Melanie Hicken Uncovering Injustice
Local CNN Money investigative reporter focuses on plights of the people.
Sitting at her kitchen table, Melanie Hicken was hard at work from her Santa Clarita home. Her laptop was fired up, and her phone sat face up, poised for conference calls with her writing partner, Blake Ellis, who kept in constant communication from across the country.
They were closing in on another project – a particularly tough one for Melanie. Though she writes hard-hitting business news, Melanie has kept the plight of real people at the center of her stories, and when Melanie calls for an interview, she often bears witness to the minute and personal details of rampant, systemic injustice. As a 30-year-old CNNMoney investigative reporter, Melanie’s success comes with a heavy reality: Innocent people get hurt every day, and it’s her responsibility to express their pain to the world.
“We’ve taken a broad brush to what we consider a business story. Our stories usually focus on an organization or person who is taking advantage of others … I’ve always really liked the wonky stories,” she said with a small laugh at the obscurity of her own interests. “I’m most excited about a story when it’s trying to uncover something – when I could tell someone wasn’t telling the truth. I like to get to the truth.”
In her short career, Melanie has done just that. As CNNMoney senior investigative reporters, Melanie and Blake have found truth behind an international psychic mailer scam, a company that’s cornered the market on cashing checks for scammers, animal control agencies that killed dogs over unpaid fines, and most recently, nursing homes that covered up the repeated sexual assault of America’s elderly. If there’s a consumer who’s been wronged, Melanie and Blake are ready to let America know.
With such clear convictions, it makes sense that Melanie has kept journalism in her sights from a young age. A Santa Clarita native, Melanie joined the student newspaper at Stevenson Ranch Elementary in fourth grade, and she made her broadcast debut as Placerita Junior High’s morning TV news anchor.
“I used to tell people I wanted to be the next Katie Couric,” she said with a laugh. “I loved to write, but I also loved music.”
Melanie split her time between band and various writing endeavors, penning a weekly reflections column for The Signal that shared a teen’s perspective on timely issues.
“I was super nerdy, and I wrote about the Gray Davis recall election and what a circus it was,” she recalled. “I couldn’t believe you needed more signatures to run for student body president than for a recall election.”
When she graduated in 2005, a $10,000 Randy Wicks First Amendment Scholarship helped fund her tuition to Syracuse University, where she finally made the choice between music and writing and joined the independently run student newspaper.
“I was dropped into this environment where 20-year-olds were running a newspaper that gets distributed to thousands of people. It was one of the best experiences of my college career,” she said.
It was here that Melanie first realized her natural inclination toward investigative journalism. She found herself following the alleged cover up of sexual assault by members of the basketball team – which never resulted in charges – and even ran a story reporting wide criticism of the college’s chancellor on the day Melanie would be shaking hands with the subject of her story.
“That story ran the same weekend I had to be at a scholarship event with the chancellor. The timing wasn’t planned,” she said, smiling. “That was my first experience looking beyond the basic news story.”
The seed of passion had been sown in Melanie, and she graduated Syracuse in 2009 with the intense fear that she wouldn’t be able to work in the field that had stolen her heart.
“Graduating at that time was really scary. Everything was falling down around us. I knew I wanted to be a journalist, but I was afraid,” she said.
As a testament to her skill, Melanie started as a city hall reporter for the Glendale News-Press, an offshoot of the Los Angeles Times, about one week after graduation. Her first assignment put her in the middle of an eight-hour city budget meeting.
“All these words were flying, and I was terrified of getting things wrong,” she said, a bit of residual stress creeping back into her tone, only to be banished by another laugh. “I was 22 years old and had no idea what they were talking about. So I asked a lot of questions and didn’t assume I knew the answer to anything.”
Almost on accident, Melanie quickly developed a liking for business reporting, the beat she actively avoided in college. But as each byline focused on money, Melanie traded her political reporting dreams for those of fiscal watchdogging and decided to commit. She completed her master’s degree in business and economic reporting from New York University, and by late 2012, she started at CNNMoney as a personal finance reporter.
It was here that Melanie met the Woodward to her Bernstein, fellow CNNMoney reporter Blake. A story on a government debt collector snowballed into their first investigation together, and their reporting eventually prompted Sen. Cory Booker to introduce legislation to close the loopholes uncovered in their story. Though the legislation didn’t pass, Melanie and Blake had their first taste of writing that can affect change, and they were hooked.
“It was really exciting that the story had come to the attention of someone like that,” she said. “So we took the idea of a business story pretty broadly. Our stories really tend to be about people, and given the current political climate, our stories tend to resonate with people no matter what you believe in. We hear from people a lot. We get emails from all over the world.”
Quickly, the duo began searching for their next case to crack – again and again. Together, they’d bounce ideas off each other, using each other as a checks and balances system to ensure fairness in all cases. Today, Melanie and Blake are officially part of the CNN investigative team, which focuses on one project at a time, releasing about three to four stories per year. They average about three months per project, and most of their stories result from their own curious digging.
“On a national level, the hardest thing is finding unique topics that haven’t been done to death – a story that hasn’t been told. You have to be curious,” Melanie said. “We’ve been lucky enough to find a few of those stories.”
It seems the two are brimming with curiosity. Since they teamed up, Melanie and Blake have released a number of influential stories that, otherwise, may have never been written. Most recently, they released a special package exposing the sexual assault of America’s sick and elderly who reside in nursing homes. The stories both quantified the problem and conveyed the struggle of its victims, providing a comprehensive look at a devastating epidemic.
The job doesn’t come without its own challenges, however. During their digging, Melanie and Blake have taken on criminals and threats of a lawsuit.
“When people don’t want you to write something, they will make very strong efforts to stop you,” she said. “I had nightmares about Maria Duval (a story subject) for months. Are these people dangerous? We don’t know.”
But the potential for good outweighs the danger for Melanie, and the reward is stronger than the challenge.
“I get to work somewhere I like and respect. It’s a crazy time to be a journalist,” she said, implying no regret. “But I love what I do. And I’d love to help other people find their way to journalism, too.”
Full with gratitude for her education and career, Melanie is planning to use her time in Santa Clarita to bring back a version of the Randy Wicks First Amendment Scholarship Foundation, which helped her get her start more than 10 years ago.
“I’d love to start a foundation that could provide scholarships and mentorship to young, local journalists,” she said. “It’s been a tough decade for journalism, but it’s so important now.”
photo by Joie de Vivre photographie