The liberating power of saying “no”

Reporters ask me all the time for advice on how to get assignments and pitch. There is typical advice that gets doled out: keep it short and sweet and don’t be a jerk to your editors, and you’ll go far.

That’s all fine and well, but what about saying no?

It is rare that I hear the word “no” from a reporter. Interestingly, the ones who do say it are often on a more high-powered track in their careers. It’s not that they have an easier time with the challenges of being a reporter. It’s that they regularly exercise control over decisions that will impact their finite supply of time and energy. They know that saying “no” is a key ingredient in success, no matter what your rubric for measuring that happens to be.

Observing a reporter say “no” to a crap assignment, a prison-level pay rate, or anything couched in coded language as “a great opportunity” is inspiring. Saying no to those things demonstrates a self-awareness and a recognition on the part of the journalist of their intrinsic value.

Journalists who know their value as a professional and a human being, and who ware unafraid to assert themselves with the word “no” will always get the better assignments, higher pay, more significant opportunities, and greater accolades for their work. That’s because they leave space for success. What’s more, there’s a greater chance they will make it to the end of that 45-year career with their mental and physical health intact and a significant legacy of published work.

Getting Too Close for Comfort

Getting physically close to a story is not as easy as it seems. First of all, most people are not conditioned to think in terms of potential sources of information, getting close enough to take a good photo, or whipping out a video recorder to document something interesting and unique. It takes repetition and practice to get used to always keeping an eye out for the story.

To go from passive observer to engaged observer (by recording what is happening) also takes overcoming blocks that keep us in the passive category. Sometimes it is fear. Sometimes laziness. Sometimes timidity.

Fear covers all of the above. But why is it so powerful? I think the answer is that it’s not.

When I was in Ein Kerem, Israel on the last day of Sukkot (a major Jewish holiday) recently, I came across some orthodox Jewish men dancing and singing in the streets. I knew it was a good opportunity to take some photos and video–just for practice. I am very fearful of photographing people, so I try to do it as often as possible. Maybe in a year or two I won’t be as timid.

In this case, it is understandable that I was a bit fearful. The only time anyone has ever threatened to stone me was a couple of years ago when I was photographing a huge demonstration by orthodox Jewish men in Jerusalem.

A photo from a protest of 10,000 orthodox Jewish men and boys in Jerusalem in 2010 that I covered.

But standing there in the idyllic setting of Ein Kerem, I overcame that bizarre and isolated incident and whipped out my Samsung Galaxy smartphone (basically a miniature computer) to take some photos and video.

Ein Kerem is a small village on the outskirts of Jerusalem that is a huge tourist attraction. The small scale of the dancing street worked to my advantage because there was no through traffic (actually they were blocking any through traffic). The tourists were also an advantage, because there were quite a few people standing around gawking at the men as they danced and sang with their holy book, the Torah. Sukkot is the end of the Jewish calendar year and marks the point when religious followers of Judaism start reading the Torah from the beginning after spending the year reading through it.

A view of the mountains from Ein Kerem, Jerusalem

While I was taking the video, I knew I wasn’t close enough. I took a few small steps forward, measuring my distance against other onlookers. I was very consciously seeking strength in numbers, but why? What did I think these singing, dancing men were going to do to me if I got a bit closer? Yell at me, tell me to get lost, or pick up the nearest rock and chuck it at my head? It seems ridiculous in hindsight, but coming clean about shortcomings as a reporter post-story can be instructive if you make a brutally honest assessment. Well, it doesn’t have to be brutal, but  it should be without permissive trimmings and excuses if you want to do better the next time. And there will be a next time, unless you plan on quitting.

While still mid-story, there are a few things at play when photographing or videoing people on the street. First of all, are you invading their privacy? Second of all, are you interfering with them in any way? Sometimes there are no answers to either question, but they should be asked. Rule number one in journalistic ethics: do no harm.

Sadly, when it comes to certain kinds of public gatherings, a large media presence can serve to embolden even the most timid reporter (and protester, for that matter!). Just take a look at this video of recent protests in Spain. It’s something akin to mob mentality. You can easily see what a large gathering of photographers looks like. It takes a strong journalist to break away from the pack in such a situation and work on the outskirts of the story, away from the mutually-generating vibe of protesters and journalists.

In 2009 I was in Jerusalem covering some tensions between Muslims and Jews outside the walls of the Old City. The situation was electrified, and the gaggle of reporters there didn’t  help.

Police horses form an equine barrier during tensions near the Old City in Jerusalem in 2009.

In that situation, I was extremely bold. Looking back, it doesn’t seem like anything that I believe I am capable of. I got in front of a row of police horses and snapped several shots. I stood alone in front of a huge pack of Muslim men and photographed them as they bent in prayer, not moving until they told me, “Uh, can you move? We don’t want to pray with a woman in front of us.” I also got very good close-up shots of people’s faces while they were yelling at each other, shots from the roof of a building, and several shots of armed border patrol and police.

That experience proves two things. It proves the controlling force I think fear has on me as a reporter actually doesn’t exist. But more importantly, it proves that I am capable of getting as close to the story as I want to.

