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March 26, 2024, 2:25 p.m.
Reporting & Production

War correspondent Jane Ferguson pulls back the curtain on her career covering global conflicts

“People experience war on a personal level, and our ability to communicate extraordinary stress on an individual human level is the goal of good war reporting.”

Jane Ferguson, a seasoned war and conflict reporter for PBS NewsHour and a visiting professor at Princeton University, was teaching a course titled “War Reporting: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow” last fall when the Israel-Hamas war began on October 7.

The 39-year-old Irish-British journalist has reported from Gaza and a number of Middle Eastern countries over her 15-year career. She had planned her syllabus to mostly focus on the war in Ukraine, but soon shuffled her course plan.

“I had lived in and covered that region and that conflict for years and years, but there part of me was watching something very new happen [in the conflict],” Ferguson told me. “I was watching my industry struggle to respond to an incredible amount of misinformation on social media outpacing journalism.”

Ferguson is passionate about helping people understand the human impacts of war and why conflict reporting is necessary. That was something the late veteran war photographer Tim Page did for her in her early days in Afghanistan, and Ferguson credits him with changing the trajectory of her career (more on that below). Her first book, published this past July and titled No Ordinary Assignment, is an intimate memoir into the personal and professional challenges in becoming and being a war correspondent. It’s her way of pulling back the curtain on TV news and what it really means to cover war well.

Earlier this year, Ferguson was awarded the inaugural Neal Conan Prize for Excellence in Journalism (an unrestricted $50,000) for her reporting on the human toll of war and upheaval from Afghanistan, Somalia, Syria, Gaza, and other regions in the last two decades. She previously won an Emmy, a George Polk Award, and a Alfred I. duPont Columbia Silver Baton Award for her reporting on Yemen.

Friends and family of the late Neal Conan, an NPR producer, bureau chief, and 11-year host of “Talk of the Nation,” established the prize to honor a journalist who represents “the talent, drive and values that Neal brought to his work: a commitment to excellence in the craft, a nuanced understanding of global issues, a belief in the power of honest, creative storytelling, a dedication to public service and courage in the pursuit of truth.”

Last month, I caught up with Ferguson to talk about the book, the evolution of war reporting over her career, the transition from war reporting to teaching it, and navigating sexism, privilege, and plastic surgery in broadcast journalism.

Our conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.

Tameez: Why did you decide to write this book? Why now?

Ferguson: I wrote the book to help people understand why anybody does this work. What makes someone want to be a war reporter? It’s the question I’ve been asked again and again and again.

I think for a lot of people in conflict reporting — those of us who find our footing and excel at that particular type of journalism — it’s a complex, at times painful, revealing reality…At a time when trust in journalism is at a historic low, that level of transparency and honesty really appealed to me.

There was a moment when I realized I had changed. I spent 15 really intense years on the road [covering] every kind of war, revolution, famine, and crisis that you can think of. Something inside of me understood that this was not something I wanted to continue doing as a constant in my life any further. The book ends with the fall of Kabul, which was a very sad, full-circle moment for me because a lot of my earliest experiences as a reporter were in Afghanistan. When Kabul fell, I felt a shift and felt ready to look back at this portion of my life. I wanted to write a memoir about what those early years of trying to make it as a journalist are really like.

As I’ve become more successful over the last five years, I could start to see younger reporters looking at me with that little glint in their eye and I could see they thought I had it all figured out; that I must be special; that I must have some talent they don’t have. I wanted them to see how so much of my career has been coping with failure. There’s been a lot of struggling, making a fool of myself, getting fired, trying to get a job and not getting the job.

Tameez: You write in the book, “Afghanistan was the Vietnam of our era — a conflict impacting tens of millions of people on the ground, encapsulating the intractable dilemmas of post-9/11 counterterrorism. I could help shape how the world saw it.”

Ferguson: [There was] the sense of total quagmire. Also, a sense that the enemy was not at all being defeated was self-perpetuating, and the parallels were quite remarkable. We’ve had an Afghanistan version of the Pentagon Papers…We now know that in America’s longest-ever war — in terms of a sense of disillusionment, confusion around what the actual goal was, and the devastating toll obviously for American and Allied forces, but really on a much bigger scale for Afghans — the parallels [make it] hard not to draw those conclusions.

