Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


February 16, 2010

A Dwindling Army of Overseas Journalists

Tina Susman, a journalist who has seen more than her share of the world's troubles, addresses the tumult in her own industry.

Michael Gluckstadt

Nobody sees the world like foreign correspondents. The biggest international stories often are the most devastating ones, so they travel all over the world to report back on events more wrenching than anything their readers are likely to encounter in their own lives. Tina Susman has covered sub-Saharan Africa for over a decade, as well as the Asian tsunami, the London Metro bombings, Darfur, and, most recently, the earthquake in Haiti. From 2007 to 2009, she served as the Baghdad bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times.

Now the job of a foreign correspondent is getting even harder. "There are fewer of us to do more work than ever," Susman tells Gelf. With the loss of editors, research assistants, technicians, even travel secretaries, she says, "we have lost the support staff crucial to our work."

Photo from the United Nations Development Programme's <A href=''>Flickr</a>.
"I can only hope that news organizations will keep funding bureaus where wars that have an impact on the entire world are being fought."

Photo from the United Nations Development Programme's Flickr.

In the following interview, which was conducted over email and has been edited for length and clarity, Susman tells Gelf about her experiences in Somalia, Haiti, and elsewhere, and what would be lost if the ranks of foreign correspondents were diminished.

Gelf Magazine: What is the most interesting place you've covered?

Tina Susman: In terms of interest level, I tend not to view places but rather the stories in those places. Somalia probably would rank up there as No. 1. It was the first mega-conflict I'd covered (I was based in South Africa at the time but didn't consider that a real conflict story). I went to Somalia the first time in November 1992, and a week later the UN approved the decision to send troops in. I was one of the reporters waiting on the beach when they arrived. In terms of visuals (I'd never seen anything like Mogadishu and still haven't), the human crisis (it was my first massive humanitarian crisis story), and the military element (this was my first time dealing with the US military), it was a real turning point for me. It made me want to cover more such stories, and it proved to my editors that, much to my mother's regret, I had a real talent for covering disasters and conflict and could stay very calm under pressure.
If you asked me what my most rewarding story was, though, I'd tell you without hesitation it was Baghdad—because of the colleagues I worked with (both Iraqi and expat), because of the team we had in Baghdad during my two years there, and because of the way we were able to do stories and other things—like sponsoring some of our staff for visas—that I think really changed lives.

Gelf Magazine: You recently returned from covering the earthquake in Haiti. What was it like there? Tina Susman: It was a wreck—a combination of the tsunami and the genocide rolled into one, with nightmarish logistics, as well. Despite the destruction, however, it was remarkably calm, especially compared to my trip to Haiti in 2004 when Aristede was overthrown. People were calm in their desperation, and while I know some on TV talked about looting and violence, I saw nothing of the sort.

Gelf Magazine: Were you able to convey the devastation to your readers?

Tina Susman: Yes, I think our coverage conveyed the devastation, both in words and pictures.

Gelf Magazine: There has been some criticism leveled that the press arrived in Haiti faster and in larger number than aid workers did. Did you find that to be the case?

