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I did a little interview with WannabeHacks on how I got into digital and investigative journalism, and my advice for others who want to do the same. Full version below.
HOW DID YOU FIRST BREAK INTO THE JOURNALISM INDUSTRY?
There was a moment in graduate school when I just looked down at my thesis and thought, ‘LOL, no.’
I’d poured so much time and effort into this giant stack of paper – that I was convinced would be read only by a handful of people – and decided right then that I wanted a more practical, meaningful way to uncover injustice.
At the same time – this was 2008 – I was obsessed with what was happening in Pakistan: the escalation of the U.S. drone program in the tribal areas; a president with dictatorial tendencies forced to step down; and a burgeoning TV news industry taking all of it on. So I just decided to move there to report.
I had some very basic experience in local news, but not much. To get a job with a Pakistani TV network, I kind of worked backwards – pitching myself as someone who could be really helpful in research and producing coverage of the 2008 U.S. Presidential Election. You have to understand that since 9/11, Pakistanis know fully well that what happens in America affects them, so these news channels were gearing up hard for ‘Decision 2008.’
The news director at the country’s second-most watched Urdu channel hired me, and I began producing. And when that network launched an English-language channel, I joined as a reporter, staying a full year.
For those interested in foreign reporting, I’d suggest starting by just going to the place you’re interested in, and rather than exclusively freelancing for home publications in the U.S. or U.K., exploring the possibility of working for a local news organization there. Some of them have really good resources. More importantly, I think it can be a better way to get a pulse of a country, because you won’t only be looking at the narrow issues you can sell to an editor back home. You’ll see a lot more than that.
YOU JOINED PBS FRONTLINE’S DIGITAL TEAM IN 2010. WHAT DID THE ROLE INVOLVE AND WHAT DID YOU ENJOY MOST?
For every FRONTLINE film, I’d help build a deep-content website about that problem. This included deep investigative dives; ongoing reporting; interactive maps; feature stories; extended interviews; oral histories; and slideshows. And over the three really wonderful years I spent there, my role expanded over time.
During my first year, I was primarily buried in intensive research, on everything from what you need to know about getting an autopsy, to how different law enforcement agencies define suspicious activity. I was also editing interviews – some of them hundreds of thousand of words long – into digestible web pieces. I’d spend a few weeks on one film subject, and then move on to another. Because I was new and really wanted to prove myself, I’d come into work one to two hours early each day. I was probably very annoying.
By my second year, I was writing daily, leading FRONTLINE’s digital coverage of ongoing beats that included Yemen, the financial crisis, drones, Syria, domestic surveillance and marijuana legalization.
During the protests in 2011, I was lucky to be able to go to Cairo and investigate the Muslim Brotherhood’s underreported role in the revolution, but for the most part, opportunities like that were rare due to budget. Sometimes I’d just go somewhere nearby on the weekend on my own – for example, a short drive to New Hampshire for the Republican primaries – and come back with a good story.
By my third year, I was doing more feature reporting, senior producing film websites and experimenting in immersive video.
I loved so many things about that job, but what I enjoyed most was the caliber of people I worked with. I learned directly from some of the best investigative reporters and filmmakers in the country. FRONTLINE’s senior leadership instilled in me some of the highest editorial standards in this industry. I’m really grateful, to my boss in particular, who just made me better every single day.
CONGRATULATIONS ON YOUR EMMY NOMINATION FOR THE FRONTLINE DIGITAL FILM THE BOMBING OF AL-BARA! WHAT FIRST INSPIRED YOU TO PRODUCE IT AND AND HOW DID YOU GO ABOUT DOING THAT?
This was the last major project I worked on at FRONTLINE, but this is really the work of Olly Lambert, who – as bombs dropped around him in the Syrian town of al-Bara – chose to film civilians caught in the conflict instead of run for his life.
In total, Olly kept his camera rolling for about two hours straight, and the result is a haunting, raw portrait of what it looks like when a government drops bombs on its own people. A few minutes of that footage were used in an exceptional film by Olly called “Syria Behind the Lines,” but after we watched the entire cut, my boss Sarah Moughty and I thought it was an ideal web project.
I sat down with Olly, played the footage and asked him to narrate what he remembered thinking and feeling during each scene. We did this a few times. Then I selected the most powerful and compelling bites, and worked with an editor to overlay them onto parts of the footage. I had Arabic SOTs translated, and selected the most powerful to isolate and subtitle.
After all of the cuts, the final film was about 35 minutes. That can seem really daunting to a viewer – to watch Syrians in agony for that long – so I wanted to sign post for the viewer. I added jump points – very brief descriptions of scenes a viewer could jump to – so it’s more of an interactive viewing experience.
