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2016 Joe Alex Morris Jr. lecturer Kathleen Carroll

Joe Alex Morris Jr. Lecture

Kathleen Carroll’s Speech Transcript

Kathleen Carroll delivers the 35th Annual Joe Alex Morris Jr. Memorial Lecture

Kathleen Carroll delivers the 35th Annual Joe Alex Morris Jr. Memorial Lecture

Thank you, Ann Marie.

It is such a pleasure to be with you tonight, among so many extraordinarily talented people striving to enrich the profession that we all love.

And what a joy to see Jason and Yegi Rezaian again, each dipping into the riches of Harvard through Nieman and Shorenstein fellowships as they prepare for the next chapter of their life together.

It is important to call out their ordeal in Tehran tonight especially, as we honor Joe Alex Morris Jr., who died there 37 years ago covering the revolution that changed Iran then and to this day.

In one of the stories about Joe’s death, a colleague noted that he “died as he lived, running to cover another Mideast conflict.”

“Running to cover another Mideast conflict.”

It’s a phrase that says so much about how international news coverage has changed … and how it hasn’t … in the decades since we lost Joe.

Today, alas, the words “Mideast conflict” are so trite they have become corrosive shorthand for “good lord, those people are at it again, what a mess of a place, I can’t stand to think about it, turn the page and see what else there is….”

Iran. Iraq. Syria. Afghanistan. Lebanon. Libya. Bahrain. Yemen. Israel. Gaza.

It’s too easy to think of these as places where only fighting happens. Fighting over religion. Over power. Over land. The three great roots of almost every conflict on the planet.

Journalists covering these countries know better, of course. Those are rich, vibrant nations filled with people who have much in common with human being around the globe.

They want ordinary things. A home. Meaningful work that will put food on the table and allow them to care for their children.

A quiet and peaceful life. Mundane.

And yet, who will read a story about a quiet and peaceful life?

Instead, we think audiences are more interested in the QUEST … the HOPE for a mundane life than in the living of one.

And that is one of the thorny issues that we face.

Today we are in the middle another epic shift on the planet — millions of people are on the move …. fleeing years-long conflicts and destruction or seeking a better life for their families.

A mundane, quiet life.

What is the human response to that tide of humanity?

Fear. Barriers. Slammed doors.

Rightward shifts in government.

Across the Western world there is now much talk about “the other” … potential economic parasites out to take something from those already safe and comfortable.

As humans, we have been here many times before. Indeed most of us in this room have family stories about the grandparents who escaped a pogram, great-great aunts who fled a potato famine or ancestors who crossed borders to find work and found instead a new home.

But before they found home, they almost certainly faced what today’s migrants face:

Rejection. Prejudice. Bigotry. Mistreatment. After a time, some slow changes. Grudging acceptance. Eventually, perhaps even genuine acceptance and respect.

In each family’s saga there are stories. Good, human stories that our audiences crave.

What is the lesson for journalism here?

That big seismic events are hard to see, hard to grasp. Overwhelming. We need the intimacy of the individual story to help us make sense of it.

We can’t absorb that 3,000 people or more have died trying to reach Europe in flimsy rubber boats that give way. Those are numbers, not people.

But we can understand the agony of Huda Malak, pregnant with her first child in one of those flimsy overloaded dingys slowing sinking a mile from the Greek sanctuary of Lesbos.

All the goods on board the boat have already been thrown overboard to no avail, when Malak’s husband, Tarek Sheikh stands up, saying “I’m doing this to save you, our child and everyone on board.”

And then he jumps overboard.

Malak’s boat makes it to shore and a desperate rescue effort returns Tarek to her, shuddering and soaked, but alive.

That’s one of the stories that Patrick McDonnell of the LA Times told about the millions of people moving from countries in conflict seeking counties in peace.

The Times stayed in touch and we learned months later that Malak and Tarek have settled in the central French city of Lyon.

Are we invested in them, in their story?

How will they blend the old life and the new? Will their baby speak French as a first language? Will they bring the heat of ground Aleppo peppers to the buttered creaminess of potatoes lyonnaise?

How will Lyon change their family story? And how will they change Lyon?

Will all the Malaks and Tareks further change the face, the taste, the clothes and colors of Europe?

Or will fear of the Malaks and Tareks break Europe into a jigsaw puzzle of authoritarian nations who prefer their isolation, their razor-wired fences and punishing policies?

Those are big questions that we must try to answer.

Can we?

Journalism, the saying goes, is the first rough draft of history.

But what if history is just too big for journalism?

If we can’t figure that out, are we damning ourselves to repeat history endlessly because we have not learned from it?

I hope not.

But I’m worried.

Worried that the world moves so quickly, stories don’t stick anymore.

We consume news, we react by clicking “like” or “emoticon sad face”. And then we move on.

We forget.

And when society moves on so quickly, there isn’t enough time to motivate action by the institutions that could change things on the ground.

Remember “Bring Back Our Girls?”

Nearly 1,000 days later, most of the Nigerian school girls are still gone. The ones that have come back have been shunned by their families and neighbors for having been kidnapped by Boko Haram in the first place.

Did coverage of the Bring Back Our Girls social media campaign help the girls?

I don’t know.

It’s images of children that often capture our imaginations.

Just 15 months ago, the world was heartbroken about pictures of a tiny boy’s body, clad in a red shirt and little shoes, washed up on a Turkish beach. Alan Kurdi, drowned with his mother and older brother as his family journeyed from Syria full of hope a better life.

Around the world, people reacted with horror and sadness. For a while.

Almost nothing changed. And we moved on, reacting to the next photo of a child shocked and bloodied by war.