The moment in Afghanistan that mattered the most to me, and I document this very closely in the book, was with the British war photographer Tim Page. He was kind of like the Robert Capa of Britain. [In 2009] I had just turned 24 and I met Tim as he was training Afghan photographers. He was famous as this wild, fearless, frontline photographer. He had been horribly injured many times. He admitted it was wild that he was even alive.

The interview basically turned into him sitting me down and giving me advice on what to do. His advice was the opposite of what I thought it would be. It was: Forget about all the bang-bang and the war and fighting. You can cover that anytime. He was like, “No one knows anything about Afghanistan and the Afghan people.” He starts talking about story ideas to do with mental health and mental asylums in the country, and how much does it cost to get married?

In him asking all of these questions rhetorically out into the air as story ideas, I recognized that I didn’t know anything about Afghan people. First of all, I had not thought to ask. I had come to cover a war and not a country or its people. I was very lucky to have that lecture from someone I respected so deeply at that very early stage of my career, and I put that to work and I took it to heart.

Tameez: You mention “excelling” at conflict reporting, which is such an interesting phrase. I think it’s a little dark, because who would want to be known for covering some of the ugliest parts of our society? What does it mean to excel at conflict and war reporting now?

Ferguson: I would say two things. The first is that it’s the same as any kind of reporting, in some ways. It’s just reporting, but being able to do it in the midst of extraordinary chaos. When you say you’re good at war reporting, you’re good at functioning at a high level as a professional while everything is in chaos and danger. There’s absolutely no certainty, there’s a huge amount of logistical challenges, [you have] interpersonal relationships with people who are also experiencing extraordinary levels of stress — probably greater than you because everyone they know and love is at risk. The ability to function — and “functioning” means 18- to 20-hour days, doing interviews and filing under pressure — under extraordinary circumstances. [You’re] problem-solving incessantly. If you have 10 things you need to get done that day, 25 things will go wrong.

That’s the logistical side. The second point is that in conflict zones and areas that are experiencing violent upheaval, there’s real skill involved in telling stories well, telling human stories that are not patronizing, and keeping our audiences and readership informed but also interested. [We want] to help them empathize with the people they meet through our stories. We are communicators, right? This form of communication can be hardest when people think, “Well, that’s a violent place, and that’s awful, but I can’t really relate.” Our job is to try to bridge that gap.

People [in crisis] don’t sit around thinking, “Oh no, the geopolitics of the region are terrible.” They experience it as: “Dad is missing. I don’t know where he is. Mom’s upset. We live in a tent now but we brought the cat. I’m hungry, but I am afraid to tell Mom because she’ll be cross.” People experience war on a personal level, and our ability to communicate extraordinary stress on an individual human level is the goal of good war reporting.

Tameez: Video is such a powerful medium, especially for war reporting. You cannot unsee the visuals once they’re put in front of you. At the same time, in TV news in particular, it can be hard to delve into long, complex stories. I’m curious about how you balance that and how you balance being on the ground, seeing things firsthand, and then having to fight through edits with an editor who isn’t there.

Ferguson: I was in Gaza in 2014 and I got a phone call from an Irish network that wanted me to do a phoner into the studio. The anchor had just been discussing the war, and that there had been a ceasefire, and the anchor goes, “So, Jane, what are the chances for peace in the Middle East?” And I’m so taken aback by this broad question. I start answering and I swear, five seconds in, I hear the control room going, “Wrap!”

I’ve been spoiled by PBS because we’ve got so much air time, [whereas] my colleagues at the networks comment, like, “We’ve been working for days and I’ll be lucky to get 90 seconds tonight on the show.”

