How CNN’s reporting on modern-day slavery fits into its efforts to strengthen international coverage

Before he set out to cover modern-day slavery in Mauritania, CNN’s John Sutter thought he’d be able to distance himself emotionally from the story. But after hearing accounts from former slaves and slave owners, he couldn’t help but be moved.

“Usually it’s pretty easy to put on your reporter hat, at least while you’re having a conversation, and to distance yourself from the content of the interview,” Sutter said via email. “That wasn’t possible with several of these interviews, both because I was surprised by what people said — a liberated slave didn’t remember the moment he started getting paid — and because some of the tales of slavery were so horrific and graphic.”

Sutter and photographer Edythe McNamee spent nearly a year gaining entry into Mauritania, a West African country where 10 to 20 percent of the population is still enslaved. Slavery wasn’t abolished there until 1981, and it didn’t become a crime until 2007. (In an email interview, Sutter described the challenges and rewards of reporting this story.)

Their project, ”Slavery’s Last Stronghold,” shows how CNN is trying to strengthen its international coverage, and to give people a reason to care about it.

Slavery beat a key part of international coverage

“Slavery’s Last Stronghold” is part of CNN’s Freedom Project initiative, which launched in March 2011. Since then, CNN has published 250 stories about modern-day slavery from five different continents.

Moulkheir Mint Yarba returned from a day of tending goats in the Mauritanian desert to find that her master had left her baby girl outside to die. She escaped slavery in 2010. (Edythe McNamee/CNN)

“We decided that we wanted to make modern-day slavery a beat for us,” said Meredith Artley, vice president and managing editor of CNN Digital. “Enterprise journalism isn’t something that you would have associated with CNN 15 years ago, but this is the kind of thing we’re going to be doing more of. If we’re not going to do it, who is?”

CNN isn’t the first news organization to cover slavery in Mauritania, but it has produced one of the more expansive projects on the issue. “Slavery’s Last Stronghold” stands out at a time when many news organizations have cut back on international coverage and closed their foreign bureaus.

It’s hard to compare CNN’s international efforts with others news organizations, primarily because the organization has such a wide reach. CNN International airs around the world, and CNN.com got about 2.3 billion page views worldwide in 2011. CNN spokeswoman Jenna DiMaria wouldn’t disclose how many of those page views came from outside the United States, but said “a large portion of our traffic comes from the U.S.”

CNN also has the staff to cover international stories, despite layoffs in the past year. (DiMaria said the most recent layoffs, from CNN’s documentary teams, aren’t likely to affect the network’s international coverage.) Several staffers contribute to CNN.com’s international coverage, including those who don’t typically cover international affairs.

CNN journalists who cover assignments in hostile environments have to go through hostile territory training, which is run by an outside organization called AKE.

Sutter, who underwent this training with McNamee, said that despite having a degree in international studies with a focus on African affairs, he had little experience in international reporting. He typically covers tech and the environment. Having the opportunity to pursue a story outside of his beat, he said, strengthened his reporting skills.

“I was new to this topic when I started researching it about a year ago, but I think that newness can be a strength in some ways,” he said. “If you’re new to something, you see it with fresh eyes.”

He did a lot of pre-reporting and had several discussions with his editor before leaving for Mauritania, where communication was limited. When he returned, he had to make time to write the story while covering other stories closer to home.

“Sometimes I go back and forth between weighty topics and light ones,” he said. “While I was writing this Mauritania piece, for instance, I flew to San Francisco to cover the launch of the new iPad.”

Avoiding the “view from nowhere”

Part of what makes “Slavery’s Last Stronghold” so good is that the photos and text work well together, and the writing is strong.

Sutter starts the story with a chilling tale about Moulkheir Mint Yarba, a former female slave whose master had left her baby outside to die. He then goes on to talk about how Yarba’s master raped her. “Moulkheir had no choice but to endure this torture,” Sutter wrote. “She’d convinced herself that her master knew what was best for her — that this was the way it had always been, would always be.”

Sutter’s writing makes you empathize with the former slaves he interviews.

“This is advocacy journalism in a lot of ways. We don’t need to be this completely flat, disconnected, unbiased … observer — this is modern day slavery, for Christ’s sake,” Artley said. “It certainly isn’t something you need to be objective about.”

CNN doesn’t approach all of its coverage this way. New York University professor Jay Rosen, for instance, recently noted CNN’s “view from nowhere” slogan for the 2012 campaign: “The only side we choose is yours.”

CNN Digital Senior Enterprise Editor Jan Winburn, who edited Sutter’s story, encouraged him to incorporate his voice into it. Throughout the piece, he uses the pronoun “we” when describing the reporting challenges he and McNamee faced.

“We wanted to take readers on the journey we went on. We could hardly even get in the country, so most of our readers won’t ever be able to go there,” said Winburn, who noted that the project features video, photography, text and other interactive components. “All of those elements connect people to a story that is so far away, so distant, so hard to comprehend. It’s all a matter of bringing it home.”

Encouraging interest in international coverage

Since it was published Sunday, “Slavery’s Last Stronghold” has generated more than 2 million page views and has been among CNN.com’s most popular stories.

International stories are frequently among CNN.com’s most highly trafficked content, partly because CNN covers a lot of international news but also because people are genuinely interested in it, Artley said.

“We really invest in international coverage, and we do it because we believe people care about international coverage,” she said by phone. “But I don’t think we always connect them to the story as well as we can, as journalists.”

The Project for Excellence in Journalism found that international coverage grew in 2011. But a growth in coverage doesn’t necessarily mean a growth in interest. In recent years, some have questioned the popularity of international news, saying it appeals only to an elite few.

The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof told me that after years of reporting on international issues, he still doesn’t know if people are interested in topics such as modern-day slavery.

“In general, we in the news media are best at covering things that happen on a particular day. We’re weakest at covering what occurs every day, because it’s never precisely news – and that’s the world of public health, poverty and, yes, modern forms of slavery,” said Kristof, who praised CNN’s project.

“I just don’t know how interested audiences are in all this. I do think that Americans are more inward-looking these days and less interested in foreign stories, whether about Iraq or about sex trafficking in India. But human trafficking stories are usually very compelling, and they’re not hard to find.”

Sutter tried to pique readers’ interest in his story by including universal themes that they could relate to — motherhood, independence, and the desire to have a voice and be heard.

“What happens in Africa matters because it’s happening to people who live on the same planet we do,” Sutter said. “Someone once told me that when you first travel to a really foreign-seeming place, you notice all the differences; but if you stay a while you start to see only the similarities. I like that, and it’s true. Our struggles are intertwined and I think we make smarter decisions as people and as a nation if we understand those connections better.”

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