Act I, in which I am not a good authority on anything that happened last night
No confusion: I didn’t cover the grenade attacks. Last night, I posted links to the work of a bunch of journalists who did — Hez Holland and David Kezio-Musoke/Reuters; Josh Kron/CNN International (last night, though oft with the NYT); Max Delaney/AP (and sometimes with my beloved CS Monitor); Andrew Simmons at Al Jazeera; and unbylined reporters at AFP and RNA. I read their stuff. You should too. While I’ve been known to commit journalism elsewhere, that’s not why I’m here. I’m learning about ancient Rwandan poetry, for heaven’s sake.
Act II, in which I really piss off a journalist who actually did work last night
I feel a little badly about that, because at the time he said the thing that then I blogged that made him pissed, he was probably tired. It’s hard work covering these crazy breaking news stories — your adrenaline is flowing, the facts are confusing, you’re trying to beat everyone else, and in the Internet age, literally every second counts. Meanwhile, according to RNA’s early reports, the Rwandan police weren’t letting journalists near the scene, so the reporting is that much more difficult. It’s a damn hard job. And it’s twice as hard when you bust your ass to do all that, and you only get paid if someone buys the final product. And that decision is often based on changing winds in the newsroom, very very far away from here, about whether an event is “news enough” — not just news, but big enough news to justify the air time and the freelance payment.
So he was having a hard day.
Here’s what pissed him off (in same post as above):
[A]t about 10 pm I ran into a guy I suspected, from his fancy schmancy video camera, was a news journalist, I said, “Hey, so what happened tonight?” He said, “Oh, not much.” I said, “Grenades at Rubangura I heard?” He said, “Yeah, but no one was killed. So not much interest.”
We can be charitable and assume he meant, “Not much interest from my editor, who may or may not buy this story from my hungry freelance fingers.” But my friend and I had just spent a half hour texting and calling, between us, 50 or 60 people to make sure they were okay… So we weren’t feeling too charitable.
You can probably tell from my last line, which is the end of the post, that the exchange miffed me a bit. If I were to write it again, I wouldn’t be so flippant. It’s not necessary, and it also undermines the first sentence of that graph, which was the point: That I can understand why he’s saying that. “Hungry freelance fingers” are, often, literally hungry. At least mine are, when I’m living freelance paycheck to freelance paycheck.
But the reason I blogged it is this: It’s important to talk about the news standard. He’s absolutely right: This story would get more play if someone died. This is a much-bemoaned fact of a much-maligned profession, this “if it bleeds it leads” tendency. It sucks. It’s true. And that sucks, too. And when your a freelancer, it’s not just about the story getting more play. It’s about you getting paid, or not. And that really sucks.
When I was in Burundi covering the election, I pitched a lot of stuff around. At this point, grenades had been going off almost every day (making Rwanda look positively utopian); the political structure looked set to collapse; and there were concerns the ex-rebel leader Agathon Rwasa might leave the country and retrain some troops. My favorite rejection from a major US newspaper said, “Unfortunately, we wouldn’t be interested in anything from Burundi unless, perhaps, there’s a coup.” Not grenades. Not violence. A coup.
It’s important to talk about what makes journalists say, “Not much interest.” It’s important to push back against the towering giant that is the greedy news cycle, especially with Internet pressures, and say, “This story is important even if people are ‘only’ injured.” It’s important to push back against editors whose embellishments sometimes make copy sound desperate in order to meet that nasty standard — or push back against ourselves, when we do it. Rapha in Ruanda calls out the New York Times for doing this in May (sorry the blog’s in German, but the NYT quote is in English.), by linking (at least inferentially) occasional grenades in Kigali to attacks on survivors.
It’s easier for someone like me to push back, because I don’t make my living doing breaking news; I risk a lot less than that video journalist, or any of the other guys (mostly guys, although I assume there’s some women wandering around whose bylines I didn’t see) working last night, would risk to make the same case.
It’s also important to acknowledge that there’s a perverse incentive structure at work here, in particular for us freelancers: The more violent the events of the day, the greater our chances of getting paid. People who have the breaking news bug find a way to deal with that. And it’s too easy for those of us who don’t do their job to get all judgey and say, “What bastards! The inhumanity!” Because how many of their stories did you read last night or this morning? Obviously, we need what their doing. We need them to calibrate this tricky moral ground. I acknowledge that; I also think journalists can do better than they often do at that calibration. (I also think it would be nice if there weren’t so clear and unflattering a financial relationship between getting paid and people suffering. But that’s probably last on the rung of “things in the journalism business model to get a lot of high-level attention” at the moment.)
