BUDAPEST, Hungary – I’ll never forget my sister’s reaction, when I told her ten years ago of my plan to teach journalism, too. To paraphrase, she wondered: What’s to teach? All reporters need is a pen, pad – and write down what’s happening. Right?
She herself is a family doctor, who’d absorbed a mind-boggling amount of specific material to become one. She wasn’t trying to offend me, or denigrate my craft. Yet her words gave me a greater appreciation for all there is to teach about journalism.
I began to mull more deeply not only how I do what I do, but why exactly I do it this way: from philosophy and psychology to strategies and techniques, in my research, reporting, interviewing and writing. Or, when handling sources, editors and others.
On the flip side – now that I’ve taught students and trained journalists on four continents – I’ve also identified what I cannot teach about journalism. Just three things, really. But they’re biggies, of course: curiosity, empathy and life experience.
Fresh from leading my latest foreign-correspondence training in Prague, I’m reminded why each of the three is also essential to producing the most meaningful, most effective story-telling from faraway lands.
It sounds trite to state that a journalist must be curious and ask loads of questions. Yes, but why exactly is this so important – especially in international reporting?
Because if our noble aim is to better inform and educate an audience about some aspect of the human condition, far beyond the audience’s own borders, then we should do so with “serious and responsible, deep and meaningful” journalism. This can only be achieved by asking enough questions to reveal a certain reality. Which we can only achieve by first being inquisitive enough to want to reveal that reality.
Curiosity, then, is at the core of our skill-set. It’s either there, or it isn’t. I can help you hone it, for sure, but at least a kernel must exist already. Without curiosity, you can still produce a form of journalism, but one that will be awfully superficial, merely scratching the surface. It’s the essential difference between describing what a situation is, versus exploring why exactly that situation is the way it is.
Take the issue of Czech atheism. Every six months, at least one participant in our Prague course stumbles upon this fascinating factoid about the Czechs: they always rank among the most atheistic peoples in the world. In this course, a young Canadian reporter sank her teeth into the complexity of another nation’s religiosity.
Now, any decent journalism-school student can comprehend, then capture, the “Five W’s and H” of basic reporting: Who, What, Why, When, Where and How. Like a court stenographer, documenting the straight, simple facts of a story. But yours truly has discovered a sixth W – the holy grail of serious journalism: Why exactly?
Imagine the difference between these two articles: Story A details the latest polls and studies of the trends in Czech religiosity today, then the reaction of various experts and activists. Story B explains why exactly the trends are the way they are since the collapse of Communism; a bit of background on the history of Czech atheism; where this atheism began, why exactly there; how Czech atheism evolved, why exactly it evolved the way it evolved; what’s happened to Czech religiosity since the collapse of Communism, why exactly it’s evolved that way; what the reaction of Czechs experts and activists is, why exactly they react that way; what’s being done about Czech atheism today, why exactly that’s being done; how Czech atheism compares with fellow post-Communist neighbors, why exactly it differs; and so on.
From Story A, sure, our reader could ingest a morsel worthy of water-cooler chatter: Hey, Charlie, did you know the Czechs are among the most atheistic in the world? … Really? Why is that? … Um, I dunno. I just read that they are …
From Story B, though, our smart, curious audience would learn something deeper and more meaningful about the Czech people, even about their region. I’ll take the latter, any day. That’s the direction in which I guided my Canadian trainee, who produced stellar results.
To unearth all this material, though, we must work hard – intellectually. Asking questions. Many, many of them. Even more, I now realize that all journalistic reportage may be divided into two categories: about situations, or about people. Often, of course, they overlap: about certain people within a certain situation.
Then, just as we explore the Why exactly of any situation, we also want to dig deeper beneath what a person does, what they say, what they believe, what they feel. Instead, probe why exactly they do what they do, why exactly they say what they say, or believe what they believe, or feel what they feel? What makes them “tick” – in their hearts and minds? And why exactly that? What exactly is their inspiration or motivation? Why exactly does that inspire or motivate them? And so on.
Such interviews, unsurprisingly, can run long. They require patience, on both sides. Yet the subject typically tolerates it. Why? Because they’re flattered that somebody actually cares enough to ask these questions. Your curiosity spurs the caring.
Even better, this curiosity, patience and thirst to understand why exactly results in clearer, more compelling story-telling. As you draw out of your sources the facts, details, history, anecdotes, and, crucially, the quotes – real people, speaking in their “real” voice, expressing their thoughts, feelings, emotions, opinions, analysis – all this enables you to connect the dots, enliven the tale, and bring their story to life.
Frankly, it took me many years to realize the need to hoist my standards: before I enter any room, or begin any interview, I won’t leave until I understand why exactly.
