Madison’s Matthew Hendley earns reporting fellowship


OXFORD — Madison's Matthew Hendley just can't stop telling stories.

The University of Mississippi student's passion for storytelling has driven him as an anchor at NewsWatch Ole Miss and as a "60 Minutes" intern, and is taking him to Arizona State University for a summer as a Carnegie-Knight News21 Initiative fellow.

The prestigious multimedia reporting fellowship is a part of ASU's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications. Each summer, journalism students from around the world join peers at the school to engage in extensive investigation into a single topic and report the stories that flow from that research. This year's students will examine the juvenile justice system in America (see previous years' reporting here).

A Decorated Journalism Student

This isn't the first time Hendley, a junior from Madison, has been singled out for his storytelling ability. He only recently returned to Ole Miss from a "60 Minutes" internship in New York, where he also attended journalism classes at The Kings College.

Will Norton, dean of the UM School of Journalism and New Media, first saw Hendley as a newscaster for the St. Joseph High School media program in Jackson.

"He is well on his way to having done things 10,000 times – what Malcom Gladwell calls the key to excellence," Norton said. "The only way to be a great journalist is to get out in the community and talk with the people."

Hendley is a model of what an outstanding young journalist should be, Norton said. He already has been a standout anchor for NewsWatch Ole Miss and in the Southeast Journalism Conference competition.

"Matthew has impressed us since the first day he showed up at the Student Media Center his freshman year," said Patricia Thompson, assistant dean for student media. "He's an amazingly talented young journalist, one of the best correspondents and anchors we've ever had.

"I admire him for seeking out the most challenging assignments he can find, from '60 Minutes' to News21 and other internships."

Besides his larger journalistic ambitions and regular duties as a student reporter, Hendley can be heard providing play-by-play coverage for UM sports teams on Rebel Radio.

"I have sought out these experiences, but I wouldn't have been able to even think about these experiences if I weren't at the Ole Miss School of Journalism," Hendley said. "The professors here really have pushed me."

Religion, New York and Ancient Aliens

Hendley said he is relieved to be home, but was initially hesitant to leave because there were still so many stories left to tell in New York.

"There was a lot going on up there and a lot of stories to tell," he said. "There is a gold mine of stories. I did a lot in my time there, and I was proud of that, but sometimes I just feel like I need more time to get more stories.

"You just walk down the street in New York and get an idea for a story."

Hendley walked away from his time in the Big Apple with at least one interesting story, which was published on both Newsweek's and Religion Unplugged's websites: the story of an alien-based religion.

While on an assignment to cover someone practicing religion in New York City, Hendley found a man promoting creationism for atheists. Intrigued, he sought the man out.

Fast forward and Matthew is at a nice apartment building in Jersey City, asking anyone if they know which room the religious meeting is in.

"I walk in this conference room, and there is just this one dude sitting at the table," Hendley said. "He had a short, stocky build. He's got a thick beard, and he has this military green shirt on with a neon logo.

"The logo is the Star of David intertwined with a swastika. I said, ‘Nice to meet you; what is on your shirt?'"

It was the symbol for the Raelian Movement, a small religious group that believes humans were created by visiting extraterrestrials who will one day return.

"He was just a local organizer, and we talked for, like, two or three hours," Hendley said. "It was the most perplexing thing ever."

The man invited Hendley to the Happiness Academy, the religion's annual North American seminar in Buffalo, New York.

"So, I had to get on a bus to Buffalo," he said. The trip, and all it taught him about Raelian followers, is detailed in the Newsweek story.

"I think if you go through Ole Miss and aren't doing something that will take you out of your comfort zone and challenge you, then you're not getting the full experience," Hendley said.

Preparing For What's Next

Now Hendley is preparing for his next big trip: his reporting and research fellowship at ASU. His cohort, which includes students from all over the U.S. as well as Canada and Ireland, meets like most standard online classes as they familiarize themselves with the theme of juvenile justice and begin their research.

That class is in addition to his regular courseload and media center work at UM.

"Matthew has a lot of innate talent to begin with, but on top of that, he has the drive to excel," said Debora Wenger, assistant dean for partnerships and innovation and professor of journalism. "He's willing to make sacrifices in order to cover important stories or to make his work a little bit better than it would be otherwise. He loves journalism and it shows in the effort he puts forth."

The fellowship will end with an extensive package of podcasts, video and print stories covering many aspects of the topic.

"I think we will encounter a country full of families and law enforcement agencies that are struggling with how to correct some of the holes in the juvenile justice system," he said. "And I think it will be interesting to see how our variety of skills and backgrounds will influence the reporting."

When he returns for his senior year, Hendley plans to continue grappling with juvenile justice as he researches and writes his Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College senior thesis

But for now, Hendley said he's happy to be back on campus, reconnecting with professors, working in the S. Gale Denley Student Media Center and enjoying the slower pace of life, compared to New York.

"Students can write stories in the classroom, but to be a journalist, you have to tell stories to the wider world," said Nancy Dupont, professor of journalism. "Matthew can inspire other students. He's a student leader in our school, especially as a reporter and anchor at NewsWatch."

Hendley isn't the first Ole Miss student to participate in the Carnegie-Knight News21 Initiative. Brittany Brown, a graduate student in the UM Center for the Study of Southern Culture, was part of the team that received the Edward R. Murrow Award for Excellence in Digital Reporting for their Carnegie-Knight News21 documentary "Hate in America."

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