina; the January 6 attack on the US Capitol; the school mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas; and presidential elections.
Her multifaceted identities—Muslim American, South Asian American, female, first generation, and, as she puts it wryly, Virgo—have, like it or not, rendered her an exemplar in the public’s eye. Nawaz says she does not struggle with the burden of this representation, as she strongly believes she can bring excellence and balanced reporting to her work while representing just one identity—that of Amna Nawaz.
“I don’t represent Muslim Americans,” Nawaz says. “We are the most diverse faith group in the entire world! I say I bring my whole self to what I do. When you show up with your whole and full self and are not afraid to be vulnerable, you can connect with people on a human level.
“I firmly believe we are nothing more than the accumulation of all our lived experiences,” she continues. “We are not robots, but we can and must bring to our work fairness, accuracy, and fidelity to the facts. I am always asking myself, ‘Am I being fair to this person, this community, the facts of a given story?’”
PBS NewsHour senior executive producer Sara Just says the challenges and discrimination Nawaz has faced make her more effective when reporting stories, particularly those in which people have traditionally felt excluded or misrepresented by coverage in mainstream journalism.
“I think it’s essential we bring our life experience to our job as journalists, which helps us empathize with and understand our subjects,” Just says. “Amna represents that in such a beautiful way—mother, wife, daughter, sister, Muslim, Asian American woman, former college athlete, and much more. All these sides of her give her relatability for the audience.”
Co-anchor Geoff Bennett, who is Black, says that Nawaz has taken the discrimination and barriers she has faced as a Muslim American woman in a male-dominated industry and used those experiences in her favor.
“Being a ‘first’ can be a blessing and a burden, and Amna does it entirely as a blessing,” says Bennett. “She is always thinking about voices that are underrepresented, making sure they are fully incorporated into the story and seen. As journalists of color, we have the added responsibility that everyone is fully represented, and their humanity and fullness are brought to the fore.”
Her capacity to show up at a story as Amna Nawaz, ever-curious person, empathetic human being, and professional journalist committed to fairness and accuracy, informs the breathtaking scope and diversity of her reporting. She has covered politics, natural disasters, wars, environmental and health-care issues, and so much more.
Bennett says her ability to cover that broad range is evidence of the two sides of the coin that are necessary to make it to the top.
“Amna is equal parts grace and grit,” he says. “She leads with empathy, which is so important, as she is encountering people at the worst times in their lives. She is also a tenacious interviewer, holding to account those who hold a seat of power.”
Nawaz says that finding the human element in every story goes beyond her duty as a journalist.
“I have never forgotten a 12-year-old girl, an Afghan refugee in Pakistan,” she says. “Because she was the youngest, her family couldn’t afford to send her to school—they needed her to help with the family business of making carpets. Then she met someone who admired her skills and paid her part-time for stitching so she could go to school. She was so smart and hardworking. I thought if she grew up anywhere else in the world, she would be running the country by now.”
One reason Nawaz connected so deeply with this young girl—as well as many other people she’s interviewed who were facing monumental challenges—is that she held up a mirror to her own life. “I am aware that but for a blink of fate, my life could have been very, very different,” she says.
Coming to her work from a human perspective has made Nawaz a groundbreaking journalist in another respect. She freely talks about how her experience of reporting on horrific events, such as hurricanes, war, terrorist attacks, and, perhaps most significantly, mass shootings at schools, has been traumatic. She notes that journalists go to places where terrible things happen, rather than places where good things happen. Historically, journalists have downplayed or ignored the personal impact of the events they witness. Today, Nawaz is an advocate for mental health services for journalists. She makes a point to frequently check in with younger journalists at PBS to see how they are doing and to offer resources. She is candid about how her own therapy has been instrumental in her ability to process what she has witnessed.
“For most of my career I didn’t acknowledge [PTSD] was a problem, largely because it was not talked about,” she says. “If you covered an awful story, the culture was, Get over it and move on.”
The turning point for her, she says, was the Uvalde school shooting in 2022. She didn’t realize how distraught she’d become while covering the story, and how it had triggered her lifelong battle with anxiety, until her husband gently brought it up and suggested she find a therapist.
“My husband recognized that I was clearly suffering and came to me and said, ‘You are not OK—you have run out of places to put these things.’”
That is just one example of how her husband, Paul Werdel, and their two young daughters help keep her grounded. Werdel, a former New York Times product manager, has been instrumental in her ascent, especially after she joined PBS in 2018. He left his job to be the primary caregiver for their children.
When asked how tense that negotiation was, Nawaz laughs. “It wasn’t a negotiation at all! He came to me, in the single greatest gift he ever gave to me: ‘Hey, what if we try this for a few years? I want you to focus on you, give it your all, and not worry about relieving the nanny or rushing to make the train to work on time.’ He took on that tenuous dance of childcare and keeping up with kids that every working parent knows so well.”
The arrangement has an added benefit, Nawaz says. “Not only am I eternally grateful, but we think it is also revolutionary for our daughters, as it shows that a family can look a lot of different ways.”
Nawaz is sympathetic toward working women who juggle a demanding job, a family, and other obligations. She believes that if you can make the work segment of a complex life fulfilling, it can relieve the pressure. Her advice is to work where you are wanted, respected, and nurtured.
“If you surround yourself with people who treat your dreams with the same care you do, who see where you can be in five years, and who are willing to tell you the hard things along the way, that will make you better and get you to where you want to go,” says Nawaz.
“Also, trust who you are. You don’t have to dim your light or dull your edges to get where you want to go. We all know who we are at our core. The goal is to build a network, inside the workplace and outside, so that others see you for who you are in full.” DW