Articles about "International reporting"

5 ways journalists can use social media for on-the-ground reporting in the Middle East

Social media is a particularly powerful tool in the Middle East, where in some countries it gives people a way to express themselves. That expression takes many forms, from social protest, to political criticism, to sharing news and information.

Most recently, groups such as the Israeli Defense Force have been using social media to seek support and participation as the Gaza Strip conflict escalates.

Sometimes major news happens in people’s backyards and they send out extremely valuable tidbits of information in real-time. For journalists who can’t be everywhere or be there to see it firsthand, the hyper-active social media stratosphere in the Middle East is an invaluable tool. The explosion of regional use of platforms like Twitter and Facebook started with Arab Spring, and has only grown since then.

Peter Townson, a journalist working with the DOHA Center for Press Freedom in Qatar, says there is one obvious reason that some countries in the Middle East have embraced social media so heartily. “It’s kind of the preferred way for people to get news, because they know there’s no self-censorship involved,” Townson said in a phone interview.

In other countries such as Libya, Lebanon and Israel, Twitter has become one of the fastest and most reliable communication tools among locals and with the outside world. In four instances throughout the past year or so, I used Twitter while reporting on news `happening in Benghazi, Beirut, Tripoli, and Gaza/Israel for The Epoch Times.

In all of these stories, Twitter played an important role — sometimes on multiple levels — by providing the initial lead, demonstrating the general level of interest with related traffic, and making it possible to connect directly with some people broadcasting critical pieces of information. By the time my editors in New York were just waking up, I was already hot on the trail of major news stories.

The catch is, I was on edge about the numerous potential ethical pitfalls of using social media as a jumping-off point for reporting a story. It was something akin to walking down the street, overhearing a conversation and then trying to base a news article on it. In the Middle East, word of mouth is king, but even in such an environment, performing ethically should still govern one’s work.

Here are some key points I have learned:

Get as close up to the source as possible

Many times, tweets sent out by people in the Middle East are connected to a political agenda. Other times it is hearsay feeding hearsay. When I use Twitter and Facebook on a story, I get in as close contact as possible with the source of the information I am tracking, and find out as much as possible about them. I want to know what their affiliations and loyalties are.

When reporting on Tripoli, my main source was CNN correspondent Matthew Chance, who was trapped (with a few dozen other journalists) inside the Rixos Hotel but managed to keep tweeting. It was very simple to establish his identity and motivation.

While reporting on the fighting between Israel and Hamas, I (and many others) had access to the Twitter feeds of scores of foreign journalists with major outlets in different locations from Sderot to Gaza City to Tel Aviv. The media affiliations in the bio of their Twitter account, their active status as reporters covering the story, and the steady stream of key information at near real-time speed helped me to paint a more accurate picture from reliable sources.

Because people in this region who broadcast information are sometimes vulnerable, I always make extra reassurances about my identity and affiliations if I get in contact, which ultimately garners more trust and more information from the source.

Fine-tune your ability to size people up

Social media has done a tremendous amount to help people of different backgrounds connect with each other. But technological advances don’t cancel out significant cultural differences. You have to be able to size people up, even when you don’t share a common culture.

While covering a story about how Libyans in Benghazi were organizing to start raising funds to rebuild the U.S. Embassy there, I had one primary contact who was willing to speak with me by phone and connect me with others.

On the phone I took extra time to chat with her and get a sense of her personality (did she seem rational?), her motivations (did she seem angry?) and her state of mind (did she seem hyped up?). It didn’t take long to get the sense of a calm, reasonable person who was genuinely in the midst of the story for personal reasons.

Do extra follow up and verification

Many times, social media buzz related to news happening in the Middle East can be corroborated by early media reports.

My first tip-off to a car bombing in Beirut was an early media report that prompted a search on Twitter. I came across a certain set of photographs that were broadcast on blogs and retweeted. The photos showed the same scene as in the first English-language media report, but were clearly taken by an amateur using a cell phone.

The photographer had ongoing and direct access to his Twitter account, so I reached him in less than 10 minutes. Similarly, after air raid sirens sounded in Jerusalem and at least one bomb exploded, I checked Twitter almost immediately to find out what others were saying. Those tweets led me to some key information for my report on the bombing.

