In December, a few days after I returned from a global health reporting trip sponsored by the UN Foundation to Malawi, I taught a class at the Spence School, a tony, all-girls private institution in Manhattan. I showed up at Spence still jetlagged, trying to adjust my mind from east Africa to just east of Central Park. I was tasked with talking a small class of freshmen and sophomores about sexual health, consent, and slut-shaming.
Seventy-two hours earlier, I had been talking to a different group of teenage girls about a similar topic. Except those girls lived in the Mangochi district of southern Malawi, and many of them had gotten pregnant as teenagers, married, and dropped out of school. At the urging of parents, community members, and local chiefs, many divorced their husbands and re-enrolled.
Despite overlapping challenges, when I was talking to the Spence students, I was better able to recognize the complexities in their lives—that the girls who attended on scholarship were in radically different positions than those who grew up in Upper East Side townhouses; that unintended pregnancy was an ordeal that could be dealt with but teenage marriage and birth was not an option; that cliques and social tiers influenced what each girl felt she could say in class; that at 15, some of the girls were likely sexually experienced and some still awaited their first kiss. I could talk to them collectively about sexuality while realizing they came from very different places as individuals.
In Malawi, my understanding of the narrative was more one-dimensional. Most of the teens indicated that they had married their baby’s fathers, and later divorced. I assumed they married because of the kind of sexual shame and purity culture that underlies shotgun weddings in more conservative corners of the United States. The girls told me that no, there was no shame in having a baby outside of marriage, but they were nonetheless compelled to marry. Even after peppering them with questions, I couldn’t figure out why, if there was no stigma attached to unwed pregnancy, a teenage girl would feel pressured to marry the man who impregnated her.
This sort of culture gap is the new normal. With global health and human rights coverage increasingly funded by foundations that organize reporting trips, Western journalists who don’t understand the nuances of a place are parachuting in for a week, charged with covering some of the most complex and distressing aspects of human existence. These trips are invaluable resources, and global health reporting would simply not have the reach it does without them. But this setup also has many potential pitfalls that can prevent well-meaning reporters from accurately conveying the subtleties of their sources’ experience, and it’s our professional obligation to address them. Admitting our own fallibilities can be terrifying, but remaining alert and self-aware can help mitigate the problem.
In Malawi, I figured out why teens were marrying by admitting I couldn’t figure it out: I told a local parent I wasn’t getting it, and asked her to spell it out for me piece by piece, like I was stupid. It’s poverty, she said, not stigma. While it’s no problem to have a baby with someone you aren’t married to, a baby is another mouth to feed, and it makes more economic sense to make the baby’s father the new family breadwinner.
Writing this down now, the answer seems obvious. But from a middle-class, white, American context—and also from the context of reporting on many other communities around the world where out-of-wedlock pregnancy stigma and shame do motivate early marriage—it wasn’t. My own assumptions shaped how I was hearing and interpreting the girls’ stories, and even the questions I was asking.
It was a good lesson: Don’t assume you understand even the most basic concepts. Ask questions that are open-ended and don’t assume you know the answer. Remember that your own values are far from universal, and that the act of asking a question itself frames the issue for the respondent and influences their response.
“One mistake I kept seeing people make is starting interviews with the answers they’re hoping for,” says Sarika Bansal, a freelance reporter focused on global health, and who has been on five international reporting trips in the past two years. “For example, starting with, ‘Do you breastfeed your child exclusively?’ People know what the right answer is. There’s a real danger with the people you’re interviewing answering the way they know the journalist wants them to, instead of feeling like they’re being really honestly engaged with.”
On organized reporting trips, arranged sources often see you not just as a journalist asking questions, but as an extension of the organization funding valuable services and programs. There’s often a desire to give the “right” answer in order to show that the program is working, and that more funding is needed. Directing a question toward a particular answer—“Do you breastfeed your child exclusively?” versus “How do you feed your child?”—unintentionally guides your source into offering what they think you want to hear.
Think not only about the sources you speak to, but how those sources got to you, and who you’re not talking to, especially when you’re speaking with sources pre-selected by the foundations and nonprofits underwriting the trip. Though interviewing pre-selected sources can be helpful, because you know the person is legit, it also raises concerns, especially when there’s funding involved.
The person you’re talking to is a rational actor making decisions based on a set of incentives and realities. Kim Yi Dionne, an assistant professor of government focusing on African politics at Smith College, recommends asking yourself, “Have they been coached? Are they getting something out of it? Do they have something to gain? Do they have anything to lose?”
Your perspective is different than that of the people you cover. Recognizing that, starting from scratch, and asking open questions can help you figure out where they’re coming from, what their priorities are and why.