This is the curiosity I cannot teach. It can be faked, to some degree. Say, if an editor assigns you a topic that doesn’t quite excite, or perhaps even bores you. At that moment, you can at least to be professional enough to fake curiosity to achieve the necessary depth and seriousness. Yet that’s also a recipe for an unhappy work-life.
In short, though, I cannot scream at a charge of mine until I’m blue in the face, or my jugular vein bulges, Be more curious! I just had one European participant, a nice, intelligent guy, who’d told me he was drawn to Czech jazz. Perhaps he’d write about it. I proceeded to explain that he could explore how jazz has evolved during the transition from Communist dictatorship to capitalist democracy – and why exactly it’s evolved that way. Moreover, he could “humanize” this story, by contrasting the experience of one jazz musician from the older generation, versus one from the younger generation – how their experiences compared, why exactly that way, etc.
During this mentoring, I noticed this guy’s rather blank expression. When I finished, he calmly explained, “I’m not that curious about Czech jazz.” Well, then. I can lead a horse to water, but can’t make him drink. Journalism, it seems, is not for everyone.
Even then, though, I was curious to ask him: Why exactly aren’t you curious? …
Empathy, as in: strive to imagine yourself in someone else’s shoes.
I’m far from being either an angry, far-right Hungarian in the country’s depressed northeast, or a jobless Hungarian Roma living in that same town – as a despised member of the marginalized “Gypsy” minority. Yet I can imagine myself in both of their shoes, as I did three years ago. To view things from their perspective, as if I’d grown up in their circumstances, stomached the financial hardships of the post-Communist transition, to grasp why they may now fear and loathe each other.
Likewise, I’m not a woman. Especially not an African woman. Yet I can still muster the empathy, as I did in June, to enter a black township in South Africa, twenty years after Apartheid, to explore why a black woman who as a child lived in fear of white farmers who hurled insults and stones, expresses satisfaction today. Though she’s unemployed, with five children to feed, I can ask and appreciate why it now matters more to her that at least whites on the street treat her with respect and civility.
Like curiosity, empathy is there, or it isn’t. It may be buried deep, then later bloom or be refined. Yet I know it’s become essential to my journalism, as I imagine myself as them, and how I’d react to this situation or that. It’s also one of my most effective method for deriving questions – and leads me to deeper, more meaningful quotes.
For example, when I was in Bulgaria a few years back, to chronicle the exasperation of anti-corruption efforts in the European Union’s most corrupt country, I imagined how frustrated I would be if I were them. Then I asked my interviewees: “Are you frustrated?” Or, more provocatively, “How frustrating it is for you?”
Not that I put words into their mouths. Instead, I give sources the opportunity to either agree or disagree. Yes, I’m frustrated. Why? Because… Or, they refute: No, I’m not frustrated, because… Either way, I aim to draw a human reaction out of them, to capture their thoughts, feelings, emotions, opinions, analysis, etc.
Beyond that, this degree of empathy is also essential for international reporting. For any smart, curious audience already predisposed to caring about the world around them – and the people who dwell in its far-flung corners – how else can we build a bridge, to connect those folks over there, with this audience over here?
I believe it can only be done by illuminating our shared humanity and universal values. If I don’t empathize with my subject and humanize their reaction to circumstances, how can I convince – still subtly, dispassionately – my audience to care about them? Or at least, offer a compelling reason to read my story to the end?
No teaching experience underscored this need for empathy than last fall, during my fourth stint at Hong Kong Baptist University. The vast majority of my students are Chinese from the intensively mono-ethnic mainland. Arriving in culturally diverse Hong Kong is quite a shock to their system. To amplify their discomfort, I assign them to produce a short profile of any minority, immigrant or refugee. They’re forbidden from interviewing another Chinese – from even from speaking Chinese.
I steer some students toward lower-hanging fruit, like the ubiquitous Filipina and Indonesian housekeepers. Almost all of them have left behind families, including children, to work for Chinese families – in other words, raising someone else’s child.
My students, initially, tend to focus on the barest facts: the kind of work they do, how long they’ve done it, what they like or dislike about Hong Kong, etc. Again, the What of their situation. If they dare ask “why” – as in, “Why’d you come here?” – the response may be “Because I needed a decent job.” Or, “I needed to make money.”
Yet that doesn’t explain why exactly they needed a decent job, or to make money. Once you delve deeper into their circumstances, the sadness emerges. I’m not a Filpina, but can strive to imagine a mother who has left behind three children – and the misery of visiting them just once every year or two, for only one or two weeks.