Respect the ownership of photos

Some of the best material from the Middle East comes from people who are literally part of the news. Maybe they participated in a rally or march, took pictures, then tweeted and posted them to Facebook. With the stories about Benghazi and Beirut in particular, the photos were too good and relevant to ignore.

The tricky part came in asking the photographers for reprint permission. Since they were not journalists, asking for the necessary photo credit and caption didn’t make sense. It had to be done, but it was necessary to tread lightly.

Asking if they took the photo and for information to create a caption could trigger suspicion. In the set of Beirut photographs, my editor and I decided to do something The Epoch Times had never done before — we ran the photographer’s “name/Twitter handle” as the photo credit to indicate the source of the photos.

Find the fire when there’s social media smoke

One of the most uplifting stories after the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi (citizens fundraising for a new embassy) was hyped on social media first. It was a good lead, but not enough for a story, and required an extra degree of caution in putting the story together.

A colleague in Washington, D.C. and I worked together to verify that the lead was legitimate, and then backtracked to the social media sources and tested the information. When we were satisfied that it was legitimate, we reported the piece.

Five days into the fighting between Israel and Hamas, several foreign journalists from UK’s Sky News and other outlets had their building hit with rockets. The first hints of what had happened came out on Twitter under the feed #Gaza. The reporters whose offices were hit confirmed the story with reports of the basic facts of the situation through both media reports and short updates on Twitter.

When I heard the air raid sirens in Jerusalem, I ran for cover and then checked Twitter to corroborate information with others in the area and send out my own account of the news. That’s what a reporter’s job has always been about — getting to the bottom of what’s going on and telling an important story. Social media has just accelerated the process. Read more


Kristof: ‘The U.S. is losing interest’ in foreign reporting

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof answered readers’ questions on Reddit Monday. Here are some highlights:

• Kristof tries to produce as much copy as he can from his trips abroad: “[G]iven how long it takes to get to the places I go, I need to be sure that if I get there, I can do several different columns from that destination.” And he thinks the appetite for foreign reporting is waning:

The big challenge for foreign reporting is that I think the U.S. is losing interest. For a decade or so after 9/11, the U.S. was quite interested in the world, an aberration in our history of insularity. Now I think we’re reverting the more normal situation where we’re quite inward looking. That also poses huge problems for those of us who care about global poverty.

• He admits he likes making the “most emailed” list. (Here are some tips for doing that.) Read more


What journalists need to know about Coptic Christians

This morning I got a call from the editors, who asked: “Could you write a piece explaining Coptic Christianity?” The request comes as law enforcement identifies Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, being widely described as a “California Coptic Christian,” as the person behind a film that may have touched off some of the violence in Egypt, Libya and through the Middle East. (Note how tentative I am about who is responsible for the film and about how directly linked the movie is to the violence. We just do not know yet.)

First: There is nothing new about religious insensitivity fueling the fires in the Middle East. But do not miss this point: There is nothing about Coptic Christianity that leads believers to produce a hateful movie disrespecting the Muslim religion.

The basics

The Coptic Christians are another name for Egyptian Christians. Coptic comes from the Greek word for the ancient capital city of Egypt, Memphis. Along with the Egyptian Christian faith came a distinctive new kind of artwork that became known as Coptic art.

Christians have many connections to Egypt. The most familiar connection: The New Testament teaches that Jesus’ family fled to Egypt to protect the child from being killed by a jealous King Herod.

The Nicene Creed, recited by Christians worldwide every week, has origins in Egypt.

The Coptic story goes that it was Saint Mark who ushered Christianity into Egypt not long after Christ was crucified. Followers believed that the move into Egypt was predicted by Old Testament scripture from the Book of Isaiah (19:19).

The Copts had a disagreement with other Christians about the divinity of Christ. Without getting too deep into the religious weeds, the core of the disagreement was about something called “the nature of the incarnate Word.” Copts believe Jesus was perfect in both his divinity and his humanity and that the two were never separate; he was always divine and always human. (Learn more about that if you have a spare weekend.)

Ancient fragments of Christian scripture have been found in Egypt written in Coptic, which was Egypt’s language at the time. In fact, a couple of hundred years into the Coptic movement, Christianity was Egypt’s main religion. Eventually Muslim Arabs would become the majority and for hundreds of years, really until the 1800′s, the Copts had a pretty rough time of it. They paid a special non-Muslim tax, for example.

