Activism or journalism: Stephanie Nolen rebuffs JHR
If Stephanie Nolen doesn’t impress you, read more about her. Then read more from her. Not that you should need…
If Stephanie Nolen doesn’t impress you, read more about her. Then read more from her.
Not that you should need any convincing now, but you can also watch this interview.
An excellent writer above all else, Nolen very recently retired her post as the Globe and Mail’s Africa bureau chief and on Saturday filed her first piece as the paper’s New Delhi correspondent. She is a talented reporter, often leading with harrowing anecdotes about the lives of the people she interviewed. She has three National Newspaper Awards for her tremendous work.
I asked her, as a human rights reporter, which was her most powerful tool. I expected her to answer her sources, or an individual’s story. Her answer, which you can read below, surprised me.
When Nolen began at the post five years ago, Globe editor Edward Greenspon praised her to the high heavens–a move Nolen chides as a PR move for the paper. But her work (along with the political and economical awakening of the continent) has led the masthead’s leadership to take another, more lasting look. In the September, 2003, these were Greenspon’s words on A2:
Africa is not high on the list of strategically important places, and my patience is thin for the politically correct reporting that Africa seems to inspire.The Globe operated a bureau in Nairobi for several years in the 1960s and then opened one again — in Harare — in 1983 to cover South Africa’s struggle against apartheid. The bureau closed in 1989 after the South African government refused to issue a work visa to our correspondent.
With Nolen now in India, former Beijing correspondent Geoffrey York now fills her prolific shoes in Johannesburg. Let’s hope it’s a sign the bureau is a lasting one for the paper.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Nolen a year ago during the release of her third book. Centred on 28 lives chosen to represent the 28 million Africans living with AIDS, 28 Stories of AIDS in Africa is a remarkable, humanising achievement that succeeds in putting an individual’s face on the pandemic. Throughout, of course, the writing shines.
Between Montreal at 4 a.m. and J’burg in the middle of the day, our Skype line was a little sketchy and Nolen was juggling office responsabilities, guests and a very secure front door. As Greenspon wrote half a decade ago: “Life’s always an adventure with Stephanie; and she can handle herself under fire.”
Q&A with Stephanie Nolen — December, 2007
Is there a typical day for you as the Globe and Mail’s Africa correspondent?
SN: No. (laughs) It’s a never-ending series of huge problems, basically.
When you say problems, are you talking HR headaches or not being able to reach the President of Liberia on her personal line?
SN: In order to have HR problems, I’d have to have staff. I am by myself for 53 countries and so this morning I have had an argument with the embassy in Mali about them giving me a visa. I have had another argument with my travel agent about where my ticket for Swaziland for tomorrow is. I have had an argument with the African National Congress press people over whether or not I’m accredited for the national conference next week. It’s like that.
If you need some help—I’m available.
SN: The frustrating thing about this, there is a budget for me to have a staff, but the majority of the stuff that needs to be done around here is actually stuff I have to do myself. I’m figuring out how I’m going to get to Timbuktu – literally – in January and I called a travel agent who theoretically specializes in Africa and she has absolutely no idea how I can get there. So I told her I have to go through Bombako and it seems no body flies to Bombako so I say Ethiopian Airlines flies to Bombako and they will take me to Addis Ababa, and she says the flights aren’t on the same days, and I say, I know, they have this thing at the airport where they put you up. And these are all things I know from four years of doing this, but no body else knows so it’s very difficulty for anyone else to be of very much help to me.
But it you find yourself in J’burg…
What do you make of Edward Grenspon’s glowing praise when you first started working in Africa in 2003?
SN: What that was was PR, basically. Ed was talking about how great it was to have the bureau and that they were sending me. It was obviously very nice and I remain extremely grateful to the Globe for having opened the bureau and for sending me here. It was a sort of unusual thing for them to do, it was sort of counter the prevailing newspaper wisdom at the time and they took a chance and did something really unusual and I’m grateful that I was the person who got to come here. I think that they would also agree that it worked out very well for them and so it was nice of Ed to say nice things about me in the paper—obviously that’s always nice—but I’m also aware that Eddy’s Saturday letter is to blow the globe’s horn.