I have been fortunate enough to do an entire series, where I’ll do four or five pieces, each eight to 10 minutes long. We’re doing 60 Minutes–type pieces every night, which provides me with the airtime to add context but also to put meaningful characters in and let people talk. It’s not just about the context that’s missing, it’s also human beings. When you have 60 seconds in the evening news and you’re talking really quickly with a producer in your ear, it’s not just about the context that’s missing, it’s also human beings: Where are the people? That’s a huge issue.

I think that technology, on the one hand, has been really reductive; now, it’s like TikTok videos. But we’re probably flattering ourselves to think the network news perspective has always done better. There [have always been] 45-second, 60-second pieces in the evening news.

One thing that I’m encouraged by is that we know Gen Z viewers are leaning toward explainer videos. Less formal, less “voice of God” reading from the teleprompter, but more like “Here’s what’s happening, and here’s why it’s happening. And here’s the context and the history.” These videos are complementary to the reporting.

Tameez: What are some of the innovative practices you’ve noticed in coverage of Gaza?

Ferguson: Gaza has to be taken in the context of the fact that international journalists are not allowed in. I think a lot of people are not aware of that. But I think even if the international press were there, voices [from Gaza] would have been elevated anyway, because social media has connected people more closely.

Research confirms that young people trust individuals more than news brands. They want an authentic connection with people and respond to a sense of authentic truth-telling. They don’t care about labels like “correspondent,” “senior correspondent,” “chief correspondent”; those structures we’ve always operated within don’t really appeal to them.

I’ve lived in the Arab world for a very long time and [people there] love social media, they love connecting with people. It’s a really socially, technologically connected place. There’s a lot of personalization of news reporting; the style is “Hey, here’s my family, here’s my home, here’s my day, here I am driving to the scene.” People really enjoy that and I think that that really connects directly with them. It’s also a reflection that people may have turned away from traditional news brands in incredible numbers, but they still want news. They still want to know what’s happening in the world. They just don’t necessarily want it packaged in the way we used to do it.

Tameez: What is the value of the foreign press and war correspondents right now, especially in Gaza? Folks on the ground can really humanize the war and show you what their day-to-day is like because they’re also living through it.

Ferguson: In the 15 years I was coming up in the industry, we’ve seen way more local reporters from the countries that we’re reporting on coming up and becoming correspondents. That’s the healthier, more rational way of doing this. The demand for the Westerner to fly in has [been] massively reduced. There are some practical implications; the old model of having a correspondent in every country simply doesn’t work. You may not have someone in every country in the region; they are going to have to travel out and around — like, someone in Pakistan who can also cover Afghanistan. But beyond those practical implications, the idea that we [Westerners] are the only people who can tell these stories back home is obviously absurd and wrong.

I tell young journalists who want to be international journalists that there will always be a place for great storytelling. There will always be a demand for that. If you’re good at it, it won’t matter where you come from. But if you do come from that country, you probably have better connections.

I also think technology is going to let those people to reach a wider audience. They don’t need a network to come along and give them a camera. They’ve got social media, but technology will also mean translation will become much less of an issue.

When I was based in Afghanistan [in 2013] for Al Jazeera, Afghanistan had a growing local news industry. There were loads of TV stations popping up everywhere. This one reporter, Shakila Ibrahimkhalil, was sort of a household name, like the Christiane Amanpour of Afghanistan. I remember saying it would be really amazing if we hired her — but for live reporting, her English wasn’t quite there. I think technology is going to change all of that. Maybe not even AI, but just technology, when it comes to translation, will make the traditional Western foreign correspondent less necessary.

Tameez: Are there any journalists on the ground in Gaza right now who you really admire?

Ferguson: There’s a journalist named Samy Zyara, who I know personally and who I’ve worked with over the years. Samy was the key local producer for everybody. He was the older veteran and he’s worked with ABC News for years. He’s been doing a lot of videos on what life is like for those who are displaced — sharing bits and bobs with his family and being incredibly emotionally raw and open. A lot of the other journalists who have been able to leave have left, so I’ve been following Samy quite a lot.