Copts eventually gained acceptance and wealth until the 1950′s when Gamal Abdel Nasser took power, closed Christian courts, seized land and confiscated church property. Lots of Copts left Egypt, and now less than 10 percent of Egyptians are Coptic Christians, according to the CIA Factbook 2011.

After Mubarak

Copts had good reason to worry when Hosni Mubarak was forced from office. Mubarak reached out to the Coptic Pope once in a while, who in returned endorsed and campaigned for Mubarak.

Still, problems persisted. Coptic Christian churches have complained that building permits, for example, can be delayed for more than a decade for no particular reason. In November 2010, the State Department said, “Clashes between police and mostly Coptic rioters began over a church-building dispute and led to the deaths of two Copts.”

Post-Mubarak, things have gotten worse for the Egyptian Copts. In 2011, a car bomb killed two dozen Coptic Christians in Alexandria, the cradle of the faith in Egypt. The bombers were prosecuted. Still, since the revolution, U.S. officials have been hearing increasing stories of violence, especially against Coptic Christian women.

A month ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she was increasingly worried about a rise in religious intolerance in Egypt. “Since 2011, and the fall of the Mubarak regime, sectarian violence has increased,” Secretary Clinton said. (Read the State Department’s annual Report on Religious Freedom.)

Since the revolution, there have been attempts to add a blasphemy law in the Egyptian constitution. Last month, a Copt teacher was arrested and right now awaits sentencing for insulting the Prophet Mohammad.

Even though the Egyptian constitution provides for freedom of belief and the practice of religious rites, the U.S. State Department points out, Islam is the official national religion. Islamic law is the primary influence on Egyptian legislation and “all mosques must be licensed by the Ministry of Islamic Endowments (Awqaf). The government appoints and pays the salaries of the imams who lead prayers in mosques and monitors their sermons. It does not contribute to the funding of Christian churches.”

This week’s violence

The movie trailer for “Innocence of Muslims” is just a backdrop for so many tensions. It is not a reason for the violence and hatred. It may be a spark, igniting an explosion that has been simmering, but even that is unclear.

Whoever is responsible for this video, if he or she is Coptic Christian, is no more representative of the faith than any other fringe element who acts under a banner of belief. Read more


NPR’s new global health beat blends social media, traditional reporting

As news organizations experiment more with social networking sites, many are realizing that social media has to be an integral part of how we gather news, tell stories and develop beats.

NPR’s new global health and development beat is a good example of a hybrid approach to storytelling, one that places just as much emphasis on social media as it does on shoe-leather reporting.

NPR has hired an associate producer, Michaeleen Doucleff, who will work with reporter Jason Beaubien to build an audience for the beat through social media and multimedia. The beat, which is part of NPR’s Science Desk, is supported by a grant from the Gates Foundation.

A new & better way to tell global health stories

Joe Neel, deputy senior supervising editor and a correspondent on the Science Desk, said the global health and development beat is helping NPR’s science team reshape the way it approaches stories.

“We have covered global health and development issues over the years, but we were really looking for a way to tell stories in a different way,” he said by phone. “A lot of media organizations have shed their global health reporters and reduced the amount of time they’re spending on it, and there was some feeling that the reporting had become formulaic. We looked at what we were doing and said, ‘Let’s find a new way.’”

Jason Beaubien

The beat is designed for Beaubien to travel abroad and talk face-to-face with people who are affected by diseases such as AIDS and polio. The goal, Beaubien said by phone, is to put a human face on global health issues. A month into the job, he’s already traveled to Botswana, Brazil, Kenya and South Africa for a series on AIDS.

“If we need to get somewhere, we’re going to get there and see how an issue is affecting people in distant parts of the world. I think that is going to make these stories that much more powerful,” said Beaubien, who was formerly NPR’s Mexico City correspondent. (Carrie Kahn, who previously reported for NPR West, is taking his former spot.)

Beaubien, who was previously an NPR foreign correspondent, admits: “I really have no background in science, so this is pushing me in a lot of different ways.” His editor, Neel,  thinks that’s a good thing. “I really wanted to bring in a fresh set of eyes who could see things that we may not otherwise see from a science perspective,” he said.