Contrast that with the Nick Ut’s 1969 photo of Kim Phuc, naked and badly burned by napalm, running down a road her face a scream of agony.

That photo was one of several that helped change American views of the war in Vietnam. And it endures to this day. A little grainy. Black and white.

Why does the image of Kim Phuc stay with us while the image of Alan Kurdi slips away?

Maybe in part because there weren’t so many photos in 1969. There weren’t so many stories competing for our attention.

Maybe because the photo of Kim was printed on paper, held in our hands. Frozen.

The photo of Alan was printed, too, but as a digital image it was shared, touched, copied, turned into memes. Changed.

I fear that the Alans and the Malaks and Tareks and the missing Nigerian school girls just get lost in all the noise that we invite into our lives.

So, in this avalanche of information and images … in this cacophony of arguments about how the world should be … where is the place for journalism?

What is our role?

The mission is no different _ to inform the world. I believe in that mission now more than ever.

But how we go about it demands more of us as individual journalists.

And it especially demands more of institutions that employ journalists, even though they are challenged economically like never before.

What does that mean?

You’ve heard this It’s not enough to report on what happened.

News consumers want to know why something happened. About what it means. And I’m not just talking about adding a couple of paragraphs of “context” that are actually quotes from an expert.

No, we must offer genuine insight. The kind of that comes from experience with a subject, a place. The kind that Alissa Rubin and Kathy Gannon can bring to stories of Afghanistan, for example, because they have lived and worked there for years.

We must continue to investigate the institutions of power just as we do in the United States.

We need the kind of work that David Barboza has done in China, that several news organizations have done exposing mistreatment of the Rohingya people in Myanmar.

The kind of guts it took for four AP women to uncover slaves in the Southeast Asian fishing industry. The tenacity that Esther Htusan, Margie Mason, Robin McDowell and Martha Mendoza showed when they tracked that same seafood to American grocery shelves and kitchens.

And we must continue to find the intimacy that will help audiences get their heads around big stories. This isn’t just about an anecdotal lead, but storytelling that puts audiences right next to you, then opens up to expose the bigger thoughts.

That’s not a new idea. In 1943, at the height of World War II, George Weller of the Chicago Daily News wrote not of the sweeping global battles. He wrote about a pharmacist’s mate on board a U.S. Navy submarine in enemy waters who saved a sailor’s life by performing an emergency appendectomy. Weller’s story won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting that year.

I know. I know. Insight and intimacy and investigation take patience. And resources that are hard to come by in many news organizations.

But we can make better choices.

Slow, deep news over more drive-by bang bang.

And that means news organizations old and new must stop creating the market for frenzied freelancers who are struggling to make a living by pinging from conflict to conflict.

You can pay them to do fewer but smarter, deeper stories.

And by God, you’d better be paying them. Not on spec.

And making sure if you’re asking them to do something in a difficult place, that you are doing so under the freelancer guidelines that organizations like IPI and CPJ have worked out to help keep freelancers safe.

Because it’s dangerous out there.

So slow down. Do the right thing by your people in the field.

And for heaven’s sake, stop assigning stories that feed the cycle of “tragedy porn” … the ones that solicit a burst of emotion that soon fades.

Audiences are numbed by that, not enlightened.

More than a decade ago, we began to refer to this as the Baghdad bus bomb problem. Iraq was riven by sectarian fighting and people were dying by the scores nearly every day.

The stories were hard to report. It was dangerous and took a lot of time to get right.

And almost no one cared.

Anthony Shadid wrote about this in 2010 in a story that reflects his insight into a country he had covered for nearly a decade.

Dateline ABU GHRAIB, Iraq — At noon Tuesday, there was the explosion. Gunfire followed, and 33 people were dead, pieces of their corpses mixing with stagnant water, trash and soggy scraps of food. At noon Wednesday, there were the atlal.

The word in Arabic means the remains or ruins, the traces of something left behind. …

And later … In 2003, when America began its occupation, bombings with half the casualties of Tuesday’s suggested the United States might not prevail. Today, when America and its Iraqi allies seem to be winning, the attack failed to make the front page of the government newspaper.

A quote from one of the relatives gave the story its headline: “No one values the victims anymore.”

Anthony spoke the language, traced his family heritage back from Oklahoma to Lebanon and had the gift of infusing his work with insight and intimacy.

You need that language, that understanding of a place to cover it well. A fixer cannot give you insight or intimacy.

You need people who are covering their own countries. And people who see it with a strangers’ eyes. That combination of views is incredibly powerful.

Not an expat and a fixer. But colleagues … peers … contributing equally to coverage that helps make sense of the world every day.

This work is increasingly dangerous. More dangerous that it has ever been. For expats and especially for local journalists, covering their home territories.

Last year was the deadliest on record for journalists. This year, journalists are being jailed on trumped up charges in record numbers.

Autocratic leaders demand fawning coverage and if they don’t get it, the price is prison.

Not a very pretty picture, is it? The work is dangerous. The risks are high. The market is shrinking and the audiences subject to boredom and ennui.

So, then is international coverage worth it?

Of course it is. Now more than ever. Our lives are too interconnected to turn our backs on the world. And we know from history the dangers of the rest of the world turning inward, too.

Journalism is what can make the difference.

Journalism can help people understand each other. Can help make sense of the complexities. Can help us see the common humanity in all.

We need journalism to help our fellow humans to resist walling themselves off from each other.

We owe it ourselves to make sure we get this right.

We owe it to our fellow global citizens to get this right.

Because at the end of the day, everyone the world over wants one thing …

The security of a quiet, peaceful … yes, even a mundane life.