Within a week of going live in April of 2013, it had nearly half a million hits on YouTube.
NOW YOU LEAD THE DIGITAL TEAM AT AL JAZEERA AMERICA’S FLAGSHIP SHOW, AMERICA TONIGHT. WHAT DOES A TYPICAL DAY FOR YOU CONSIST OF?
I split time between managing the team, and reporting, so there isn’t really a typical day for me. Sometimes I’m working on a long form story for our website, sometimes I’m turning around a story for the night’s show, and sometimes I’m editing or assigning stories to the team.
I get out into the field fairly often. For example, I was recently in Detroit for a months-long investigation into the bankruptcy, and in Brazil to explore illegal abortions. These are some of my favorite kinds of stories: the ones where I get to wrangle hard-to-get interviews, nerd-out on something new and walk away uncovering something important or unfair.
WHAT HAS BEEN THE MOST CHALLENGING PROJECT OR STORY YOU’VE WORKED ON AND WHY?
Investigating the Muslim Brotherhood’s role in 2011 Egyptian revolution while it was underway. There was intense chaos on the ground, and finding such a specific narrative so quickly – while everyone was focused on something else – was exhausting. But it made a damn good story.
WHAT SORT OF ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR YOUNG REPORTERS IN THE UK WHO WANT TO BREAK INTO INVESTIGATIVE REPORTING OR DIGITAL JOURNALISM? WHAT SORT OF SKILLS WOULD THEY NEED IN THE TOOLBOX?
First, read everything you can on the beat you care about. Spend as much time as you can on your own nerding-out. Second, write often, even if it’s short or just for yourself, but solicit feedback from an editor or mentor. It’s stunning how rarely people get or ask for feedback, but it helps so, so much.
One thing I’ve learned is incredibly helpful is to make sure everyone knows what you want. Make your ambitions obvious. So many opportunities have come my way just because I’ve made it really obvious that I want them, especially to the people who are in a position to give them to me.
Ask for what you want. Eventually, someone will tire of telling you no.
Feel confident demonstrating your expertise. I say this especially to women, because there are some beats that people just associate with men, national security, for example. But if you’re obsessive about it, and really good on the issue, that’s really hard for people to ignore. Social media is a great space to do this. And by that I don’t mean just sharing articles or tweeting things. I mean get on Facebook and use it like a blog – not to share opinions – but to write short posts, with shortened links in them.
Because there are so few outlets that truly do it anymore, investigative journalism can be really tough to crack into, and it can take a long time to get there. One avenue in is data journalism. Investigative units need people who are exceptional at sorting through big data. An essential skill for anyone who wants to do investigative work is to be a fantastic researcher. This means knowing how to use Accurint, PACER and other databases, and how to file solid FOIA requests. These are skills that will never stop serving you. And lastly, identify journalists who do great investigative work (but who aren’t so famous that they’d never give you the time of day) and seek them out as mentors.
FINALLY, HOW DO YOU CONSUME YOUR NEWS?
Back when I was addicted to Twitter, I used to spend a lot of time making private issue-based lists of people plugged into something in a way I can’t be, and who don’t yet have a large following.
Unfortunately, I don’t have much time to spend on Twitter anymore, so I sometimes rely on a few different platforms to make Twitter come to me. One of my favorites is News.Me, which scours my feed and aggregates the most popular links, and then sends me a morning email with all of them.
I get a lot of newsletters. I really like Foreign Policy Interrupted's weekly e-mail, which brings together so many badass ladies in one place, and Torie Rose Deghett's “This Week in War,” which is great when I need to catch up. Of all the newsletters on journalism and innovation, I like the American Press Institute's the most.
A new platform I’m using and really enjoying is This.cm, started by my old boss Andrew Golis. Imagine Twitter if everyone could only tweet a link once a day, and they really had to make that tweet count. That’s what This.cm feels like to me. It’s in beta right now, but what people are sharing are some of my favorite stories to sit back with every day.
I curate my Facebook feed pretty rigorously by hitting “like” or “hide” for most posts in my Newsfeed, so it’s more intuitive to what I want.
But relying on social media alone is a terrible way for a journalist to find stories or consume news. A lot of these networks can become echo chambers, and reinforce existing beliefs rather than challenge them.
Sometimes, I’ll just ask people if there’s any issue they’ve encountered that they think is underreported and important. Sometimes, this pans out into a really good story. At other times, I just learn a lot about something random. It can’t hurt.