Global health and development is a complex beat that involves health, science and international coverage. And it’s a beat that you don’t find in many newsrooms, which have cut back on science and international coverage in recent years. New York Times science writer Natalie Angier told Poynter a few years ago that the science beat was “basically going out of existence.”

In a July 2009 Pew study, 76 percent of scientists surveyed said news reports fail to make distinctions between research results that are well-founded and those that aren’t. About half of those surveyed said the media oversimplify scientific issues. There’s a need, then, for coverage that makes these issues easy to understand without dumbing them down.

Use multimedia & social media to generate interest

Mark Stencel, managing editor for digital news at NPR, said multimedia projects will be a key part of helping readers understand global health issues.

“We’re pretty selective in how and where we choose to do in-depth multimedia work, in part because just doing radio and digital is enough of a multimedia channel. But there are a handful of areas that have been home-runs in multimedia — investigative, music and science,” Stencel said by phone. “Science is definitely one of the places where we’ve been investing in multimedia.”

Michaeleen Doucleff

Part of Doucleff’s role as an associate producer is to create multimedia projects for the beat. She’s already created some, including a slideshow on how HIV attacks the immune system. She’s also written blog posts about topics such as vampire bat bites, condoms and fake poop. (Yes, you read that right.) She’s currently designing a Web page where all of the global health tweets, stories and comments will be archived.

Additionally, Doucleff runs the Twitter account @nprGlobalHealth and uses it to generate interest in Beaubien’s stories and other stories on the beat. She’s also planning to use Storify, Tumblr and other social networking sites to tell stories.

“I am really looking forward to seeing how well Twitter works, not only as a source of interesting stories and people, but also as a tool for integrating NPR into the thriving global health community there,” said Doucleff, who previously worked at the science journal Cell. “We want to be a voice in the discussion there, as well as a sounding board.”

Unlike Beaubien, Doucleff has a strong science background; she earned her master’s degree in horticulture and agronomy and has a doctorate in biophysics. Like Beaubien, she’s a good storyteller and understands how social media enhances storytelling.

“I think my favorite part [of the job], which also seems like one of the hardest, is engaging people in an important topic that they traditionally don’t want to pay attention to,” Doucleff said via email. “Some of the global health issues can be hard to swallow, but I want to use the power of social media and new media formats to get people’s attention and to get them interested.”

Social media, Stencel said, is helping to inform both the global health beat team and its audience. And it’s enabling NPR to have a global presence.

“Nothing quite beats being on the ground. But no news organization can be everywhere. Social media multiplies our capacity by allowing us to listen in on and participate in active discussions around the world, many of which will inform where we go and what we do when we get there,” Stencel said.

“At the same time, these globe-spanning discussions are important in and of themselves. Activists, researchers, front-line health workers and public health officials in hot spots around the world are sharing information — communicating and convening continuously in a way that in the past might have happened more slowly, if at all. If those same people gathered for, say, a global health summit, we’d want to be there. Following those conversations in social media IS being there.” Read more


On World Press Freedom Day, Equatorial Guinea lives up to its low ranking

Committee to Protect Journalists
The government of Equatorial Guinea responded to its distinction as the fifth most-censored country in the world by holding a news conference at which President Teodoro Obiang declared, “There are really no restrictions on any activity of the press, provided they are legal.” That message must not have made it to the head of the state-owned broadcaster, who on the same day “barred Samuel Obiang Mbana, an independent journalist … from participating in a televised debate to which he had been invited two days earlier to speak on how press freedom could transform the country.” Mbana tells CPJ’s Peter Nkanga, “I was told I am problematic, that I might say something the station is censored not to say, and which the government doesn’t want aired.” || Related: Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton honors journalists on World Press Freedom Day (U.S. Department of State) Read more


How journalists train to stay safe while covering hostile environments

Before he ever stepped foot in Iraq, Washington Post reporter Ed O’Keefe had already navigated his way through landmines, used a tourniquet to help an injured person, and been ambushed.

He did all this and more in a hostile environment training course that he took prior to a six-and-a-half week reporting stint in Iraq. The training, he said, helped prepare him for what to expect and made him more aware of the precautions he needed to take to stay safe.

