Never Underestimate the Power of Emotions in Journalism

I cried in my first job interview. ‘Can you list three reasons why we should give you this position?’ asked two of the editors I’d interned for over six months previously – two women with bright vintage jumpers and symmetrically winged eyeliner – two women so intimidatingly funny and cool that I used to stutter when they called my name; who I was so desperate to impress that I would rewrite three-word-long email responses eight or nine times in the hope that they might seem witty enough to make them laugh. I was applying to be junior writer at a teenage girls’ magazine, and I’d worn a Justin Bieber t-shirt underneath an H&M blazer to show just how enthusiastic I was. Still, I clarified it in my response, just in case. ‘I’m really enthusiastic,’ I said. And then my brain blanked, and my eyes welled up with panic, and I started to cry. Enthusiastically.

It’s been five full time jobs and seven years since that interview, and these days I’ve learned a few – <a few> – things. I’ve accepted that winged eyeliner, symmetrical or not, will fall off my face two seconds after application wherever I am in the world – and that bright vintage jumpers just take up unjustifiable proportions of space when you’re living out of a backpack for six months at a time. I’ve discovered that when men stare at you – whether while reporting from a brothel in Bangladesh, or standing in a boardroom in Bermondsey, the last thing they’re expecting is for you to stare back. I’ve proved that no matter what anyone tells you, you don’t have to remain pigeon-holed in one small sector of the industry for the duration of your career – that writing about Justin Bieber (and wearing his facial features on your chest) doesn’t mean that three years, or five years, or ten years later you can’t write about human rights, or gender politics, or Iraq. I’ve discovered that even if and when you do start writing about human rights, and gender politics, and Iraq, you can still write about Justin Bieber. And I’ve realised that while crying in interviews may not be ideal, emotions in journalism are often under-estimated, just like women.

Corinne_Redfern_Frontline

Photograph by Francesco Brembati.

There’s a pressure in this world, of frontline reporting and international freelancing, to not only protect your skin, but to also armour yourself from within. When I started out, I thought sensitivity was synonymous with weakness, and that my feelings were my failings. If you’re working primarily with men – be they journalists, or photographers, or fixers – and they’re more established and acknowledged than you, it’s easy to try to follow suit and embody their behaviours. Their approach to storytelling must be the default way to go, I thought. Their attitude to chasing stories must be mimicked and mastered. I wish someone had told me earlier that they’re often wrong; that the way women are raised to empathise is a strength that we can use to our advantage – that relating to the people we interview can draw out stronger stories, and enable us to recount their histories with humanity and care. That’s not to say that many men aren’t capable of the same – but when women are outnumbered, the qualities we’ve practiced and perfected are easily overlooked.

As a freelance international journalist specialising in women’s issues around the world, I see a lot of trauma, and I hear a lot of tragedy. In Iraq, a nine-year-old recounted running home from school on the last day of term, excited to tell her parents she’d received the highest grade in her year. She was five metres out of the gates when she heard an explosion behind her. When she turned around, her classroom had disappeared; the playground red with the blood of her best friends. In Benin, a mother of 10 listed all the ways she’d tried and failed to kill herself: one method after another after another. ‘And I’ll try again later,’ she said, as I stood up to leave. In Sri Lanka, a woman told me how her husband would assault her and lock her outside, naked – so that she’d be too embarrassed to run away or ask for help. Bound to stay in the shadows by her own shame, she would curl up in a ball in the dirt and pray through the night for death to come. Sometimes, I’m a witness to their pain as well as an earpiece to their experiences. While working on a story in brothels in Bangladesh, I sat with a 15 year old girl and held her hand as she had an abortion – the blood seeping through her knickers and onto the floor as she cried for her mum.

It’s true that you can’t take all these stories on. I’m lucky – I don’t lie awake at night, reliving what I’ve seen and heard. Boundaries are important, and so far, I’ve been able to maintain mine – you’re not there to cry too. After all, the story is never about you.

But it is about <someone>. When people share their stories, they’re sharing a small part of themselves – often for the first time in their lives, and often – by dint of our industry – about the worst thing they’ve ever been through. We’re all working under time constraints, but while rushing a case study along or jumping straight for that pullquote might appear editorially efficient, it’s invariably damaging and generally unkind. Typing this up seems like I’m spelling out the obvious, but I’ve lost count of the number of times when I’ve been working alongside a male journalist who has interrupted an abuse survivor or trauma victim mid-flow – his irritation clear as he clarifies dates that don’t appear to add up, or brusquely questions the order of her narrative. One time, I even saw one yawn and roll his eyes. Our subject saw him too.

And empathy swings two ways. To ignore or repress emotions evoked by another’s experiences is to do them a disservice – be those emotions yours or theirs. As a female freelancer working thousands of miles away from the editors I’m filing to, I’m offered little or no psychological support for the environments I’m placed in and the stresses I’m working under. Tight deadlines and limited budgets mean I jump from one story to the next; barely finding time to unpack my bag, let alone my feelings. But I need to get better at that: because taking the time to process what I’ve seen and heard benefits my work, and benefits my mind, too.

Journalism is a male-dominated world, and as such it’s one that continues to teach both genders to feel shame should we embrace our emotions and allow ourselves to feel. One Iraq-based evening’s attempt at decompression was recently marred when a man remarked – with discernable derision – of another female writer who ‘looked like she was about to cry’ after four days on the frontline. When I once recounted a particularly grim day’s work in Bangladesh over WhatsApp, I received a lengthy message from a friend back home, questioning whether I was ‘too thin-skinned’ to sustain this career. And when one of my colleagues, a brilliant photojournalist with a decade’s experience – a woman who I count myself privileged to work with – broke down on our way home after a particularly long day of working with teenage trafficking victims, she felt the need to apologise, again and again. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I never normally let it get to me.’ But the photos she took that day are beautiful. They’re sensitive, and they’re full of feeling. When I watched her work, she did so carefully and kindly. And when we talked about that day’s events later – with wry laughter and warm whisky and wet eyes, we didn’t pretend it hadn’t been horrible to see.

I got that job, by the way. My editors were women empathetic enough to know that while tears might be a sign of inexperience, emotions are a strength, not a weakness. Whether recruiting from behind a desk, or reporting in the field, it would serve us all well to remember that.

Corinne Redfern is a multi-award winning freelance international journalist with a decade’s experience specialising in women’s rights and human interest stories from around the world. In the last year she’s filed from four continents, including the epicentre of the Zika outbreak in Brazil, the frontlines of the Mosul offensive in Iraq, and the decks of a particularly unstable boat in a waterlogged district of Benin. As the former Features Director for Marie Claire magazine, she’s also written for the Guardian, Telegraph, Sunday Times, Stylist, Grazia and ELLE among many others.

Currently working on a longterm project in brothels across Bangladesh, she’s given up trying to plan her life more than two months in advance – but also can’t seem to stop Google Image searching pictures of the Philippines. Follow her on Twitter, Instagram and corinneelizabethredfern.com.

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  • AirborneSoldier

    Great idea! If only the rest of the “press” took their responsibility to seeking truth as seriously as this fellow does, we would have a better informed electorate!

  • ractivist

    “OAS after action report conclusion”, a product of CFAPA. It’s on U tube.

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