Again, I can’t howl at my charges, “Be more empathetic!” If it doesn’t emerge, I’m now convinced it’ll limit the depth to which you and your story will plumb. Which means the audience will care less, if at all. They’ll quit reading, and move on.
If you lack an empathy for others, well, this brand of journalism may not be for you.
At age 22, I broke in as rookie reporter in the high desert of Southern California, covering local politics for a small daily newspaper, the now-defunct Hemet News, in the working-class, retiree oasis of the San Jacinto Valley. The local “Good Ol’ Boy” network had its finger in the till of most money-making operations around town.
These fellows were shrewd and knew how to cover their tracks – especially from a greenhorn like me. Over and over again, they threw me off the scent, manipulating me. After all, I was still a kid – and they were in their 40s, 50, 60s. Esteemed elders.
While licking my wounds one day, the local gadfly who regularly fed me tips tried to cheer me up. “Michael, you can’t get five years of experience in one year. In one year, you get one year of experience.” With more years clocked, I would’ve been savvier?
Sounded obvious then, but this wisdom has reassured me over the years, helping to keep things in perspective. It’s also advice I impart to the student-journalists or trainees who express impatience to become a better reporter or writer today.
Life experience brings more than the self-confidence to spar with slippery sources. It also matters in the world of foreign reporting. War, political crisis, natural disasters – those grab the headlines. Yet two decades of life in the field has enabled me to spot the millions and millions of tragedies all around us, each day, often invisible to the naked eye. One may suffer personal trauma. Or economic hardship. Or persecution due to race, politics, ethnicity, religion, gender. Perhaps its baggage of the past, circumstance, environment. Or simply a daily struggle to survive.
It’s one thing to ask plenty of empathy-driven questions. It’s another to connect the dots through history, or across the globe today. To meet someone in a certain predicament, then step back and recognize what their one story illuminates, what the plight of this one individual symbolizes – and tells us about mankind today.
With no exaggeration, I say it took me years reporting, thousands of interviews, hundreds of articles, from two dozen countries, for this worldview to crystalize. Also, to appreciate the relative security and luxury in which I grew up, in the United States. Then, to better appreciate my own family’s tale of flight, as refugeehood enveloped both sides in 1956 – my father from Hungary, my mother from Egypt.
Most enlightening was for me myself to become a father, three times over. Once the kids’ welfare becomes top priority, and you mull how you’d react to this dilemma or that, you shudder at the magnitude of decisions that so many are forced to make.
For example, economic migrants. When I was a young correspondent in mid-1990s Budapest, and learned of the westward flow of post-Communist, newly mobile East Europeans, I regurgitated a facile narrative: Too few jobs, too few opportunities, so they gotta go where the work is. I didn’t consider how unnatural it really was. Torn from your motherland, hometown, parents, friends, siblings, spouse … even your children! Your mother-tongue, too. Perhaps ancestral graves, as well. All things being equal, why would anyone freely choose to leave home, except for adventure?
Back to that earlier example: the millions of Filipina housekeepers, babysitters, tutors and others who are one of their country’s leading exports. Some I’ve met in Hong Kong are confronted by a Faustian bargain: stay at home with your children, yet know their futures will be mired in the cycle of poverty; or, toil for years in a foreign land, as a modern-day indentured servant, for five to 10 times as much wages – most of it sent back to the kids for their food, clothes, school-books, etc. However, then be tormented every single day by not only how desperately you miss your kids, but by the anguish that you’ve left it to someone else to raise them.
When I was a younger reporter, a young person, I didn’t see the tragedy. I do know.
Similarly, one of my Chinese students produced a short profile on an Indian worker in Hong Kong who loads boxes all day. The student focused dryly on how many boxes per day, filled with this or that, coming from where, going to somewhere, and so on. Toward the end of the piece, a few lines on how he misses his parents and siblings, video-Skyping them every week. “But they’re proud of me,” he said.
Hey, it’s a usable profile on “An Ordinary Foreign Worker in Hong Kong.” Whether anyone would read it, that’s another question. I myself, as a cub reporter, would’ve been blind to the human drama at play. Today, I see the layers. I’ve not been to India, yet I imagine a large rural family in dire straits, as the eldest son – on his own volition, or pressured by his parents – steps forward: I’ll venture far to help us. No wonder they’re proud of him.
Now seasoned in journalism and in life, I now see why that pride – and how it helps him endure the homesickness – is a story worth telling.
Young reporters, take heart. You can’t gain such perspective in one year. In one year, you accrue five years of experience. Ultimately, my two decades off the beaten path have done more than turn me prematurely grey – it’s made me a better journalist. And, like curiosity and empathy, no journalism guru could’ve taught me that.