Reporting from the ‘death triangle’
Most news investigations start with a question. For NBC News and senior investigative reporter Cynthia McFadden, the question was: Where is the worst place in the world to be a child today?
“Unfortunately, there are way too many candidates for that terrible moniker,’’ McFadden said during a phone call from New York.
A recent United Nations report listed the Central African Republic (CAR) as the worst place for a child today because of hunger issues (about 1.5 million children are on the brink of starvation) and civil unrest (war lords and the fight over diamonds, gold and uranium). The area is known as the “death triangle.”
After several months of planning and security assessments, McFadden and her team boarded a small UN plane with no United States military ground support to become the first American TV network to go inside the CAR in five years.
The result is at least four pieces that will air on NBC, starting with an uncommonly long eight-minute feature on Wednesday’s “Today” show and another feature planned for Wednesday’s “NBC Nightly News.”
What McFadden saw in the CAR was heartbreaking: 7-year-olds who weigh 28 pounds, infants who can’t swallow, children close to death. How does a reporter, even a veteran such as McFadden, possibly do her job in the face of such tragedy?
“This is the enduring question,” McFadden said. “You have to harden yourself to do your job. But if you totally harden yourself, you’re not doing your job. So you need to find that calculus, that balance.”
Going through orphanages was especially poignant for McFadden, who was adopted herself.
“These children are begging to be held and touched,” McFadden said. “All of it rips at you. You do what you can to prepare. You know what you’re going there to do.”
McFadden’s mission: work in the moment and then “have the emotional reaction when I’m out of the situation.” The moments that tugged at McFadden the most were actually, she said, the moments of joy.
“You prepare yourself for the pain, but it’s impossible to prepare yourself for people who have so much courage and resilience,” McFadden said. “You see kids still playing games, singing songs and dancing (while all this is going on.)”
McFadden also witnessed the impact of the Boy Scouts, as viewers will see in an upcoming story, and the power of something called Plumpy’Nut, a paste that tastes like peanut butter and has a day’s worth of nutrients. Listless and starving children ate it and, seemingly overnight, were transformed. McFadden points out that a packet of the life-saving food costs less than 50 cents. Her reports are a call to action for viewers to help.
McFadden said she was most pleased about NBC committing the resources to produce reports from the CAR. Stories such as these are not ratings-boosters. Her work also proves there’s more going on in the world than a news cycle that constantly surrounds President Donald Trump.
“They (NBC) believe we need to cover things that maybe are outside the scope of what we think we need to know,” McFadden said. “Maybe sometimes we need to know things that we didn’t know we needed to know.”
A major-league conflict
The New York Mets have hired ESPN “Sunday Night Baseball” analyst Jessica Mendoza to work in the front office. Mendoza, however, will continue working for ESPN. Even though she’s just the latest analyst-turned-team-employee, the trend is troubling. Alex Rodriguez, Mendoza’s “Sunday Night Baseball” partner, works for the Yankees and ESPN baseball analyst David Ross works for the Cubs.
Mendoza’s value to ESPN and viewers is as an insider, an expert analyst. Part of her job is gathering information from executives, managers and players from other teams. So why would anyone ever tell her about their players, knowing she then could share that information with the Mets? Why should viewers trust anything she says about the Mets when she’s drawing a paycheck from them?
Ultimately, viewers suffer because they cannot trust they are getting complete and honest analysis, even when announcers are transparent about their conflict of interest.
NABJ puts CNN on notice
The National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) is putting CNN on a “special media monitoring list” because it says it is “concerned about the lack of black representation within the ranks of CNN’s executive news managers.”
In a statement, NABJ said it will put together a special team to further research and analyze CNN’s diversity, inclusion and equity practices. NABJ said it is concerned that CNN president Jeff Zucker has no black direct reports, and that CNN has no black executive producers, black senior vice presidents or vice presidents on the news side.
According to NABJ, CNN disputed NABJ’s claim of having no black vice presidents on news side, but did not provide specifics. The NABJ said CNN and Zucker have refused to meet with it. In a statement to TheWrap, CNN said it would be more than happy to meet with NABJ as long as the meeting did not include the NABJ vice president, Roland Martin, who was accused of leaking town hall questions to the Clinton campaign in 2016.
“We have made it abundantly clear that we would be more than happy to sit down with the rest of their leadership team as soon as possible, and that offer still stands,” CNN’s statement said.
Relaunch of the Cohort
This item comes from Poynter’s marketing writer and Cohort editor, Mel Grau.
Poynter relaunched its Cohort newsletter for women in digital media Tuesday with a provocative column about how to lead during a time of uncertainty, particularly if you’re in a minority group. From The Atlantic’s managing editor, Adrienne Green: “I thought it was better to put insecurity on the main stage, instead of perpetuating the unflappable, always elegant, ever-confident, Superwoman image that women are asked to project.”
Want to join the conversation? Sign up to receive The Cohort every other Tuesday.
You’ll read honest, applicable insights from a different woman in each issue. Next up is Hannah Storm, the incoming CEO of the Ethical Journalism Network, reflecting on what happened in the year since she published her #MeToo story on Poynter.org.
Check it out
The state of Oregon is considering dropping the legal drinking limit from .08 to .05. Four Oregonian reporters drank beer in the office for a story to show the different levels of impairment.
The Sacramento Bee says one of its reporters was arrested, and reports that two journalists from other outlets were detained as well.
Fun piece of the day: The Ringer’s Victor Luckerson lists the happiest days on the Internet this decade.
Rolling Stone’s Andy Kroll on why CNN gave airtime to a conspiracy theorist. Poynter’s Kelly McBride was called to provide some insight.
Last Friday, the Washington Post published an editor’s note about its story on the confrontation between the Native American elder and Covington Catholic High School student in Washington, D.C., in January. This week, the law firm representing the family of the student suing the Post responded with a statement.
Upcoming Poynter training:
- Summit for Reporters and Editors in Multi-Platform Newsrooms (Seminar) Deadline: March 25.
- How Newsrooms Can Use WhatsApp to Combat Fake News (Webinar) March 20 at 2 p.m. Eastern.