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Kigali grenade attacks: Journalistic choices in three acts

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?

12 Responses to “Kigali grenade attacks: Journalistic choices in three acts” Leave a reply ›

  • Loved the reflection, keep them coming. Many times the only story to tell is through the way you see it. Reflections allow you to distill thoughts and display how events have an impact on you. Readers should understand that it is personal and reflects what you have observed and felt.

    Keep it up!

    • Thanks, Tom. I like that line of yours, "Many times the only story to tell is through the way you see it." That's worth thinking hard about -- how to do well, and when to recognize you're in that moment, or not... Food for much though for me in the coming months. Thanks!

  • I liked your reflection & agree with Murph -- sometimes all we can write honestly is what we ourselves see and think and feel. Moreover, everyone's story is worth telling if it's done honestly --

    The (vast, wide, huge) difference with your reflection and what Kristof does is that Kristof MAKES STUFF UP -- the details, he changes and warps them to make them sound more appealing to his audience. That's what bothers me the most -- if he didn't warp details, he wouldn't have the rest of the problems -- the bad policy ideas, the "white savior" tenancies. He makes junk up, believing that its worth it for the endgame of tugging heartstrings. You just wrote honestly about your feelings/thoughts in a specific moment in time -- that's valuable, in my opinion.

    And those two styles of writing are nothing alike.

  • To echo the other commentators, I thought it was a great piece. Living long-term in a foreign country one seems to always be in between - by most standards you are a local but there are always things you are excluded from, both good and bad.

    I think part of the reason I found the piece so interesting is because it resonated with my own feelings as of recent (I live in Nairobi and had similar feelings about the recent referendum). It even inspired me to write a post for my own blog about that in between (not yet posted but to come soon).

    Just wanted to give feedback on this piece in particular.

    Best.

  • PUBLISH!

    First of all, we read your blog for YOU. Or at least I do. Your insights. Your impressions. Your thoughts. Your reactions. You. This is not the NYT, this is your blog. And I for one want to know what you're experiencing, and not just because you're a dear friend, but because you're a person with insight, sensitivity, understanding, and intelligence. I think the fact that you are differentiating between a first person memoir like impression and looking for a White Doctor Savior so your audience can CONNECT means that you aren't doing the latter.

    The thing I like about not being just on the news cycle (and not being a video journalist) is not having to chase ambulances. There are other options within the realm of journalism, and the freelancer has chosen his just as we have chosen ours.

    • ha! i forgot about ambulance chasing, the phrase, since j-school...

      you're right, lots of different options. sometimes i think it helps to think about the strengths of another choice and the weaknesses of my own -- what can my non-chasing benefit from in chasing-behavior? sometimes you get better. sometimes there aren't lessons that cross paths... i guess the key is constant vigilance, no matter what we do. or maybe that just reflects my view of, like, morality. ;)

  • Stumbled across your aggregate of news items while trying to find out what happened Weds night... I'm a local resident over 3 months too, more integrated with Rwandese than muzungu and yet still finding my place... and I loved both your posts here. They were great. Honest, raw, and fascinating... and as a peer and a writer also, I just really dug it.

    Coffee? Bourbon? Simba? (I call it the locals' Bourbon).

    Murazkoze
    Christine

    • I think we'll always be finding our place, eh? But I feel that way everywhere in the world... and I feel privileged to try here! Not to preach at you; something about your comment just reminded me how lucky we are to be able to be here, know these people, get to know this land...

  • I think you're unfair to the freelancer -- and to editors. How many Rwandans noticed when someone gunned down four people in Buffalo a few days ago? Probably only a very few. And there's not necessarily anything wrong with that. The killings, while tragic, were not particularly relevant to Rwandan readers. Why should someone in Topeka care about grenade attacks in Kigali that killed a couple of people?

    In fact, your post shows how well the western media actually function. As you note, Reuters, CNN, AP, Al Jazeera and AFP all reported on the grenade attack. That's an extraordinary amount of coverage, and shows to me that editors at major news organizations DO care about what happens in Rwanda.

    That's why I just don't get all the Nick Kristof animosity. He is doing just what you demand that other journalists do -- telling people that stories like Rwanda's are important. He knows that the only way to get Americans to read his work is by finding a way to make it relevant to them. A Rwandan columnist writing about the United States would probably do the same thing.

    As an aside, on the melodrama accusation: you and your friend really called 50-60 people to check if they were OK? Not to be too snarky, but how many locals called that many friends to check up on them? I bet not many. It seems like Rwandans cared a lot less about what happened in their city than you did.

    • Thanks, Nick. You're right that it's the job of news orgs to filter out what we don't need to know, and a lot of this stuff doesn't make the cut. I don't know that the grenade attacks in Kigali make the Topeka-thinks-it's-important cut. I'm saying the standard for that cut shouldn't be "Well is anyone dead?" One dead in a grenade attack doesn't suddenly interest a Topekan, or anyone else, I'm guessing. There are better standards, and we should be advocating that our work gets in -- or get shut out -- for a good reason.

      I think the wires reported on this because they were all there, and if everyone has a grenade and Reuters, for example, doesn't, Reuters looks bad. There's as great article in Harper's Mag, April 2006, by Bryan Mealer, AP's guy in Kinshasa: He and the Reuters guy are having lunch and there's a firefight or something, a lot of people dead. They're already worn down by all the death around them. They look at each other, and the Reuters guy says, "I won't file if you don't." So they sit and have a chance to eat their lunch. (Read it, it's a great story, a brilliant piece that mediates on just the tension I'm pointing out in this post.) There were grenades no reported on, the journalists weren't here. Point: A pack of journalists can easily, and unintentionally, distort an event --- both its relative importance (this was kinda just another grenade in Kigali) and the news judgment behind it.

      Nick Kristof does not need white heroic protagonists to make Africa "relevant" to Americans, and I believe it condescends to Americans to think so. There are enough other journalists producing good work that manages to seem relevant to Americans to suggest this, too; but I've said all I have to say on this subject already.

      And on the snark: Yeah, we did. I have quite a few friends here, and my friend has both friends and colleagues. For two people who have 5 years of time and several different jobs with locals between them, that's not really so many people. (Now I'm gonna worry about who we forgot.) How many people did other locals call? I don't know, I didn't poll them...

      • Nick, I think I pinned a lot on your comment because yours was wonderfully challenging alternative view, which I'm really glad to have. But I slapped on you specifically a general response to some other less civil replies I've gotten, and I'm sorry for that.

        So let me move my objection to this comment aimed generally at the other end of cyberspace, and not at Nick specifically. I'm happy to have a lot of debate about all the issues, but I'm not going to engage a line of conversation that requires me to justify my relationships with my friends. By affirming the veracity of the story, and by blogging about what it feels like in town when grenades go off, I think I've said all that will benefit anyone on that.

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