Well, let’s talk about blowing your horn then. Numbers are paralysing, but can you talk about the number 28. Why this structure to represent the crisis?
SN. I had been thinking for a long time about writing an AIDS book and thinking that there was no sort of readable, acceptable book on the African pandemic for the soccer mom, as it were, for the average person in the developed world who had kind of an idea that something bad was happening in Africa but didn’t really know anything about it. I was talking with my agent one day—because I’d been kicking this idea around for a while—and she said, “You know, I just imagine myself walking into Chapter’s and seeing your book there on the table on the front and then walking right by. I can’t imagine picking it up, this book on AIDS in Africa.” And this is a woman who makes her living based on how many books I sell, so that was a fairly frank spin of the situation. She said, “You’ve just got to give me a reason to care.” And I’m so irritated of hearing that and I said, “For Christ’s sake, you’ve got 28 million reasons to care.” And she said, “I need to know these reasons, these people.” I sort of thought, okay, I’ll tell you about 28 people and I’ll use each of those people to tell you some of that medical, political and social information that you need. But it will be a little bit like when you’re a kid and your mom puts the Aspirin in the apple sauce so you don’t know that it’s there, but hopefully it will be less painful to take it all in while you’re getting to know these people.
You talked about my friends being in the book—the decision to include them came out of a conversation with my partner. I had come back from this trip to report on HIV in Swaziland, which is always extremely distressing, but I was still in quite a good mood, and he said, “You know, you’re in a good mood because you’ve been spending time friends and you got to make sure that those people are in the book because they are what keep you going and they will be what keeps your reader going, too.”
Are you starting to see that AIDS doesn’t have the same social stigma and shame it one did?
SN: Yes, that has definitely changed. As treatment has become more available, as AID has become less of an automatic death sentence, the stigma has lessened. The efforts by those living with the disease to get both their governments and their communities to have a really honest conversation is paying off. I think on a larger social level there is less stigma, but I think many people still feel like in their most personal, most intimate relationships, a lot of that fear and shame hasn’t changed. I guess that’s the last place—when you have to come home and tell your partner or your mother or your sister—that’s where the change happens last.
If you were HIV positive or if you had AIDS, would you make it public?
SN: You know, I have absolutely no idea. I would like to think yes—I am so inspired by the people I know who have been courageous enough to do that—and I like to think that I would follow that example. If I was HIV positive in my current life, I would because I live a pretty privileged life and I would have very little to lose. I work in a country where they can’t fire me because I have HIV, which is not the case in all the countries here. I’m in a relationship with a partner whose feelings I don’t think would change significantly. It’s hard to imagine any other life other than the one that I’m in.
I know that people like my friend Ida [Mukuka, who is featured in 28], one of the most courageous AIDS activists I know, even when she found out she was positive she told some of us who worked with her in the field of AIDS but she found it profoundly difficult to tell her family, to tell her colleagues–and this is somebody who had been one of the most powerful advocates for people with HIV/AIDS in Zambia for years. And so I found that extremely telling. If Ida battles, then no wonder so many other people battle.
And so I don’t know—would I be any different than Ida? I’m not sure.
Are activists more effective if they’re infected?
SN: You know, I think sometimes when people are doing one-on-one education prevention work and they can stand up and say, “Look at me, I can say it happened to me therefore it can happen to you, too,” I think that can be quite compelling, but I also think that in the societies, in the countries that have the highest rates of infection, you don’t have to have HIV to have AIDS, in a way. If you don’t have it, your spouse has it, or your children have it, or your neighbours have it, or you’re raising your grandchildren or you’re growing food for the people down the road and so the idea of being individually affected is very different. It’s just not relevant in the same way.
There’s no body it doesn’t touch.
As a human rights reporter what’s your most powerful weapon?