“Was I using what I learned on a daily basis? No. But was I conscious of things I wouldn’t have otherwise known? Absolutely,” said O’Keefe, a congressional reporter who volunteered to go to Iraq. “There were nights when I walked through the Green Zone and was conscious of the fact that behind that corner, someone could be waiting, conscious that an explosive could go off at any point, conscious of not walking in the shadows, but in the light.”

The Washington Post — which strongly urged but didn’t require O’Keefe to take the course — is one of several news organizations that pays for its reporters to go through hostile environment training before entering a war zone. I talked with several journalists who have undergone the training, as well as two groups that run it — AKE and Centurion, both based in the U.K.

Using mock scenarios to prepare journalists

O’Keefe did his training through Centurion, which trains about 1,000 journalists from around the world each year. The organization runs two to three courses in the U.K. every month and one course in Virginia each month.

Centurion, which began training journalists in 1993 during the Bosnian War, regularly changes the training to better fit the current situations in war-torn areas. Business Development Manager Carole Rees said each course typically has up to 16 journalists who, upon completing the course, are awarded certificates that are valid for three years. Centurion offers a two-day follow-up program for those who want to get re-certified.

The organization’s most popular training course lasts five days and costs about $3,000 per person. Trainees learn a variety of skills — how to detect landmines, how to handle a check point and how to protect yourself from tear gas.

The training incorporates real-life, hands-on scenarios so participants get a better idea of what it’s like to be in some of the situations they learn about. One of the scenarios has instructors ambush journalists. They even put hoods over the journalists’ heads, and hold them up at gunpoint.

AKE, which trains journalists from news organizations such as CNN, the BBC and News International, also includes mock scenarios in its training. “We put them in the situations they learn about to see how they react,” said Nick Jordan, AKE’s head of training. “It’s all well and good seeing it on a PowerPoint, but we feel that it’s important to put them through these scenarios so they can learn 10 times more through actually doing it.”

San Antonio Express-News Military Reporter Sig Christenson, who attended Centurion training seven years ago, vividly remembers the mock scenarios. Even though he had been to Iraq three times prior to going through the training, he says he still wasn’t prepared for them.

“When my Centurion instructor put a gun to my head — a 9-millimeter — I forgot that it was a training session. Something about that gun to my head really set me off, and I was about to fight him, which would have been a mistake,” Christenson said by phone. “Part of what you’re taught is that you should not fight back. If you’re not careful, you’re going to get hurt or killed if you put up a lot of resistance.”

Christenson said the lessons he learned in his training have stayed with him. He still has his Centurion manual and handwritten notes from the course, which he referred to before going to Afghanistan in 2010.

The Miami Herald’s Carol Rosenberg, who attended the training in 2002, said by phone that she also found the mock scenarios helpful because they taught her to take a more studied and systematic approach to reporting in dangerous places. She still recalls one incident in which she was being driven to the training site, only to be derailed by a fake explosion.

“Suddenly, there are people who are insurgents who are taking you hostage quite briskly, and putting a hood on you. I know it was a gamed exercise, but it was uncomfortable and unsettling,” said Rosenberg, who has been to Iraq numerous times and now covers Guantanamo Bay. “It made me realize how little situational awareness you have. You really don’t know after the fact how to necessarily describe or recreate precisely how you found yourself in that situation.”

Medical emergency training resonates with trainees

Most of the journalists I talked with said the medical emergency training they received was the most helpful part of the course.

“I’ve put lessons in safe tactics from the course to good use in battlefield and patrol scenarios in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya,” CNN International Anchor and Correspondent Michael Holmes said via email. “But, to me, the most important element of the course is medical training. I’ve had eight colleagues and friends killed in places like Iraq, Libya and Syria in recent years and I know how a little training can save lives.”

Christenson agreed, saying he learned lessons that could have saved his life, had he found himself in a serious medical situation. He learned, for instance, how to use a tourniquet and how to start a triage.

“You saw gaps in your knowledge which were significant enough to make a difference between surviving and not surviving,” he said. “That’s worth my time.”

Instructors who know journalists’ risks

The instructors in both AKE’s and Centurion’s programs are ex-military personnel who have been previously embedded with journalists.