Missing nuance and power structures
When you’re trying to write about a new place, whether that’s a country you’re visiting for the first time or an unfamiliar ethnic enclave around the corner, the work of understanding the basics can take precedence. It’s easy to unintentionally simplify the landscape.
In Malawi, many of the development workers we interviewed were Malawian; it wasn’t a case of Westerners running the show. But many of them were from more prosperous regions working in poorer ones, or came from the relatively elite, educated classes and were trying to explain the cultural practices of people who shared a national flag but came from very different backgrounds.
“One of the biggest mistakes I see [journalists make] is the reification of culture and the essentialization of culture,” says Shayna Plaut, a PhD candidate who has taught courses on human rights to journalists and aspiring journalists in the US, Canada and Central/Eastern Europe since 2004. “When we are engaged and interacting with a culture we’re unfamiliar with, we are looking for patterns.”
Plaut uses the recent Chris Christie bridge traffic scandal as an example: When we report on that story just across the river, “We know to look for hidden agendas. We know that what’s said may not actually be what’s going on and we know how to dig and where to dig. We know peoples’ alliances. If that same incident took place in a country or a culture we’re not familiar with, there’s a good chance we would accept the story that fits into our pre-existing mindset.”
Expand your reporting out beyond the people made immediately available to you, helpful as they may be.
“When you’re actually going to another country and getting the little tour of the pre-selected interviewees, one of the things I do in a concrete way is see who’s cooking and I look to see who’s taking out the trash,” Plaut says. “I look to see who’s serving drinks. I look to see who’s driving the car. And I chat with them. I see who’s on the periphery of power. That’s who you have a conversation with.”
Illustrating with an exception
A paradox of journalism is that we want our reporting to be accurate and representative, but we need our stories to be new and surprising in order to sell papers or get pageviews. That reality can make reporters spending a short amount of time in a country they don’t know well latch onto the stories that strike them as the most bizarre or exotic. When reported back to a Western audience, subcultures or unusual practices can be seen as representative.
“You have to look at the patterns overall in society, and see if this is anomalous,” Dionne says. “Which isn’t to say this isn’t important; it’s just to provide some context, so that the reader isn’t fooled into thinking that because you provided this one story, this is how it is for everyone.”
One way to make sure that you’re providing appropriate context is to include hard numbers. What percentage of the population has a particular disease or engages in this particular ritual? How common is the phenomenon you’re reporting on? Is there an unanticipated story in the data?
For example, child marriage in Malawi is very common—half of girls are married before they turn 18. But “child marriage” can be a nebulous term, and using it without specificity may lead readers to believe you’re talking about marrying off pre-teens rather than, in this context, marriages of teenage children.
If you’re writing about health, Bansal recommends the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation based out of the University of Washington.
Take advantage, too, of local institutions, including universities, ministries of health, activist organizations, NGOs, colleges of medicine, research facilities, community groups, and healthcare establishments.
“These public health problems are in their country,” Dionne says. “They might be related to someone who has these problems. They live it. Their experience is just enriched in a way that yours and mine can’t be.”
Working with a local journalist can also be beneficial: They can help you find sources and understand the complexities of a topic at hand, and you can offer a shared byline in a publication that might otherwise ignore their pitch. They also have a professional incentive to make sure that their country is portrayed accurately in the media.
If you’re penning the piece after you return home, it’s worth running some of your thoughts and questions past a person who knows more than you do about a particular place. “Talk to any major university and college and say, ‘Who’s your expert on Africa?’” Dionne said. Not only can they help you understand the complexities of an unfamiliar culture, but they can also help you avoid making embarrassing mistakes.
Showing up clueless or with a story pre-written
Have a solid sense of the place you’re visiting before you show up, including its social and political history, recent news stories and economic realities. Not only will it get some story ideas brewing, but you also won’t waste time learning the basics once you get there, and you’ll have a better understanding of the information you come across. Email organizations working on topics you cover, and see if there are diaspora communities in your hometown where you can learn a little before you leave.
But also remember that you’re dealing with a limited universe, especially if your research is online and in English.
“Too often what happens is you go online you get info about an organization or an event taking place in a country, you email and you get a response from the person who happens to read English,” Plaut says. “It doesn’t mean they’re the person who has the most information, the most accurate information or the most well rounded information. It means that they have a good internet connection and can read English. So it’s important that you get that response and you ask questions and you ask them who else they can recommend and you start that snowballing. But it’s also important to be healthily skeptical.”
Your grasp of potential stories is by definition limited before you’re actually in a place. Go in with an open mind, and with humility.
(Homepage photo courtesy of the author.)