Getting better: Female journalists talk about telling accurate, authentic stories about violence
Photo by Abhijith S. Nair / Unsplash
Editor’s note: This is the last article in a 12-part series, based on interviews with 35 women journalists who covered violence around the globe. Because women were promised anonymity, pseudonyms are used here.
How can journalists do a better job? How can they tell stories more accurately, more authentically?
Focus on people, not events. Report in ways that explain, not exploit.
That’s the advice from the 35 female journalists who have covered violence around the globe.
Focus on people
Journalists need to focus on the victims and survivors of violence. That means re-thinking the way they approach stories. Journalists should be pay more attention to the aftermath of violence and the harm it causes, not the short-term event that led to destruction—an explosion, a shooting, or a bombing.
“I feel like the journalists here and across the world, they cover violence from a different perspective. They are covering the bang-bang. Please cover the people who need you. The people who are in front of the gun need you,” said Esin, a Pakistani journalist.
“I see this lacking everywhere,” Esin said. “I need to see human stories more.”
Ava, a U.S. journalist who covered conflict throughout Africa, said that she liked “that bang-bang, that war reporter stuff.” However, her reporting most often focused on humanity, not firepower.
“I always went for the heart and tell people’s stories,” Ava said.
And many of the people affected by conflict and violence are not the people who committed the violent actions, journalists said. The former should be subjects of journalists’ stories.
“You realize war is covered father back, not on the front lines, because that’s where the civilians are, and that’s where the story is,” said Nora, a U.S. reporter who covered the Middle East.
“Try to see the humanity in the story, whether it’s good or bad,” said Madeline, a U.S. blogger. “It’s easy to say 16 people were killed by gunfire or 100 people died by an IED (improvised explosive device). Never get so desensitized you don’t think about the people you’re writing about.”
Think globally, report locally
Journalists need to go where the story is.
“Real journalism is time on the ground. . . . If you go there, you might find a more nuanced picture. . . . Most of the time it requires a real investment of time to get something meaningful,” said Claire, a South African journalist, who has covered violence around the world.
Mary, a journalist who works in her home country of the Philippines, agreed.
“You can’t just settle for a telephone interview,” Mary said. “You have to be there. You have to witness, to feel, to even taste what poverty is like, what it means to be in a militarized community, what kind of fear they (local residents) go through every day.”
Mary said connection with local communities is crucial for accurate reporting. She works for an online news organization that assigns journalists to cover a specific issue, not a single event. And that journalistic model builds a strong relationship between journalists and local sources.
“It makes it easier to provide context in your report because you have followed that community,” Mary said. She said that a mainstream organization might send journalists to cover the demolition of a building, “which is usually almost always violent because nobody would want to watch the police destroy your home.”
But when journalists “parachute” in, “they have absolutely no context. They don’t know the background of the community.
“The kind of beat system we have allows us to become familiar with sources,” Mary said of her news organization. “By being there and interviewing them, I get to experience it and validate what they have told me. . . . You get to meet more people, get more stories, and get more voices to be heard.”
Claire said the best journalism comes from “living the place.”
She said: “You might get a great piece, but you’re only going to see a one-dimensional story out of that when journalists come if for a couple of days.”
Claire said her assignments often took her into communities she didn’t know. Consequently, “one of the most important things is to pay attention to local people. Know of the language, the terrain, the culture, the politics, the circumstance at the time. Know the village elders. Know what’s normal and what’s not.”
“Find the right local people,” said Claire. “Realize that in that situation, you may know a lot about a lot of things. You may be educated, but none of it means anything. . . . Why should some local person in Afghanistan risk their life to take care of you if you know perfectly well you won’t risk anything for them?”
“Everything that was ever possible was (due to) the good local people, and they were my guide for staying alive,” said Claire.
Let go of ego
Keep people’s narratives first and foremost in your work, journalists advised. Remember that you’re working for readers and viewers who need the information you can provide.
Denisa, a journalist who reported on conflict in her home country of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, advised journalists to put the story first, themselves last.
“Don’t cover an event because you want to be famous or popular. . . . Don’t try to be a hero. Be a journalist. Be a real witness for people who cannot be there.”
“The thing is you must be very courageous to ask questions,” she said.
And make sure the story gets told, even if you can’t tell it.
Adilah, a British journalist who has reported in the Middle East, gave up some assignments in conflict in Iraq and Syria to focus on human affairs reporting. Younger reporters, she said, might be “driven by your since of excitement or adventure,” but she did not feel the need to devote all her time to conflict reporting.
“It’s good journalism that interests me,” Adilah said.
“I try to think about whose voices are missing in every story, and whether or not I’m the right person to tell the story,” said Lillian, a U.S. journalist who has worked in Mexico. “If there’s something on my radar, but I’m not the best fit, I try to pass it around.”
“Human rights issues are not simple narratives,” said Claire. She and Asya, a free-lance journalist based in Beirut, urged journalists to expose but not advocate.
“I’m not an activist. I’m a reporter, and I don’t cross that line,” said Asya.
Stella, a U.S. journalist who has covered crime and sexual assault, advised reporters: “Always go into a story . . . with an open mind. Don’t assume you know what happened.”
Anna, a U.S. journalist, spent time in Iraq with U.S. military troops but also with Iraqi prisoners and their families. She realized that “what we call a bad buy, they call fighting for their country.”
Audra, who covered violence in her home country of Uganda, said selection of news sources is important in telling an accurate story. Journalists should include the voices of people affected by violence, not only government officials.
Emine, a Turkish journalist, said: “Covering violence is a challenge, and you have to be disciplined. . . . You have to be open-minded and careful and alert because . . . there are a lot of talking heads. . . . You have to be careful who you’re quoting and why you’re quoting them. . . . You have to be vigilant. You have to do a lot of study. I always say at each article, we’re being put to the test. They always judge us.”
Keep your eyes on the truth
Sarah, a Canadian journalist who reported on violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, said accuracy is paramount.
“Try to weed out and stick to the facts. Double and triple check the facts,” she advised.
Emine told reporters to be clear on the difference between factual reporting and commentary.
“Once you’re writing the article, they need to make a huge distinction. . . . Reporting is distinctly different from an opinion writer. Reporting has certain rules. . . . The ethics of reporting should be honored.”
Arina, a journalist from Estonia, said it’s important to not cover singular events but to provide background and context.
“Mostly, I tried to cover all sides. . . . My main questions have not been so much what happened but why. Otherwise, it’s pointless,” Arina said.
“Understand that you are on the frontlines of telling the truth to society and giving us a picture of who we are and giving us a picture of yourself and what’s going on around us. Be mindful of the need to be both objective and thorough,” said Emma, a journalist who has covered mass shootings in the United States.
Sofia, a Russian journalist, advised journalists to think deeply about their assignments and their goals in reporting.
“Think about what you really would like to achieve, to prepare unique material, to tell the truth as no one has told it,” Sofia said.
Can you help?
Why journalists recognized limits, most believed their stories could illuminate problems and give ordinary citizens a voice.
“My goal is to help people understand what’s happening in a place,” said Asya.
“You job isn’t to help people, but that doesn’t mean you can’t,” said Ava.
“Ultimately, if you do journalism right, you are helping other humans,” said Martina, a journalist working in Mexico. “It is the ultimate act of telling someone else’s story.”
Sofia added: "It is happiness when you can help people."
Sofia added: “It is happiness when you can help people.”