SN: I don’t think of myself as a human rights reporter. I think of myself as a reporter and I find this whole blurring of the lines between human rights and journalism very bizarre. I find the idea of an organization called Journalists for Human Rights bizarre. Journalists have an obligation to report on situations accurately and honestly, but I’m not a human rights activist! Those are people who have very different agendas than mine. I do see myself as having a responsibility to give a voice to people who don’t have one but — (phone rings) Oh shit. Can you hang on one second, Megan? — Hello. I will be there in two seconds. Sorry. I will just get someone to open the security gates. You don’t have a key to the door? No. Okay. (Laughs) Sorry, Megan. Oh, for crying out loud…
I do view what I do as trying to tell stories that don’t otherwise get told and to give voice to people who don’t have access to Western media. I think that when you want to tell a story like the AIDS pandemic—like what you were saying earlier about the statistics being paralysing—with anything like this you have to make it a story about individual people and that’s the most powerful thing you can do.
You got into journalism because you wanted to change the world. Maybe that’s the idealism of a 21-year-old reporter, but can journalism be a form of activism?
SN: I think you need to be really careful. If you think of yourself as an activist with an activist’s agenda, does it become acceptable to quote one side of the story more than another? Of course I make decisions all the time about the kind of stories I’m going to tell but it became apparent to me as a journalist that there was a huge story in Africa that wasn’t being covered. It was a big story and no mainstream media here from the developed world was looking at it. So as a journalist I wanted to come and look at it. I think you take the same responsibility of a journalist, which is to tell a story as accurately and honestly as you can. You bring that with you and you try and tell it as well as you can. If the effect of that is to change how people are responding to a particular crisis or a certain issue, then that’s great. I still hope that the world can be changed because I still feel change is necessary. I still believe that if you tell people something like this is happening, something like the HIV pandemic, and if you present it to them in a way that makes it real and something they can engage with and maybe have an impact on, then that will motivate people to want to be involved and potentially change things.
Is it a risky move or a smart career choice to report from a dangerour part of the world–as you did when you moved to Israel in your early 20s?
SN: It was a bit of miracle I didn’t get killed 50 million different ways. I knew absolutely nothing. When I went to cover my firist war in Beirut, I look back on it and just shudder. I was so clueless and it’s an absolute miracle I survived. But unless there’s a class that shows you how to cover a war zone, there is just no other way to really learn it besides doing it. Lots of things I did were extremely risky and extremely stupid in hindsight, but that’s how you learn, I guess.
Right. No other way to perfect the trade.
SN: So just go! Just go do it!
For people who want to do foreign news, you gotta get out of Canada. You’ll die working on the night police desk for the Toronto Star.
Cool. Thanks, Stephanie.
I’m busy and I could use some staff, so if you’re ever in the neighbourhood let me know!
I love Stephanie Nolen. She is a fantastic writer. 28 Stories of AIDS in Africa is one of my favorite books. I also agree that journalism shouldn’t be mistaken for activism. Thanks for this post, Megan.
I was surprised by her answer, frankly. And I’m glad she made the distinction because it gave me a lot to think about.
I don’t think she fully understands Journalists for Human Rights’ purpose… maybe that’s why she finds it bizarre? They basically work to inspire what she does: fair and accurate reporting with an emphasis on covering human rights abuses. Nothing bizarre about that to me.
I will venture a guess that SN has a decent sense of the purposes and applications of JHR and imagine she’s seen the organization at work in parts of Africa. Granted, I feel I did her a disservice by not inviting her to elaborate on the issues at length, especially since I was surprised by her comments.
It’s certainly not bizarre to report on injustice, abuse, exploitation, etc. but the role of a reporter is different than that of an advocate. The work of a reporter can be and is used for human rights advocacy, however journalism is not served by journalists approaching a story with an agenda. Leave that to the activists and focus on credible reporting.
Yeah that’s exactly why I thought it was wierd she rebuffed it- the organization is not exaclty an activist organization. They have a strict no advocacy policy and their goal is basically to promote credible reporting in countries that don’t have a basis for such in their media. They train journalists to report from all sides, to gather as much information as possible and most certainly to report without an agenda but to increase reporting on human rights so the word is out there. It’s a shame the organization seems to be misunderstood.