It’s important for journalists to do a quick check-in every once in awhile. “Not much interest” to an editor, maybe. I can understand that. But we can’t fall into the trap of saying that ourselves. We need to maintain a grip in the field, because we’re the only people who really see what the violence is, beyond a winning nut graf: It’s blood, it’s people, it’s families worried and crying, it’s a million people in a city still pretty easily traumatized by some awful memories sending texts that say, “Are you ok? Where are you?” I’ll let my editor in New York say, “Eh, not much interest.” But don’t say it in Kigali, or you’ve already lost.
The remedy? Vacation. Seriously. When I get that close to cynicism, a few days off to recharge makes my copy a lot less sour. I also highly recommend checking out the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma for other tips; much of this focuses on journalists who may suffer PTSD from covering disasters, emergencies, or extreme or chronic violence, but I find it’s always a good idea to check in with Dart whenever I’m feeling deeply and frequently jaded, before I pickle myself with my own disgust at the world.
Act III, in which I am at odds with myself over whether a first-person reflection from a white woman in Kigali on the night of the grenade attacks should have been written so quickly
So I wrote one, and the CSM picked it up (note: they write their own headline, which is sometimes annoying). I wrote it because it’s important for people to know that it’s quiet here when these things happen; that the night stays almost normal. It was the same thing when there was an attack about 500 meters from where I sat with a friend. We didn’t even hear it; everyone in town went about life normally. The day that it happened, so close to where it happened, it was as if it hadn’t happened.
And if you don’t live here, you didn’t know about it; you only know the ones that make the news. If the election results hadn’t been officially announced yesterday, maybe this would have been just another anonymous grenade attack that no one outside ever heard of.
In last night’s reflection, I wrote about the frantic phone calls we all make here, and about the mental planning you start to do. If shit really did hit the fan, how could you help? Who could you get out?
The journalist I pissed off called this melodramatic. It might be. I thought I was just a compulsive paranoid until I started talking about this with other expat friends who’ve been here more than three months. To varying degrees, this is our home; we have close relationships with people here who on nights like last night we worry about. I think it would be irresponsible not to think “melodramatically.”
I bet I leave Rwanda without ever having needed my emergency evacuation plans. But if I had a family, I’d teach them what to do in a fire, just in case. And this is something I also think about, just in case — and in part because cross-border paperwork requires more advanced brainstorming than “use the nearest exit, and we meet under the neighbor’s tree.”
But I’m not too worried about accusations of melodrama. I’m worried about Nick Kristof. I recently spent some time taking him to task for putting heroic white protagonists at the center of his Africa reports. I’ve been troubled since I wrote yesterday’s piece about whether I did the same thing.
What I wrote was a different form of writing than he does. For starters, it wasn’t journalism. It was a personal reflection, designed to illuminate something larger than myself, and those things are always, uh, personal. It’s a mini-memoir, rushed out in urgency and adrenaline.
I’ve shared this concern with some friends, who remind me that I’m allowed to have feelings about this stuff, that it’s okay to write honestly, and that I didn’t traipse around town looking for the white doctor treating grenade victims and write about him instead of Rwandans and call that “journalism.” All true.
But maybe I should have kept my mouth shut about the personal? Or maybe I should have structured the piece a bit more carefully, calibrated the tone a bit more precisely, to make sure that the point is clear — that we’ll never be saviors. We can’t be. When it comes to power structures, we’re unimportant people, like the people we would want to help. If we all weren’t in that giant boat of unimportant humanity, none of us would have been freaked out last night.
I was hoping to fire off a story about human frailty and futility, and about how some of us here try to balance that when the adrenaline sets in with the first text messages about yet another grenade. I wanted the white heroic protagonist as a foil, in a place where, when it comes to it, I know there will be no such thing. I think I was instinctively trying to write the anti-Kristof, but I’m only thinking about it that way now; last night I was just writing. Maybe it worked. Maybe it didn’t. I can’t tell now.
So, feedback welcome: Did the piece work for you or not? How come? It’ll help me make this stuff better. Leave a comment if you want, or send an email, or leave a comment and say “don’t publish”…or send a carrier pigeon…does the world still have those?