Tina Susman: Many media members did arrive more quickly than aid workers, though I think after the first couple of weeks the number of aid workers easily matched the number of media members. The early arrival of media compared to aid workers is not that unusual in an emergency situation like this, because journalists are able to move far more quickly than aid workers given that we do not have to carry in the materials that aid workers often need to accomplish their missions (i.e., what good does it do MSF to send in a planeload of doctors and nurses if they don't also have medicine, equipment, etc., to work with?).
Additionally, journalists tend to move in smaller numbers than aid groups do, making it easier for us to simply get a seat on a plane or rent a car and get moving. Even a team as large as that for Anderson Cooper 360 doesn't need as many people to function as does an aid group like MSF or Oxfam, which needs everything from communications officers to warehouse managers to logistics experts to people to simply get the stuff loaded onto trucks and out to the people.
And finally, journalists do not have to go through the bureaucratic delays that often slow aid agencies planning their response to an emergency. (I spent six months at an aid agency so I am familiar with some of the delays they face). Unlike me, an aid worker cannot unilaterally book him/herself on a plane, grab a small bag, get cash from the bank, and head to the quake zone. They generally have to go through a lot more planning and dealing with security consultants, etc., who are not working under the same daily deadline pressures that journalists are.
There were a couple of voices who suggested that by going in so quickly, media members somehow prevented aid from getting in. This is baloney. Most media people went in by renting vehicles on their own or by booking themselves on flights, or by chartering planes. Aid agencies generally fly in their employees and their cargo on huge cargo flights chartered for the purpose, or sometimes on military cargo planes. The only time media traveled on aid flights or with aid agencies in this instance, and in most instances, is if an aid group had extra space and agreed to host a journalist. In these cases, just as in military situations, journalists are given seats based on availability if there are no aid workers (or soldiers, in military situations) who need them. I've traveled with aid groups and the military all over the world, and I've been bumped plenty of times. Media do not get space reserved for aid workers or soldiers.

Gelf Magazine:In your view, what is the role of a reporter covering a disaster area?

Tina Susman: A reporter covering a disaster is there to convey the situation in such a way that it makes people outside the area take notice, and, with any luck, spurs them to either donate to a charity helping the victims or spurs them to simply be more sympathetic to people coming from troubled parts of the world. If reporters come across a situation where they can actively help someone beyond merely covering the situation, I see nothing wrong with doing that. Most of us have given direct help to people at times, but when faced with hundreds or thousands of people who need help, there are limits as to what most of us can do beyond spreading the word to the rest of the world or letting someone just pour out their woes to a good listener. In Haiti, my colleagues and I had some direct impact on individuals in trouble: One of my colleagues reported a badly injured Mexican national to the Mexican government in Mexico City, which then deployed Mexican rescue workers to go find the man and fly him home for medical care. I directed a man looking for someplace to take his badly injured daughter to an MSF hospital. Obviously, some reporters who are also doctors went much further. If they were able to actually treat people professionally and save some lives, I see nothing wrong with that, nor do I chastise them for also taking advantage of the publicity resulting from their work. Perhaps it'll spur some of the doctors sitting on their butts watching them on TV to offer assistance.

Gelf Magazine: You spent 11 years covering sub-Saharan Africa, an area viewed by many Americans as a wasteland of war and poverty. Do you think the area is covered in a fair manner?

Tina Susman: For the most part, yes, I think Africa is covered in a fair manner, and I don't think it receives any more "negative" coverage than Asia, the former Soviet Union, or the US much of the time. The fact is, Africa is more troubled than most of the world, though it is doing a lot better than it was when I was there. But it remains mired in poverty and plagued by some pretty awful leaders, and that has to be covered. No journalists in Africa could justify, for example, ignoring the mass murders and rapes that occurred in Guinea, nor should they ignore the fact that more African countries are making homosexuality punishable by death or imprisonment. It would be nice to have journalists write more "positive" stories about Africa and about the rest of the world, but given how our numbers are being slashed so drastically, more and more of us are confined to covering the biggest stories—which tend to be things like wars, earthquakes, famines, etc.—and we don't have as much time to focus on fun features that we all enjoy writing about. I did a lot of non-negative features during my years in Africa, but I'm not sure I'd be able to do them now because they involved traveling extensively and took time away from hard news. I found that most of the people who criticized Africa coverage had never been there and had very naive ideas of the place. This included a lot of US-based journalists who, on their first visits to the continent, found it remarkably beautiful, full of life, but also horribly troubled.

Gelf Magazine: As the Baghdad bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, how did the war in Iraq appear to you up close?

