Successful foreign correspondents need to maintain both an open mind and a sense of humor to get through the job’s toughest experiences, a reporter for ProPublica said while giving advice to aspiring journalists at the Walter Cronkite School’s latest Must See Monday series.
Reporter Kim Barker’s recently published book, “The Taliban Shuffle,” highlights her experiences living and reporting in Afghanistan and Pakistan during the War on Terror for the Chicago Tribune. Prior to volunteering to go to the Middle East, Barker had never even traveled outside of the United States.
“I’m single, and I’m childless. Therefore, I’m expendable. And I’ll go anywhere you want,” Barker said, describing how she asked her editor to go overseas.
Barker said she knew stories were in the Middle East, but since she had no cultural knowledge, she was forced to rely on her networking skills to make connections and set up interviews.
Feel free to make mistakes, Barker said, but cautioned that taking too many risks in a war zone is dangerous. Decisions have real consequences, she said.
“You have to be smart, pay attention to your environment because it’s not just your life on the line, it’s also your translator’s and your driver’s,” Barker said. “Is the story worth your life? Is the story worth anyone’s life?”
Barker said she forged a strong bond with her translator during her work abroad and reiterated the importance of working with the right people. In dangerous areas like Afghanistan and Pakistan, the translators and drivers help select stories and keep the journalist safe, she said.
Barker suggested reporters try anything and have fun. To get a story, you have to make the people you’re interviewing feel comfortable and happy, she said, adding that this translated to her eating anything from eyeballs to fat in oil with bread.
Barker also addressed some of the more difficult aspects of foreign correspondence, reminding young journalists in the audience that they are always a human first.
“You see things that nobody should really have to see, then you go back to your hotel room and somehow have to make sense of it all,” Barker said.
During the lecture, Barker helped students realize the difficult scenarios they would potentially have to deal with as foreign correspondents.
“I definitely don’t know if I could handle some of the situations and I would have trouble covering some, but I also feel there’s a need for it,” journalism sophomore Emilie Eaton said.
In the end, Barker feels she had the best job in the world and never doubted her career choice, even when her life was in danger.
“You might not be able to change the world, but you can change one person’s life,” she said.
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