The majority of Centurion’s instructors, Rees said, worked on NBC’s media security team for several years in Baghdad and were embedded with a variety of journalists in Iraq, including Tom Brokaw.

Rees described instructors’ relationship with trainees as a “two-way street.” “We want to learn from the people in the course about their experiences because it helps our instructors better understand the job they do,” she said by phone. “A lot of them keep in touch and tell us what situations they may have been in, and what tips they found most useful.”

The Post’s O’Keefe said that knowing the instructors had worked with journalists in the field made the training feel more specialized.

“The best part about the experience, and why there weren’t any sort of lingering issues in my mind, is that the instructors had been on the ground with journalists in war,” he said. “These were guys who were not only trained British Royal Marines but who understood the safety concerns and how to apply them in a journalistic situation.”

Still a strong demand for training

Even though many news organizations have had to close foreign bureaus, Centurion and AKE said participation among U.S. journalists has been steady. The number of news organizations sending journalists abroad dipped a bit after troops started to withdraw from the Iraq war, Rees said, but has picked back up again since the Arab Spring.

Centurion and AKE have both expanded their operations in recent years. AKE, which offers training in the U.K. and Atlanta, has also started to run courses at their clients’ locations, per request. Later this month, AKE is sending some of its instructors to New York City to work with CBC New York. It’s more challenging to do these training sessions, Jordan said, because the venues are not always conducive to mock scenarios.

Centurion used to train only in the UK, but opened a site in Virginia 10 years ago to accommodate a growing demand among U.S. news organizations. The organization just recently started offering training in Abu Dhabi and Qatar for journalists who are reporting there and can’t make it to the U.S. or the U.K. for training.

The Associated Press, Reuters and The Washington Post are among Centurion’s biggest clients, Rees said. Centurion just recently started training French journalists, and has seen an uptick in the number of journalists attending from Russia, Norway and Germany.

“Even though media companies are obviously making cutbacks in some areas, I don’t think they’re cutting back on health and safety training,” Rees said. “I don’t really think it’s an area they’re able to, or are willing to, backpedal on. There seems to be a much greater awareness than there once was of care toward journalists.”

Rees said that while news organizations usually send staffers to training, some have started sending stringers. Still, there are freelancers who can’t afford the training and who aren’t affiliated with a news organization that will send them. Such was the case with photographer Lynsey Addario, who was kidnapped last year in Libya along with three other journalists working for The New York Times.

“When I was starting to cover war in 2001, I couldn’t afford a hostile environment training course. I’ve been freelance my whole career, and was near poor for the first five or so years of it,” she said via email. “When I could finally afford the course, I had already gotten a lot of on the job (not necessarily welcome!) experience.”

Addario’s kidnapping, and the recent deaths of Anthony Shadid, Tim Hetherington, Chris Hondros, Marie Colvin, Remi Ochlik and others, has renewed attention to the dangers reporters and photographers face when in war zones.

Given how many journalists the industry has lost, some say there’s no question news organizations should pay for staffers to go through hostile environment training.

“It’s not only good practice in security and common sense, but I also think it helps your journalism because it makes you more conscious of your limitations,” O’Keefe said. “It at least sets off something in your brain that says, ‘Should I really do this? Is it worth the risk?’ No story is more valuable than your life.” Read more

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Corporation for Public Broadcasting gives NPR $500,000 for foreign news coverage

The money, announced last night as NPR journalist Lourdes Garcia-Navarro was honored with an Edward R. Murrow award, “will help support journalists and producers stationed across five key NPR foreign bureaus – Jerusalem, Cairo, Beirut, Shanghai and Beijing,” says a CPB press release. “The funding will enable these journalists to continue reporting feature stories for broadcast, web and mobile platforms.” (The full release is after the jump.) || Related: NPR’s Andy Carvin won in the “#Journalist” category of Monday night’s Shorty Awards Read more


CNN reporter on covering modern-day slavery in Mauritania: ‘We had to do much of this reporting in secret’

CNN’s John Sutter and Edythe McNamee spent nearly a year trying to gain entry into Mauritania, where 10 to 20 percent of the population is still enslaved. Their project, “Slavery’s Last Stronghold,” shows the effects slavery has had on this West African nation, and is part of CNN’s ongoing effort to strengthen its international reporting.

