Stephanie Caspelich

Reporting the news that matters.

Q. and A. With Jina Moore: Giving Africa A Voice Through Her Words

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Jina Moore is a freelance multimedia journalist whose work focuses on human rights, foreign affairs and Africa. Jina moved to Rwanda in 2008 and has since worked extensively in and around Burundi, Kenya, Uganda, Liberia, Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo. She recently moved back to Brooklyn to receive a reporting fellowship from New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. Jina will be spending a year in Zambia and DRC investigating “vulture funds,” distressed debt-investors who purchase the delinquent debt of foreign countries.

Prior to working as a full-time journalist, she helped run the Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism at Harvard University. She holds master’s degrees from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and the School of International and Public Affairs.

Jina is the editor of Dart Society Reports, an online magazine covering trauma, conflict and human rights. She is also a regular print and multimedia correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor. Her work has appeared on Foreign Policy, Newsweek, Mother Jones, The Walrus and on the National Public Radio’s World Vision Report.

Below is a Skype interview conducted with Jina Moore on Feb. 20.

Q:  How did you get into journalism and secure your first assignment in Africa? Why did you choose to report from Africa?

A: They are both kind of the same question for me. I got into journalism essentially because I wanted to be working from Africa. I was really interested in questions of conflict reconciliation. I worked a lot with Holocaust survivors and Holocaust education before I became a journalist, and so that was my pathway. I moved from one specific historical example of mass human atrocity. Journalism seemed the quickest way to get over there and talk to people. I might, in another life, have gone for a PhD in sociology or political science, but I was a bit impatient so I became a journalist.

Q:  I guess you are doing all of that as a journalist. Journalism has all of those disciplines rolled into one. Did you start off with any particular publication in Africa or did you just start as a freelancer?

A: I’ve always been a freelancer. But when I moved over there, I did already have a relationship with the Christian Science Monitor for whom I do most of my work. I had been an intern with them when I was studying journalism in graduate school. When I moved to Rwanda in 2008, I had a network of contacts there, and I had already talked to people and tried to get them interested in what I wanted to do.

Q:  What kind of stories appeal to you as a journalist? Do you have any particular examples of stories you’ve been engrossed with being in Africa and having experienced things first hand?

A: I went over there to look at this conflict reconciliation question, and I’ve done a lot of work on that. But I also found that I’m interested in stories that are more broad than that and maybe aren’t related to that at all. I’m really interested in stories about promising and surprising solutions to the kinds of problems we hear about all the time over there: poverty, drought and famine.

For example, one of my favorite stories that I had a chance to do was to write about a small-scale insurance program in the desert of northern Kenya that was able to offer insurance to cattle herders. They figured out how to do this because a NASA satellite that takes pictures of the Earth gave them some baseline data that they needed to figure out an insurance policy that these people could afford. Cattle herders are very wealthy in livestock but they’re cash-poor. So that was a science and environmental story about the Kenyan drought that has gotten worse because of climate change; it was about insurance and the satellite but really it was about innovation. A Kenyan economist teamed up with some folks from Cornell to figure out how to make this insurance program work.

I also like investigative work that digs deeply into issues in Africa. A lot of work from Africa is about the same things all of the time: poverty and wars and even reconciliation. If it’s a good story, which is to say it tells you something new that you didn’t know or that seems surprising and if it has interesting characters in it, then I am pretty excited.

Q: And that’s one of the things I appreciate about your articles. I especially liked the story you wrote about the non-profit organization established in Kibera, the biggest slum area in Nairobi, Kenya. I also appreciated all the interviews you did in Rwanda with the genocide survivors. What are the challenges you face as a freelance journalist working in these environments?

A: Often the terrain is difficult, the topography. Language is an issue. If you can speak English and French, you can find someone to work with you almost anywhere you go but not always. And those are colonial languages with its own set of problems both literally and philosophically, and simply for translation. It’s expensive to move around. It can be dangerous to move around. It’s very difficult to know if you understand and are measuring well potential dangers and what people are telling you.

As a freelancer, it’s hard for you to sell stories. Money is a big problem if you are a freelancer in Africa. News outlets don’t have a budget for travel. So if you really care about a story, you have to find an alternative funding source because the publication that agrees to publish it will not have any money to send you where you need to go. Freelance budgets are not big these days, so the stories don’t pay very well and they take a lot of time, and it’s getting harder and harder to sell them. Part of that is blogging and tweeting and all this stuff things that give news outlets free content and part of that is that Americans are “not that interested in Africa.” So there are a lot of challenges on that front but surmountable.

Q:  What was it like reporting from Rwanda (interviewing genocide survivors), Burundi (covering their one-man candidate election) or war-torn places like the Congo? How did you come up with the resources to report fully on those subject matters?

A: They’re all very different. You’re right to identify this common thread that there is immediate past conflict or ongoing conflict; they were war-torn or recently were war-torn but working in each of them is very different. And that’s one of the things I learned by working in Burundi during the election was that even though so much of it is similar to Rwanda, where I spent a lot of time. On paper, they look predictable; if you understand one, you can understand the other. But on the ground, that’s not at all true. It’s difficult to know how.. there were a lot of tensions during the election because of these allegations of fraud. It was hard to know how to gauge when these tensions start and stop.

I was in Burundi because of financial support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, which is a wonderful resource for journalists who do foreign reporting. They help you out with travel budgets. I was in Rwanda, on and off, through various combinations of resources-fellowships, mostly. And when I was still technically in graduate school, but I finished course requirements, so I used my last year of fellowship money to move to Rwanda. I went back on my own dime a couple of times for the story in The Walrus about the genocide survivor and the man who tried to kill her. And then I went back again with a Fulbright Fellowship.

