Testing My Limits and Experience Helped Me Grow Professionally

The woman who gave me my first job in journalism as an intern for National Public Radio was Sue Goodwin. A producer of a national call-in talk show, she was a tornado of determination and creativity. From the first moment I met her, I found her passion and sincerity contagious.

I was still in university at the time Sue brought me to NPR and was leaning toward a career in international development or the foreign service. Growing up in the Middle East, my impression of journalists was negative. As violence would flare up, they would descend on Jerusalem, crowding the American Colony hotel bar telling loud war stories. Once the story dropped from the headlines they would disappear.

I was raised in a pacifist home and taught not to glorify violence. My earliest memories are of the first intifada in the West Bank. Israeli soldiers beating a man outside my home, a teenager throwing a rock through the window of our apartment and my father being called out of our house to remove a roadblock by a group of soldiers.

By high school, the second intifada erupted. I witnessed suicide bombings, lost one friend to a terrorist attack and a separate attack left another friend paralyzed all before the age of 18. I didn’t want to be part of a media landscape that fed off a tragedy.

My time at NPR changed my view of journalism completely. The newsroom Sue created fed off ideas that moved stories forward, sparked debate and asked tough questions. As news broke, one of the questions she would pose at editorial meetings that were beginning to run flat was: “ok, so whose voice are we not hearing?”

This was exactly what I wanted to devote my life to uncovering. I was hooked.

In the Al intisar district in Mosul, Iraq, Thursday, Dec. 5, 2016.(AP Photo/Manu Brabo)

In the winter of 2008, I was preparing to cover the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama, when Israeli forces pushed into Gaza. Within the space of twelve hours, I was assigned to fly to Tel Aviv. NPR’s foreign editor Loren Jenkins overlooked my relatively green credentials, valuing my knowledge of the story above all. He went to bat for me before I was even totally confident I could complete the task, handing me my first big break.

That taught me something valuable quickly: competence can get you anywhere. As long as you work hard and know what you’re doing, people will be willing to take chances on you.

In the front lobby of the Ambassador hotel in east Jerusalem I met Anne Garrels, then a senior international correspondent for NPR. Covering the Soviet Union, Afghanistan and Iraq over the course of more than two decades, Anne had paved the way for my generation of female journalists.

Hunkered down in a hotel room that first night I listened to her spin soundbites into radio gold.

Unlike the journalists I remembered from my childhood, Anne avoided the hotel lobby bars, she didn’t name-drop and brag about close scrapes or being detained. When we talked, we talked about the story.

She didn’t lecture, she thought out loud. Her chatter telegraphed the ideas and feelings of others, not her own. She also emphasized something my parents taught me: a good work ethic will win you the respect of your colleagues. Ignore everything else.

Anne became an instant role model. Back in Washington, I listened through her catalog of stories for NPR, trying to learn how she constructed narratives and pulled listeners in.

It was only as I began to push up through the ranks of journalism in my late 20s and 30s, that I encountered entrenched misogyny in the workplace. I was in my 30s when a colleague first told me “you can’t do that because you’re a woman.” I was flabbergasted and incensed. Within a week I went out and did that thing and did it well.

Today, as the head of the Baghdad bureau for the Associated Press, I see that most of the people in management positions directly above me are men.

I’m lucky however to have a troop of wise female bureau chiefs in the Middle East who I often turn to for advice. Something I think many ambitious people encounter is that drive can often land you in situations that test the limits of your skill and experience. It’s overwhelming, but I also believe it’s how you learn and advance.

I wouldn’t have been able to navigate the last two years of working for AP in Iraq without the colleagues who took time to talk me through ideas and frustrations.

Once I began covering the fight against the Islamic State group with AP, my family and friends asked how it felt to be the only woman at a base when embedding with Iraqi forces, assuming that is where my gender presented the most significant obstacle.

But in the field, no Iraqi soldier or civilian ever made me feel self-conscious. I moved seamlessly from covering combat in a Humvee packed with men to sitting with a young family in their living room, in both worlds I was equal parts human and alien.

Our job is to bear witness. Be it to bring attention to atrocities, hold the powerful accountable or amplify a voice that would otherwise go unheard. It often means meeting people for the first time on the worst day of their lives. For me, those are the hardest scenes to document and interviews to conduct.

When I was driving to the airport for my first foreign assignment nearly 10 years ago my father reminded me: “you need to be impartial, but that doesn’t mean you can’t show empathy.”

Earlier this year in western Mosul at a field hospital next to the bodies of three dead children, I thought about my father’s words as I put my notebook in my pocket and held a woman’s hand as a tourniquet was fastened to her leg.

The medic called me over to comfort her as I was the only other woman in sight. She was in pain, scared and embarrassed that her Abaya had to be lifted to stop the bleeding from a shrapnel wound. At least one of her family members had been killed in front of her and she had been separated from her children.

We made eye contact and smiled. After she was loaded onto an ambulance the medics said she would probably lose the leg, the road to the nearest hospital was too far.

That scene still haunts me. But the stark realities I witnessed then and throughout the last nine years inform my coverage of conflict. When I sit down with generals and government officials, they bring statistics with them to support the policy they’re promoting, but often end up asking me about what I saw on the ground.

The next day as I prepared to go back out to the front line, I asked myself, “ok, whose voice are we not hearing?”

Susannah George is the current head of the AP Baghdad Bureau. Her previous work includes contributions to NPR and PRI. You can follow her on Twitter.

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