I talked with Sutter via email about what he learned from the reporting experience.

Mallary Tenore: What was the hardest part about reporting on this story?

John Sutter: We had to do much of this reporting in secret — often in the middle of the night, watching our backs to make sure we weren’t being followed. It was tense at times.

And I think the really frustrating thing was trying to tease out the line between getting enough information so that we could report this story and do it fairly and also making sure that we didn’t get in trouble with authorities, who could have taken all of our equipment and notebooks. I e-mailed notes to myself at night in case that happened, and the videographer on this project, Edythe McNamee, mailed a hard drive back to the U.S.

There was one night where we were out in the middle of the Sahara, speaking with people who formerly were enslaved. But because a government minder was there, we couldn’t ask about slavery directly. That was really hard for me to deal with — being in a remote place where you could gain so much information and insight, but not being able to report. I actually asked if we could stay the night in that village, thinking the government reps might fall asleep and then we could conduct real interviews late at night. They vetoed that idea, of course.

The stories we heard also were very emotional — and that was hard to deal with at times. 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. 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.

What are you most proud of about this project?

This may sound like a cop-out, but I’m honestly most proud of the people who were brave enough to speak out about slavery. Both escaped slaves and abolitionists had truly breathtaking, heartbreaking and incredible stories to tell, and they’re putting themselves at risk to do so. The story of the slave master who became an abolitionist touched me deeply, especially because books and education opened up his world and changed the course of his life — maybe the course of his country’s history. I’m proud to be able to relay a story like that to the world. And to have met such a courageous person.

I also saw an article about our coverage that said while CNN was not the first news organization to report on slavery in Mauritania (very true), that we made the subject vivid and real — and by doing so hopefully gave people a reason to care about this far-flung place. I take that as a huge compliment because that’s what we set out to achieve.

You specialize in tech and environment reporting. Had you covered modern-day slavery prior to working on this project, and do you think you’ll keep covering it moving forward?

That’s a good question. I’ve covered a bunch of topics here at CNN — including the Gulf oil disaster, the Census, Rep. [Gabrielle] Giffords’ shooting and also many tech stories. Sometimes I go back and forth between weighty topics and light ones. While I was writing this Mauritania piece, for instance, I flew to San Francisco to cover the launch of the new iPad.

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. If you’re new to something you see it with fresh eyes. Also, while I’d never been to this part of Africa, my degree is in international studies with a focus on African affairs, and I’ve worked briefly in South Africa, Madagascar and Tanzania. So I have some limited experience in international storytelling.

As far as what’s next, I’d love to be involved in more stories about human rights. CNN has made an incredible difference in the world through the Freedom Project — which focuses on ending modern slavery — and it’s humbling to be a small part of that.

Why do you believe in this kind of international reporting? Why do you think it’s important for journalism, and for the public?

I really believe we’re all connected — all people, all over the world. And as nerdy and kumbaya as that may sound, it’s true. What happens in Africa matters because it’s happening to people who live on the same planet we do. 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. I also think people on opposite sides of the world have a lot to learn from each other. I’m a better person for having met a man who grew up as a slave owner and, against his family’s wishes, set them free and became an abolitionist. I’ll never be confronted with a situation like that, but his story taught me that information — written, shared, spoken — has the power to open up worlds and change people for the better. Read more


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 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’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’s most popular stories.

International stories are frequently among’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.” Read more


Watch a CNN crew hike out of Syria

Ivan Watson narrates as he and a crew of CNN journalists clamber across rocks as they leave Syria. “I’ve had some tough assignments,” says CNN photographer Joe Duran. “I’d say this is the most difficult one for many reasons. … It’s been not just scary, but emotional. Some of the people we left behind, I just hate to think what might happen to them.” Also on CNN: A gripping, long report by a French photographer the network is calling Mani, showing Homs at war. One little girl holds up a photo of her Uncle Salah. “He was filming the demonstrations,” she replies, when asked how he died. || Related: Poland’s diplomats try to get two wounded journalists out of Homs, along with bodies of Remi Ochlik and Marie Colvin (Associated Press) | Activists, including citizen journalists, in Homs “are prepared to die in the battle for a free and democratic Syria.” (Channel 4 News)

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