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Q&A With the New York Times’ Jeffrey Gettleman

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Q&A With the New York Times’ Jeffrey Gettleman

Posted by Maggie Fick on May 26, 2009

Q&A With the New York Times' Jeffrey Gettleman

For the third and final month of the Congo Challenge, RAISE Hope for Congo hosted an activist call focused on this month’s goal: “Raise the Profile.” If you tuned in to the activist call, you heard from Michael Abramowitz , director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Committee on Conscience, and Jeffrey Gettleman, East Africa bureau chief for the New York Times, along with Enough’s own blogger and the editor of Enough Said, Laura Heaton. On the call, Michael, Jeffrey, and Laura discussed the importance of media coverage in raising awareness of the world’s least known—but in the case of Congo, most deadly—conflicts.

Enough’s Maggie Fick recently sat down with Jeffrey Gettleman in Nairobi, Kenya, where he is based for the New York Times, to talk more about how journalism can contribute to better understanding of conflicts like the one in Congo, and ultimately stimulate pressure and help mobilize the political will necessary to begin resolving these deadly conflicts. Here are a few excerpts from the interview.

Q: You cover all of East Africa for the New York Times; a ton of issues must constantly be appearing on your radar screen. How do you decide which stories to prioritize?

A: That’s one of the most difficult parts of my job. There are so many important, interesting stories in East Africa all the time. I usually keep coming back to Congo, Sudan, and Somalia, but beyond that, I try to prioritize a mix of breaking news and “what’s hot” with coverage of deeper, more thematic issues, such as my current series on the root causes of piracy in Somalia.

Overall, the best way for me to know when I should weigh in is by following a number of issues and regions closely, watching for signs that certain events and flare-ups are not just a “one-off” and are instead representative of broader trends. It’s important to always have the background down—the context in which a certain event—for example, the recent ethnic clashes in Malakal, southern Sudan— is occurring. My goal in every story I write is to report not only on what has happened, but why it matters and what it means.

Q: You have reported on many aspects of the conflict in eastern Congo—from the scourge of sexual violence, to the shifts within and among the armed groups, to an interview with Congolese president Joseph Kabila—could describe the reaction to your work on eastern Congo, in the country and internationally?

A: My initial coverage of the issue of sexual violence in eastern Congo really struck a nerve. I received hundreds of emails about the story, and groups in New York and at universities around the U.S. formed to raise funds for the survivors like the ones I profiled in my stories and to raise awareness about the crisis in Congo. It is satisfying to cover such a sad story and to see it met with such a positive reaction, in the sense that readers mobilized to try to help people perhaps far away from the experience of some of my readers, but people who are suffering and whose plight deserves attention.

Congo is messy, and sometimes people don’t have patience for a conflict that has so many shades of grey, where so many actors have blood on their hands. Sometimes it’s easy for journalists to go for the obvious story instead of working to really understand the conflict—an example would be merely focusing on the humanitarian crisis because it’s hard to argue with the fact that people need food. However, these sorts of stories often avoid addressing the root causes of the complex conflict in Congo, instead highlighting mostly symptoms of the crisis.

Q: In the case of a multifaceted, complex crisis like the one in eastern Congo, how do you represent the conflict in a way that is understandable to readers learning for the first time about Congo, yet nuanced enough to accurately represent the situation you witness on the ground?

A: You can’t really do this in one story. You have to establish a “line of coverage” through a number of stories that reveal different angles of a story; each story helps to build a more in-depth, more nuanced picture of a crisis like the one in eastern Congo. I prefer this approach to writing more general, less detailed stories.

Q: What can activists in the U.S. do to raise awareness of the crisis in Congo through media coverage? Should activists write letters to the editor of their local newspapers, use “new media” tools like blogs, or employ other strategies to raise the profile of this crisis?

A: I think that the most successful activists are those that are organized, who strive to build alliances and connections with other activists. It’s great when various, diverse people—with connections to certain communities, with certain skills or backgrounds to bring to the table—work together to reach the media more effectively. It’s harder to go it alone, and it usually makes for a more interesting story when a group approaches a journalist to tell her or him about a story that they could not get on their own.

Helping to provide journalists with access to a story that they may be unable to cover on their own, or that may be “below the radar” is a great way to get your issue in the news and out to a broader audience. There are a variety of ways in which alliances can form and be sustained, and as a journalist I find it very helpful to be in touch with a number of groups and individuals who are working to bring greater awareness to the crises which I cover in East Africa.

As a journalist, I have to be neutral, but like my colleagues in this field, I am always happy to see positive outcomes from my stories, to see that greater knowledge of an issue has contributed in some way, however small, to an improvement in the life of someone on the ground in one of these conflict zones. Although journalists can’t be advocates, there is still room for us to shed light on problems and highlight remedies, be them humanitarian, political, or otherwise. In Africa, I think shedding light on under-reported issues and conflicts is particularly important, because many local journalists either do not have the resources or do not have the freedom to report on them. If I don’t succeed in telling these stories and telling them well, then nobody might cover them.