LEXINGTON, Ky. (May 23, 2011) − University of Kentucky journalism student Cassidy Herrington recently was named a national finalist in the prestigious Society of Professional Journalists' Mark of Excellence Awards. Her column "'Undercover' in hijab: unveiling one month later," which originally appeared in The Kentucky Kernel, earned her the honor in the General Column Writing category. The award puts Herrington's column in the top three college newspaper columns in the country for 2010.
Herrington wrote the column after spending a month wearing a hijab, the Muslim headscarf. Though Herrington is not Muslim, she wanted to gain a greater understanding of the Muslim experience in light of events such as the "ground zero mosque" controversy and the firing of NPR news analyst Juan Williams over statements he made about Muslims. She spoke with Muslim students through UK's Muslim Student Association to prepare for the column.
"I was frustrated with the media's limited and often inaccurate representation of Islam," Herrington said. "Muslims tell their own stories and explain what their religion represents, but unfortunately society tends to inform their opinion primarily from the media. I used my connection with the media to direct attention to another angle, to a voice that hasn't been well represented."
Herrington, a journalism and international studies major, just completed her junior year at UK. She is studying abroad in Argentina this summer, where she is freelance writing and keeping a blog. An avid supporter of human rights, Herrington volunteers with Kentucky Refugee Ministries and has also volunteered in Guatemala. The Louisville native graduated from Sacred Heart Academy, where she began her writing career with the student newspaper The Rune. Though she works primarily in print, her passion is public radio. She hopes to someday be an international correspondent for NPR.
Chris Poore, the Kernel's faculty adviser, said Herrington's thorough research paid off, putting her column in a small group among the thousands of columns written every year in college newspapers.
"She really did her homework. She talked to a lot of groups ahead of time and bounced ideas off of them," Poore said. "So many columns are written from the hip, and there's not as much thought or reporting. She did a lot before she even got started."
In the column, Herrington describes the silence she encountered while wearing the hijab. She had hoped to spark dialogue among her peers, but often no one addressed her head scarf. The column, however, garnered international attention. It was translated into Arabic in Malaysia, broadcast on a radio show in Palestine and will be reprinted in a Muslim fashion magazine this summer. Based on internet views, the piece was read in 130 countries.
"I thought it was a wonderful project," said Poore. "It's one thing to talk about issues of prejudice in a column. It's another to explore it that deeply. She's an earnest, caring, thoughtful person, and when she came up with the idea, I think everyone thought it would make a great column."
The Mark of Excellence award is the second time Herrington has won a prestigious national award for the column. She also won third place in the Hearst Journalism Awards Program.
"This award means that people around the world want truth, and this gives me great optimism about the future of our country and the media," Herrington said. "I hope people realize the value in understanding and respecting different opinions and cultures. There is something to be learned from everyone, and with the convenience of technology and our ever-shrinking world, it doesn't take an undercover project to get to know someone better."