Award Winning Journalist at Forefront of Press Freedom Struggle in Afghanistan

by Genevieve Long for The Foreign Policy Association

Press freedom in war-torn Afghanistan is regressing to a Taliban-era level of restrictions, according to a recent report. Reporters Without Borders (RSF), a Paris-based press advocacy organization, visited Afghanistan in January to survey the current situation. Their report is entitled, “We have free speech, but we’re not safe and don’t act responsibly.”

“Because of the deterioration of the situation, some of them feel that they are back to a sort of Taliban situation,” said Vincent Brossel, Asia Director for RSF. Brossel spent a little over a week traveling throughout Afghanistan and interviewing local journalists. Brossel found that the situation is grim, and threats against working journalists are common. RSF also found that the Afghan Interior Ministry has been largely ineffective and even inactive in providing help and support.

“In fact, they [the Interior Ministry] don’t take action and their investigations rarely go to the end,” said Brossel, who points to the case of slain journalist Zakia Zaki. According to Brossel, she was killed by warlords and her murder was never “seriously” investigated. “Even the Interior Ministry once put pressure on her husband because he was asking for justice.”

Farida Nekzad, a veteran journalist of ten years who lives and works in Afghanistan’s capital city, Kabul, says the greatest danger that journalists face comes from the dual threat of warlords and the Taliban.

SEE FULL POSTING HERE

The View from the Ground in Iraq and Afghanistan

By Genevieve Long for Quill Magazine

When journalists watched American bombers strike Taliban positions in northern Afghanistan weeks after 9/11, Iraq wasn’t part of the story. But the Middle East can be like a kaleidoscope: a slight shift and the whole picture changes.

Seven years later, both Iraq and Afghanistan remain difficult, dangerous places for journalists to work. Iraq is especially deadly.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, from 2003 to 2008, 136 journalists were killed in Iraq; 129 died while not embedded, and most were Iraqi.

Last year, security conditions eased in Iraq, due in part to a U.S. troop “surge,” Sunni Awakening security forces and improvements in the Iraqi army. But things are by no means completely peaceful. In December alone, a suicide bombing in Kirkuk killed 48 and wounded 96; another in Baghdad killed 18 and injured 52.

“It’s not like Switzerland there now. The danger is still very real; what calm there is is still pretty fragile,” said Dexter Filkins, a New York Times foreign correspondent who worked in Iraq from 2003 to 2006.

“It’s not like reporters are walking around there in shorts on the sidewalk, advertising their presence.”

Filkins’ new book, “The Forever War,” paints a vivid and unvarnished picture of the war in Iraq. He notes that although the life of a journalist there is not easy, there was never a time when he relied solely on Iraqi journalists, embedding or second-hand information to get stories. In fact, Filkins refutes criticisms that journalists there are unwilling or unable to get out and report.

“It’s much easier to attack the messenger and say that ‘You have the wrong impression because you’ve been misled by these people in the press, and here’s the real truth,’” Filkins said. “The [accusation that] journalists sit around in hotel rooms and don’t leave is usually followed by some over-arching political point about the situation.”

Filkins said that even at the height of tensions and violence in 2006, he would find ways to report. Backed by the well-funded and heavily committed New York Times, he could use an armored car, a regular car, a chase car, no chase car or guards. He even went some places at night, depending on the circumstances.

But some journalists must rely heavily on embedding, a practice sometimes criticized for putting objectivity at risk.

“For about two or three years now, this has almost been like a challenge thrown at western journalists — what would they have them do, be murdered?” said Jon Lee Anderson, a staff writer for

The New Yorker who has reported on

Iraq and Afghanistan extensively but personally prefers not to embed. “I’ve covered over a dozen conflicts, and I’ve never been in such a murderous environment [as Iraq].”

Anderson said journalists should not be faulted for trying to preserve their lives, especially when they have continued to report such an unpopular story.

“There are very few westerners reporting on Iraq,” he said. “It’s less a reflection of journalists or media themselves than of popular interest.”

Anderson added that it’s a challenge for Americans to fasten their attention on so many different headline-grabbing crises at once.

“In the minds of most people, Iraq has moved away from near apocalypse and back from the brink, and that has been reflected by a sigh and move away from it by the media,” he said, predicting that news coverage will shift back toward Afghanistan.

Many reporters who have covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have found both countries to present unique challenges, especially for freelance journalists.

“It’s changed so much since the early days of the occupation when you could still move around by yourself,” said Scott Wallace, a freelance reporter and photographer. In mid-2003, Wallace followed Iraqi police special agents and their U.S. advisers on missions to capture kidnappers and fedayeen commanders on the streets of Baghdad.

“You cannot cover that story unless you’re with a news organization that has made that commitment to security, personnel, blast walls,” Wallace said. “Even if you are a member of that very reduced number of people, you are largely confined to the U.S. military.”

In some cases, even access to a high-profile figure or a military unit can come down to news organization or a personal connection. Wallace experienced both such cases.

On assignment in 2003 for a program that airs on Fox television, he found that getting close to former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, in Baghdad training the new Iraqi police force, rested on his affiliation. He also gained “extraordinary access” to a mechanized infantry company through a hometown connection with the company’s first sergeant.

