Please tell us about yourself

What makes a great crime reporter? Tremendous courage and passion for reporting the real and pressing issues, true and honest integrity in the profession. Such is one reporter, Prabjot Kaur Randhawa, who is South Dakota’s first Sikh broadcast journalist.

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PJ Randhawa was born in Manitoba, Canada, to Sikh parents of Indian origin. After receiving a Masters degree in Journalism from Chicago’s DePaul University in 2011, she began her career as a news reporter at KOTA TV in South Dakota, an affiliate of ABC. Success came in the wake of her being promoted to morning news anchor. Her segment reached out to a large populace in 5 states!(South Dakota, North Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska and Montana). Randhawa has also worked with other news giants such as The Chicago News, Fox Chicago, WGN and PBS.

“It felt like jumping into a pool where you’re just overwhelmed with sensations,” says TV investigative journalist Prabjot “PJ” Randhawa (CMN MA ’11) of how she felt when she was announced as the winner of a Mid-America regional Emmy® Award in the health and science category.

“I was told it takes several years of being nominated to win, and I only had one nomination. So I really didn’t expect to be called on stage,” she says. But her report on prescription drug errors for NBC affiliate KSDK in St. Louis impressed Emmy voters and viewers alike. The scope and dangers of the problem caught Randhawa and her team’s attention, and interviews with pharmacists confirmed that they were being pressured to fill more prescriptions an hour or be replaced with pharmacists who would.

Tell us about your work

Randhawa’s investigation revealed how many large chain pharmacies are putting profit over safety, by requiring pharmacists fill more prescriptions per hour. The end result, Randhawa uncovered, is that a surprising number of people go home with the wrong medication- which can be fatal. As part of her report, Randhawa questioned the head of the Missouri Pharmacy Board and discovered they are taking no action to monitor these corporate pressures, or ensure the safety of the public. 

“I feel an obligation to uncover instances where corporations put profit over public safety. As a Sikh, and a Journalist, I believe it is my duty to uncover practices that can hurt or take advantage of the public. My strong belief system, rooted in the teachings of Sikhism, reinforces my personal drive to shed light into the darkest aspects of society. I want people who read or watch my stories to come away with information that can benefit their families and enrich the quality of their lives,” said Randhawa. 

How and why did you get into crime/investigative news reporting?

I’ve always been painfully shy (smiles). I never thought I would pursue a career in front of the camera. I wanted to remain behind the camera when I began studying journalism in graduate school. But I became inspired by the subjects I was covering. I researched, edited and wrote stories, and I felt I knew them better than anyone else. That deep involvement released a passion for storytelling (paused), and in the same sense; reporting. It gave me a boost of confidence and suddenly there was something more important than my shyness. I felt like it was my responsibility to present the stories I was working on accurately and clearly (paused) with confidence. Luckily I had a very supportive family who had been encouraging me to step in front of the camera for a long time.

I report on crime and investigative topics because those are some of the hardest stories to tell. Through my reporting, I try to make sense of some of the darkness I see in the world.

Talk to us about your undercover journalist experience, if any.

My first undercover experience was infiltrating an anti-gay hate group in Illinois. Their views were shocking and hard to hear. I listened to their perspective and tried to understand it. More importantly, I had to understand it to report on it accurately. I learned you have to be a good listener to go undercover.

I’ve been undercover in smoke shops, beauty parlors, and malls. Not quite as exciting as my first taste. There are a lot of legal and ethical issues to consider when going undercover. It’s not a technique that I use very often.

What would you consider as your one best gig or achievement thus far?

My favorite gig has been investigative reporting (smiles). I was never truly satisfied when I was doing daily reports on random topics. Living in small town South Dakota, I reported a lot of small events (paused) like a rodeo, store opening, or new buildings. I always wanted to know more, find a deeper relevance to the issues I was covering. Now my natural curiosity has an outlet. The most satisfying part of my job is when I can get a viewer’s money back for them, or get a government agency or business to address and fix a problem people are having. We can’t always fix the problems we report, but we strive to shed light on them at the very least.

How does your work benefit the community?

