Why foreign correspondents risk it all

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New York Times International Managing Editor Michael Slackman leads a discussion on speaking truth to power.

Being a foreign correspondent can be fraught with danger, but the opportunity to give voice to the multiple perspectives that are so essential to understanding the news can outweigh the risks.

Just ask New York Times International Managing Editor Michael Slackman, who spoke to almost 200 students Thursday on the duties that foreign correspondents have to speak truth to power and act as agents of change.

He was invited to speak at MMC as part of FIU’s ongoing Global Learning efforts to foster a deeper understanding of global issues among students, faculty, and staff, and in the greater Miami community.

Slackman showed students a video report he made during 2011 while covering pro-democracy protests in Bahrain. What starts off as a typical news segment with Slackman describing a protest in the city of Manama changes in an instant.

As the camera pans toward a military helicopter flying overhead, bullets fly in their direction, and the staccato sounds of machine gun fire drowns out the noise of the crowd and the wail of sirens.

“The idea is that information gives people the tools they need to make better decisions and to make the world better,” Slackman said of his reporting. “The government of Bahrain insists it’s not possible that the helicopter was shooting at us…and the government hired a high-priced PR firm to rewrite the narrative. This is why correspondents matter – it’s about holding people in power accountable so they can’t whitewash history.”

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Students listen intently as New York Times International Managing Editor Michael Slackman describes how journalists sometimes put their lives on the line to document conditions around the globe.

While Slackman was able to escape without injury, some of his colleagues who cover foreign affairs aren’t so lucky. Alissa Rubin, for example, suffered extensive injuries while covering the plight of Yazidis who were trying to outrun ISIS fighters on Iraq’s Mount Sinjar.

Rubin, a correspondent based in France, decided to return to Iraq to cover the spread of ISIS, Slackman said. She boarded an Iraqi military helicopter loaded with food and other supplies for the Yazidis, which ended up crashing after it delivered the goods to the people fleeing the fighting.

Rubin suffered several broken bones and a fractured skull.

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New York Times reporter Alissa J. Rubin, left, is photographed after being rescued from a crashed helicopter in Iraq. She wrote a first-person account of her experience for The New York Times.

“Alissa is OK now,” Slackman said. “But she felt it was so important to go up there to tell you about the children who didn’t have water to drink and about an old woman whose legs were swollen. And partly because of what Alissa did, the U.S. became involved in the humanitarian effort.”

This message resonated with communication arts major Richie Lawrence, a senior.

“It’s very interesting,” he said. “Usually the idea is that journalists are just there to cover events, but he showed us they’re not just there to report on something. They’re there to affect change. It’s very powerful.”

Sometimes, however, Slackman said our own experiences can get in the way of effective communication.

When he first covered Russia, Slackman traveled to a vegetable market to see how people were making due after the value of the ruble dropped precipitously.

“Everyone’s life savings was worthless,” he said. “You could literally paper your bathroom with money. I met this woman and she was buying rotten vegetables because they were cheaper. She had gold teeth – when I was growing up in the Bronx gold teeth were considered as bling – but in Russia, gold teeth represent poverty  because they didn’t have other materials to work with. What you see is not always what you get.”

Sophomore Andrisell Martinez felt inspired by this anecdote. She plans to become a psychologist and help people overcome barriers to communicating clearly.

“I’ve always been concerned with communication and how people can relate to each other better,” she said. “Misunderstandings can cause hostility, they can cause deaths.”

Ultimately, Slackman added, the ability to better understand each other is central to democracy and its underlying principles of diversity, compromise and tolerance.

“You can only achieve those three ideals if you make an effort and you have a willingness to understand what each other is saying.”

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