If I’m honest with you, I still make a distinction in my head between “journalists” and “citizen journalists.” [But] I think the lines are blurring in a way that social media allows for them to, and I don’t know how much labels matter anymore. Citizen journalism, I think, plays a really important role and helps communicate personal experiences of what people are living through. But a lot of the time, the objectivity is lost. Objectivity is a very controversial subject these days — it’s certainly debatable whether it exists and whether it should exist…what I’m getting at is that it’s important that we not brand every local journalist as a citizen journalist. I think [that] undermines professional local journalists who can verify death tolls, who can go to press conferences and do interviews fairly, and who have a level of objectivity and professionalism in what they do. I do follow a lot of other people who are citizen journalists but I try to follow people who I know or experienced Palestinian journalists as much as I can, when it comes to getting a grasp of what’s happening.

I also think following photographers is an incredibly powerful tool. Photos just speak volumes.

Tameez: You’re a professor. How did your outlook on war reporting change when you went from doing it to teaching it?

Ferguson: I think anybody in any profession should teach it once in a while. It forces you to stop, step back, and ask: “Why did we do it this way? Does it still need to be done this way? Is it still impactful?” The greatest thing is having a bunch of youngsters ask me questions about why we do things. They’re the true innovators and that has really changed my perspective. In my class we go through the good, the bad, and the ugly. The post-Iraq War invasion is a real example of the “shock and awe,” as it was called back then. Broadcast treated it like something that was very exciting. The “I’m at the front and people are firing!” — there’s a lot of that. In 2003, 2006, 2009, that all seemed very sexy and exciting.

[With modern culture] as well as broadcasting, we need to make sure that [we’re] not slipping into a form of entertainment where there’s breathless excitement. Today if you show a 20-year-old someone in a ditch with the sound of bullets going over their head, they’re not terribly impressed. They’re very quick to ask, “What is additive? What am I learning?”

It’s important that we focus on [an on-air correspondent’s] role as storyteller and interlocutor between the people and the viewer. I think we can dangerously slip into [an entertainment version of war]. It’s very apparent when you start playing that in classrooms. Young people are also incredibly sensitive to how and whether people are being allowed to speak — giving people actual, literal voices. Sound bites from local people really matter. Young people are very skeptical. And I think that’s a good thing. It keeps us on our toes.

Tameez: What was it like teaching a war reporting class this past fall? What did the events of October 7 do to your syllabus?

Ferguson: I thought we would be covering a lot of Ukraine. October 7 happened and it was very challenging because it was hard for me to overstate how unprecedented this was. I had lived in and covered that region and that conflict for years and years, but there part of me was watching something very new happen [in the conflict]. I was watching my industry struggle to respond to an incredible amount of misinformation on social media outpacing journalism. Journalists not being given access. It was very challenging not to come to class every week and feel a little depressed.

Tameez: I’m curious to know your thoughts about the diversity of foreign war correspondents. How have you seen that change over the course of your career?

Ferguson: It’s important to know your audience and for there to be a balance. I don’t think we need to have an incredibly heavy racial lens on who’s saying what. I think it should be about expertise — I think that’s the fairest way to do this, rather than sort of saying, “Well, this person is white, and this person is not.” I think the way forward is to look at who’s best qualified to tell these stories — not so much from a moral lens, but more, from an additive lens, who’s going to do the best job?

There’s always going to be a certain degree of having to know your audience. In the past, a lot of the broadcasters used to think people had to speak a certain way. I write about this in my book. I was rejected from jobs because of my British accent. The idea that the audience will not connect with a foreign accent, I think, is becoming recognized as completely wrong. There needs to be a more open and nuanced look at local expertise and giving those people the byline. A big problem when I was coming up [was that] in bureaus where there were local staff, they were given a contributor-ship, or their byline was buried at the bottom. I think we’re getting past that now. Just study the bylines in the main broadsheets globally and you will see, hopefully, an increasing amount of local expertise and nuance.

My most fulfilling years were at Al Jazeera English, [which is] based in Qatar, [from 2011 to 2015]. The attitude was, hire the best talent from all the different countries. We scooped people all the time because of it. We were the only English-language broadcaster in Afghanistan that had all Afghan staff other than me — the producers, the camera people, the engineers. You’d go to the Kenya bureau in Nairobi and they were all Kenyans, other than the correspondents, who could be from anywhere. We had a correspondent from Zimbabwe. The Pakistan correspondent was Pakistani. I’ve always [seen] that as the best way of doing this.