When considering Journalism for the first time, I was unsure if I wanted to be just another face on TV talking about something that doesn’t have much impact. I had studied film, and media and web design and various things in college, but what was missing was a purpose. 
Since I had long had a fascination with the criminal justice system, I felt I could use my film making talents to showcase issues that actually affected people. Crime is something that pulls at the seams of every community around the world. Its consequences in each society say something unique about its values and perhaps an evolution in humanity itself. Studying these trends and reporting on the impact of these sometimes terrible events is what drives my reporting. 

“We were able to find a man who was struggling with lung cancer, and he was given the wrong prescription. He almost died, and there are so many people out there like this,” she says. “They’re given a settlement and forced to sign a nondisclosure agreement, so we don’t hear about it.”

The value of investigative journalism is its ability to shine a light on hidden problems and make the public aware that they may need to take action. Sometimes these reports get the attention of investigating agencies and legislators, but sometimes the findings go nowhere. When that happens, Randhawa says, “it’s the worst feeling in the world.”

Still, she says, “It’s the daily, little successes that keep you going—getting somebody their money back or making a business change its policy.” Indeed, people who have been taken advantage of often turn to their local TV news station for help. “It is something that we can do that not many people, not many other fields and professionals have the power to do,” she explains.

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and fascinating career?

Randhawa is a Canadian Sikh whose parents, Sukhdev and Kuljinder Randhawa, immigrated to Winnipeg from India almost 50 years ago. She ended up in Chicago because her sister was a doctor at Mercy Hospital and Medical Center. “My parents didn’t want me to live in the U.S. by myself.”

Growing up in Winnipeg played a subtle role in my interest in journalism. I suppose living in a place where crime doesn’t affect you, and not much changes year to year expanded my imagination and forced me to create a more creative mindset. I was shy growing up so I would write plays, comedies, poems and short novels to express what I wanted to be, and how I thought life should be. I grew up in a safe, quiet place and I never felt danger or fear. That created a nice environment to explore my ambitions, imagination and set goals about how to become the outgoing person I wrote out.

Being South Asian had little to do with it initially. Living in Canada, I didn’t identify people by color. I felt like everyone else I grew up with…people from all around the world of different religions, races, etc. In the US, as I began to pursue my Masters in Journalism, the differences in me (my name, my ethnicity) compared to my classmates began getting attention in a positive light. Professors said I filled a certain niche missing in TV Stations. Looking around, I couldn’t help but agree. South Asians are often unrepresented in the media. I felt pride then, and confidence that I could not only report well, but stand proudly by my heritage whilst doing it. 

After excelling as an undergraduate in mass media at Northeastern Illinois University, Randhawa decided to pursue her master’s in journalism at DePaul. “I got a lot of encouragement from my mother, who wanted me to be the next Oprah,” Randhawa says, but first she would have to overcome her shyness. “I didn’t plan on going into journalism to be in front of the camera, but then I got to DePaul, and I just had a lot of encouragement. Once I was representing an issue, telling a story, the shyness went away—because it wasn’t about me.”

What do you love about your job?

As a Sikh, Randhawa was guided by the main tenet of the religion—everyone is equal—in choosing her career path. “I knew almost instantly I wasn’t going to be doing entertainment news. I wanted the hard stuff, things that anyone would find impactful, relevant,” she says.

Your advice to students?

I credit my success to perseverance. My family has provided me with tremendous encouragement and helped me keep my confidence up. Since I was very young I always dreamed to be a better version of myself (more outgoing, confident). Every little success I experienced in university helped me realize I could do more, and I could handle the social and personal challenges that I had always feared. 

For anyone looking to pursue journalism: learn to tell a good story first. Then be prepared to fight for what you love. Many South Asian parents don’t immediately understand the trials you have to go through to be successful in this field. You will be pressured to conform, people will find your faults and highlight them for you, and sometimes it will feel like nobody is watching or listening…or reading. But you have to love the chase …finding information, presenting information, and most importantly, presenting yourself to the world as someone with something to say. 

Anokhi wholeheartedly thanks PJ Randhawa for her time. During the course of the interview, she informed us that she has recently accept a State Reporter position at WIS TV, in Columbia SC. Her political and state coverage will reach seven stations throughout the stage. We congratulate her on this new success, and wish her the best for her future.