Tina Susman: How does any war appear up close? A lot of violence, a lot of tension, and a constant struggle to tell the story while caught in the middle of all the chaos. I did a lot of reporting—on my own, with my Iraqi staff, and as an embed with the military—in an attempt to look at things from all sides. I always felt—and still do feel—that US politicians portrayed the situation in Iraq as far better than it was after the military surge of 2007 was under way. While it is true that violence began to drop, and that the numbers of casualties went down quite dramatically between early 2007 and the end of 2008, Iraq remained and remains an extremely violent and dysfunctional place. The purpose of the surge was not just to reduce the body count; it was to enable the Iraqi government to pass laws, plan elections, and do all the other things necessary for long-term stability. That has not happened—to see this, all you have to do is look at the latest stalemate over which candidates will be permitted to run in the upcoming national election, and look at the latest large-scale bombings which destroyed, among other things, the Los Angeles Times's bureau and living space. It's not unusual for people on the ground in a war zone to see it very differently from politicians and occasional visitors (including some correspondents) who zip in for brief stints. But it's crucial that the reporters on the ground look beyond what those visitors focus on, or they risk portraying things in a less-than-accurate manner. I think this happened a lot in Iraq when things were relatively calm, and suddenly you'd see a flood of reports talking about Baghdad becoming "normal." I'm happy to say the LA Times never got caught in that trap.

Gelf Magazine: Funding for the proverbial Baghdad bureau has become a major talking point among those debating the future of newspapers and journalism. Do you think that viable news models will continue to exist to support it?

Tina Susman: I am not one to discuss long-term business models for news organizations. I can only hope that news organizations will keep funding bureaus where wars that have an impact on the entire world are being fought. I think viable news models will continue to exist, but whether the people managing the purse strings of those models see the logic in funding expensive bureaus in war zones remains to be seen.

Gelf Magazine: How are the vast industry-wide shifts affecting foreign correspondents?

Tina Susman: The same way it has affected all journalists—there are fewer of us to do more work than ever. We now must blog and write for 24-hour newspaper websites, in addition to writing for the traditional paper version and (for newspaper people) often doing radio and/or TV interviews to make up for losses of TV and radio correspondents (I did a number of these in Haiti, for example). For TV and radio, it's the same situation. In addition, we have lost the support staff crucial to our work: libraries that could pull up stories to give our work context and enable us to insert the history and background not often available off the top of your head in a foreign country; technicians to make sure our satellite phones, laptops, etc., are maintained; travel offices to help us get on flights during emergencies such as the Haiti quake and help us find places to stay in countries where we've never been and have no idea where to look. And of course we've lost editors, making it easier for errors to slip into stories. When you've worked more than 24 to 48 hours straight without sleep or food, as I have on many, many big breaking stories, it becomes easy to make silly errors ranging from misspellings to historical information. With fewer editors on our desks back home, it's more likely these errors end up in the paper or on the website.

Gelf Magazine: If more news sources shifted towards local media overseas as opposed to sending their own correspondents, what would be the biggest loss?

Tina Susman: I think the biggest loss would be the voice that an experienced, trained journalist who has worked in the US or other "free" media could bring—ideally a voice of objectivity with a recognition of who its audience is and what they most want to know. There are plenty of terrific journalists overseas, but depending on where they are and what kind of media they have been exposed to in their lives, they may have very, very different ideas of what a story is and how to tell it. Those of us who grew up in the US—or in many other countries with a free press—tend to approach stories differently than those who come from countries without that. We tend to be much more willing to stand up to authority and to question high-ranking officials in ways that would be unheard of in many parts of the world (where doing so might put you in prison or worse). We are taught to keep our personal opinions out of general news coverage and to reserve opinions for columns or editorial pages. We are taught the value of good human-interest features and the value of interviewing "regular" people, not just officials and politicians. These are skills, or habits, that develop with time, and they are not necessarily skills or habits that one could be expected to have unless they had been exposed for a long time to a very free press. And just as a local reporter in Bangalore, for example, might not have a good idea of what special interests readers in San Francisco or Los Angeles would have, I would have no idea what things readers in Bangalore might find relevant or interesting if I were suddenly to be told to report for a local Bangalore outlet.

Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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- Media
- posted on Feb 17, 10
Ellen Driscoll

This is a fascinating and compelling interview of a very brave journalist. thank you!

- Media
- posted on Feb 26, 10
David Downs

Good interview, nice work.

Article by Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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