Tameez: There’s a certain privilege that comes with being a foreign correspondent and being white. You might get access that local reporters might not. How do you navigate that, both internally and in the field?

Ferguson: I get asked that a lot because it is this extraordinary privilege to be able to enter and leave these countries when we want. I don’t typically view it through such a racial lens; I don’t think a lot of people look at me and say, “There’s a white reporter.” They look at me and say, “There’s a Western reporter.” My greatest privilege when I’m on the road is my passport — the fact that I can get on airplanes when others can’t. That an embassy will help me out.

Advice to those who are dealing with it right now: You can underestimate the level of survivor’s guilt you can have. What’s happening in the Middle East right now is extraordinarily difficult for me, and even saying that makes me feel absurdly self-absorbed. But it’s very hard to watch — the local reporters that we work with don’t get to leave…I get to cover this conflict and it’s very often the worst day of these people’s lives and is one of the biggest days of my career. And then I get to move on. That’s a very strange and disturbing reality to deal with.

These conflicts matter to me, and I care deeply about the work, and I care deeply about my colleagues but — and I wrote about this in the book — the conflicts will never impact me in the way they impact [local people]. I get to move on and have a lovely life in New York City. That is something that you carry around with you. It’s part of a broader, more complex moral wound that you experience. The reality is, I hate to say it, but it’s probably something you should feel if you are really paying attention.

I end up reporting from countries where the hospitality is breathtaking. It’s really hard for me to describe to a lot of Westerners. No one would ever not invite you to their house or not let you bounce their babies on your knee. You sit at their dinner table and you’re a guest of honor. People are unbelievably lovely. I’m aware that I am a visitor, I’m a guest in this country. I tend to hold those in positions of power to huge accountability and I give them a hard time because my job is to go there and do that. But when it comes to the general population, I always try to remember that I’m a guest in their country.

There’s a certain degree of privilege in being a Westerner who is a woman….if I travel with female Muslim colleagues in extremely conservative circles, they get a much harder time than I do. I’m considered this weird third sex — like, you look like a woman but you dress like a man and you act like a man. My colleagues who are women who come from those cultures have to deal with much more complex and challenging realities.

Over the years, I’ve learned to pay attention. You can take for granted that everybody else is getting treated just as graciously as you are if you’re not paying attention. I watch to see: Are there any women in the rooms that I’m in [and if not] I ask, why not? Do the women eat with the men or do they eat somewhere else? Are any of the local colleagues female? What are their experiences? That’s something that took me years to get better at. When I was younger, I was more blinded by the fact that I was just doing this great job. Years on the road teach you more humility and to pay attention to those things.

Tameez: I imagine that there’s also a level of sexism that you have to navigate working in television. I have to ask about the anecdote in the book where you explain why you got a nose job.

Ferguson: [The networks] really place pressure on women in broadcasting. That is changing, but 15 years ago, it didn’t matter that you were [reporting from] a refugee camp, it didn’t matter that it was 110 degrees out, it didn’t matter that you slept on the floor of an abandoned building: You were being viewed through a very specific type of male gaze.

Back in the day, it really didn’t matter how good you were or how experienced you were. The unspoken rule was you also had to be good-looking. That’s an extraordinary pressure to place on women who are already doing a very difficult job….it always felt like you were being gaslit by the industry because it was in such denial. No one ever sits you down and says “Listen, babe, I would love to give you that job, but you’ve really got to fix those teeth.” You just get passed over and passed over and you’re intelligent enough to see with your own eyes the people who do get hired.

I remember being passed over for a job at NBC and I was devastated. I needed the job. I was flat broke. I had tried and tried and tried. I thought I needed a network, staff position. When you’re very young, it burrows into your skin and you start to internalize it: I’ve studied Arabic. I’ve lived out here for years. I’ve done everything possible. I practiced my script writing. I have become the best I know at this job. Is there one more thing they need me to do?