Wallace said the working conditions in any war zone can challenge a journalist’s motivation.

“That takes conviction in your mission, that what we’re doing is of the utmost importance and we’re there to shed light on the story,” he said.

Robert Nickelsberg, a contributing photojournalist with TIME magazine for 25 years who syndicates his photographs

with Getty Images, has been documenting Islamic fundamentalism’s rise in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India’s Kashmir. For Nickelsberg, the challenges facing journalists in Iraq make it near-impossible to do the job.

“I do not think it’s a workable environment for any journalist,” he said. “It’s just too dangerous. You almost need a small network of local people to get you from the airport to your hotel.”

He said Iraq requires journalists to work with the options they have, even if not ideal.

“There have been times when I only got a picture from a car with a window down,” Nickelsberg said. “There are people on rooftops with cell phones and walkie-talkies [watching you]. A rolled-down window could be all you get for the day.”

Nickelsberg was embedded with U.S. Marines in 2003 during the invasion of Baghdad. In May 2008, he reported from Sadr City, Iraq, the center of support for the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. He said he thinks things have changed.

“In both places, [Iraq and Afghanistan] coverage has gone down,” Nickelsberg said. “The only way to see the urban and rural areas is with the military. We’re also finding there are fewer people who are willing to go.”

Regardless of the risks, the need to get the story remains.

“Luck is always involved,” Nickelsberg said. “But you set out to do certain things, face into the wind.”

In Afghanistan, luck may indeed play a part when journalists encounter harsh terrain, a poor infrastructure and a resurgent Taliban. Some think journalists will face a steep learning curve as they refocus on Afghanistan.

“The level of engagement, investment, blood and money were so extraordinary that the media were fixated on reporting that conflict [in Iraq],” said Bill Gentile, an independent journalist and filmmaker teaching at American University in Washington, D.C. He has covered inter-national conflict for almost 30 years. “The coverage of Afghanistan fell by the wayside, as did the administration’s focus. And now we are reaping the bitter fruits of that policy.”

Gentile was in Afghanistan when the bombs fell on the Taliban in 2001, and he was embedded in mid-2008 with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. His documentary of his most recent trip, produced for PBS’s program NOW, is called “Afghanistan: The Forgotten War.”

He said he thinks there are underreported lessons to be learned from the human suffering wrought by both wars.

“Americans don’t have a sense of the physical damage that this has done to some of its finest sons or daughters,” Gentile said. “I think it’s primarily because of the lack of aggressive media coverage.”

This damage gets to the heart of what Gentile thinks is the fundamental goal of the journalist reporting on conflict, whether in Iraq or Afghanistan.

“I think human loss is the main point,” Gentile said. “If you are not reporting on human loss, you are not covering conflict.”

Fears and Dreams of the Middle East

by Genevieve Long

https://genevievelong.wordpress.com/2008/12/18/fears-and-dreams-of-the-middle-east/

Last year I was planning to go and visit a very dear friend who lives in Islamabad, Pakistan. I have not seen her in years and long to sit at the same table again with this friend, and tell each other the many stories we have gathered in the time we have been apart. Friendship travels across time and distance and can sometimes shine on our shortcomings and bring them to light. Sometimes it can inspire us to things we never imagined. This particular friendship has brought all of this to me, and more. It always has.

I never made it to Pakistan last year.  I grew afraid of what I did not know about the country, it’s people and history, the language and customs. Most of all I grew afraid of becoming a victim of violence of some kind. It takes a strong mind in the America of today to resist the tide of sentiment and misunderstandings about Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran. It takes wanting to know more than wanting to be afraid. It takes a willingness to listen and understand, even if the end result is disagreeing.

As a journalist, part of my motivation in going to Pakistan was to report on the news happening there. Only months earlier I had reported on the reponse of the Pakistani community in New York and U.S. lawyers who were protesting the crippling of the Pakistani judiciary, the loss of civil freedoms, the silencing of the press. I was fascinated by the acerbic wit that the Pakistani community in New York was using to assess the situation. They seemed eager to talk amongst themselves, but unmotivated to reach out to the western world and help them understand. They were on the streets, protesting in front of the U.N. and at Columbia University having sharp debates. Yet it seemed that few Americans were listening closely enough to truly understand what was being said.

I regretted not going to Pakistan, instead reporting on a much less daunting story in Central America. But that regret has come in handy ever since. I started to read about and study not only Pakistan’s political history–but Iraq and Afghanistan’s as well. I started to ask questions of journalists who have lived and worked in those areas. I started to question my assumptions. The answer, at the bottom of all my fear, is that I still hope to go to Pakistan. But after learning more, I also hope to go to Afghanistan, and maybe even Iraq.

When I interviewed several veteran foreign correspondents recently for an article about the challenges of reporting in Iraq and Afghanistan, I was humbled by the sheer audacity with which they do their jobs. Yet they see it all as stories that must be, need to be, told.

Those who criticize the media for getting the story wrong in Iraq and Afghanistan, or for not covering the war up close enough, should take a good hard look at what they don’t know. And then they should turn to the work of the brave journalists who are reporting the stories there and give thanks.