Congo has always been on my own dime. It’s hard to get people to give you money for that. Congo was in active conflict, but it’s a really big region and the conflict is serious. Some places it’s obvious and almost unnoticeable in others so you really have to do good on-the-ground intel to know where to go and know what precautions you need to take. You can do all of that when you get there, if you’re smart about who you talk to. Go to the U.N. and their trusted sources, some NGO’s who have been on the ground for a long time. There are networks of people you can talk to.

Q:  Are there any issues/stories coming out of Africa you would like to see get more news coverage?

A: I wish editors were more willing to take a chance on good political stories than they are. I actually think NPR does a better job of covering Africa in terms of business developments than most print papers. I’m not sure why that is. I think they are just willing to acknowledge that there’s a lot going on and that it’s complicated. It takes a lot of effort to write it in a way where Americans…why in the world should we care about the controversy before the election in Burundi when it really doesn’t “affect Americans.” It’s a hard kind of writing. I just wish there was more space for it.

Q: How do you feel about using news aggregator sites like Storify and others to give more background information to stories that people have a hard time relating to?

A: I hope that they pressure more news outlets to approach coverage in a more humanistic way. It would be nice to see some of the kinds of reflection in blogs that cover Africa in stories that are bylined for the New York Times out of Nairobi.

Q: How has social media been used to report news and share information among news organizations in Africa (examples from Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Kenya)? In your opinion, has it been used effectively?

A: I’m not sure how to answer that question because I don’t know what the effective use of it is.

Q: I was reading a story in Uganda about the rise in use of cellphones and the exchange of information that is happening because of it. The use of Twitter and Facebook to share information has been prevalent. Have you experienced citizen journalism through the use of social media in places like Rwanda or Burundi?

A: The article that might interest you is one I did last June for the Christian Science Monitor about social media and the Arab Spring and the future of uprisings in authoritarian places called Power Tools. I’m not a big believer in the fact that Facebook brought down Mubarak. Although Facebook may have helped make a movement and move it forward.

I think there’s a lot of unacknowledged danger in the use of social media. Uganda is a good example. In April 2011, there was a political movement…there had been an election in February and the guy who lost the election decided he was going to protest the president who won. Food prices were high, petrol prices were high and “Walk to Work” began. It was all over Twitter. And to follow it on Twitter, it seemed like it was taking over Kampala (capital of Uganda), but when I talked to people who were there they were like, “yeah it’s really not that big a deal.” It did sober me up about what social media does or does not tell us and the distortion of fact that is possible with social media. There is tremendous potential for it but it all depends on how it gets used.

Q:  Has there been government intervention (censorship) in the way news reporting is handled in Africa? Have you encountered any problems?

A: I have not. Very few countries in Africa have someone in the office of the guy in power following the media. There’s more interest in what local reporters are doing than what international reporters are doing most of the time although not always. A lot of journalists have maintained a balance between writing something that may not thrill the powers that be without being harassed. I have not personally had a problem. People are always trying to spin you but that’s a different thing than censorship.

Q: Any suggestions on local journalists reporting from Africa whose work I should be following?

A:  There’s a woman who’s now working for the Financial Times out of Nairobi named Katrina Manson; she does pretty good work. Lydia Polgreen, who writes for the New York Times, just came back to Africa from India. She’s now in Johannesburg and she’s an excellent journalist. There’s an interesting program in Liberia made up of Liberian women journalists called New Narratives. It’s a collaborative journalism production house and studio with American funding and American mentorship for Liberian women journalists covering everything from politics to public health, like a national reporter here.

Q:  How did you get started with multimedia reporting? Any tips for budding journalists who would like to incorporate it into their news coverage?

A: You need to know the technical skills: how to use an SLR camera, how to run a recorder, what sound levels mean and what your sound level should be. Be able to edit your own video, audio and make your own slideshows. You should be able to shoot your own video.

The more important thing, I think, is understanding that not every story is good in every medium. And choosing, pushing your editors to help you choose, the right medium for the right story. You cannot produce one story in every medium. I know this whole idea of backpack journalism is very popular with a lot of people in theory, but it does not work in the field. You can work in one medium at one time well. Often people are not very realistic about deploying multiple media in a given situation.

Q:  What are you working on now and do you have any particular career or story goals you want to achieve?

A: Yes, I have tons of goals. There are a lot more places in Africa I haven’t been that I’d like to see. There’s a lot of different types of writing and production I would like to try. I’d like to do a documentary one day because I’m interested in film. I’d love to do sound installation work.

Right now, I am working on a year-long investigative project in association with New York University’s Journalism School. They’ve given me a fellowship to pursue an investigative project on  finance in Africa. I’m also working with four African reporters on a short-term collaborative project to develop reproductive health stories in their home countries. And I also edit a human rights magazine, Dart Society, which is an association of journalists who cover violence and trauma. That keeps me pretty busy.

Q: What advice can you give aspiring journalists who would like to get into freelance international reporting?

A: Do an internship in the States that takes a lot of foreign stories and work like hell to be the best intern they’ve ever seen. That way, when you move to wherever you want to be, you will have a good editor back home who is willing to look at your stuff and trusts you. Another thing you can do is work for English-language media in a foreign country. You won’t make a lot of money but you’ll be working alongside local colleagues, and that’s really great training.

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Written by Stephanie Caspelich

February 21, 2012 at 3:16 am

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