It’s funny because I share an extraordinary [number] of things in the book [but] all the journalists are like, “I can’t believe you told people that you got a nose job.” It was an insecurity, and thankfully, things have changed — more women in the C-suites, more women at the top. You’ll always need to look pretty well pulled-together on TV, but we no longer need to be bombshells.

Tameez: Was it just a nose job?

Ferguson: It was just a nose job. But I also had to change my accent because I was told that [American networks] didn’t want any foreigners. I grew up with a slightly more Irish accent but I went to college in England and [got] a more British accent. I kept getting rejected for jobs. A PBS foreign editor before the one I went on to work for said, “Look, we have a deal with ITN and British networks…we’ve got enough British accents on here.” It’s funny because, like, you risk your life for your work. You dedicate your life to your work, you study and work insane hours and someone says that one stupid thing. I’m like, “I will speak with any accent you need me to. I just want you to air my work.” I’d sit and read The New York Times aloud, practicing my American accent. It’s kind of embarrassing to admit, but so much of TV is embarrassing to admit.

I don’t even know what my accent is [anymore]. It’s transatlantic, I’ve been told. My husband listens for funny words that sound Northern Irish and he tells me that at certain times, and certain things I say are a bit more that way. So much of our identity is in our accents; there’s so much politics in accents where I come from. In Britain, your accent will instantly betray your class. [In the U.S.], I’ve talked to much older TV anchors and correspondents who were coming up in the 70s and 80s and [they tell me] there was a real prejudice against Southern and Midwest accents — you had to sound like you were from the city. It is pretty amazing to think that we’re all sort of squashing this little part of ourselves.

Tameez: What is the story from your career that you couldn’t let go of?

Ferguson: A big moment for me was the war in Yemen. I covered it pretty extensively in 2018 on the ground and did two big trips, which were logistically hard. I could get permission to go to the south, to the areas that were controlled by the Saudi-led coalition, and then you would simply have to sneak into loosely controlled areas. I wore a full niqab and abaya.

What I couldn’t get over was how underreported the actual impact of that war was. I wasn’t there to cover a war — I was there to cover the famine caused by the war. The U.N. never declared it a famine, which I found extraordinary — I was traveling around the country, going from clinic to clinic, interviewing nurse after nurse after nurse who would talk about how many kids had died. It never left me that the real casualties of war are vastly higher [than officially stated]. I kept hearing, “There have been as many as 27,000 people killed in this war” — and I was banging the drum saying there are hundreds of thousands of people dead in this war.

Years later, the [United Nations] came out with the number that nearly 400,000 people — the vast majority of them children under five — had been killed as an indirect result of the war because of preventable diseases and malnutrition. That’s comparable to the war in Syria. And that’s likely a very, very low number compared to the number of people who actually died.

We gloss over the real loss that happens when health systems collapse, when food prices are deliberately spiked because you’re enforcing an economic blockade, when water sources and agricultural sources are bombed. It really broke my heart and I couldn’t let it go. I had lived in Yemen after college and it had become a place that had wrapped its arms around me and had taken care of me at a very vulnerable time in my life. So it meant a lot to me.

The other story was the fall of Kabul [in August 2021]. It was very hard to feel like you were shouting into the wind, because it was so politicized. This was a story that impacted nearly 40 million people in Afghanistan and it was being reduced to, “Well, what do you expect? We have to leave.” It was very frustrating because it wasn’t about politics. It was about, how is this being handled? Why has this not been planned for? Why are people being left behind?

It was an extraordinary moment in history to witness, but it was deeply heartbreaking to see my Afghan friends who were displaced. It really hurt me, because I think a lot of my reporting was [getting out there] but the conversations that were being had were political finger-pointing. I had a sense of helplessness that I couldn’t impact change more.

Photo courtesy of Jane Ferguson.

Hanaa' Tameez is a staff writer at Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (hanaa@niemanlab.org) or Twitter DM (@HanaaTameez).
POSTED     March 26, 2024, 2:25 p.m.
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