Social Impact Authors: How & Why Emmy-Winning Journalist Jane Ferguson Is Helping To Change Our…

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Social Impact Authors: How & Why Emmy-Winning Journalist Jane Ferguson Is Helping To Change Our World

Stop racing against time. ‘Top 30 under 30’ and ’25 under 25’ lists are pointless. A career is not a race and there is nothing really gained by fast success. You are not behind. Just relax and keep going.

As part of my series about “authors who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jane Ferguson.

Jane Ferguson is a Polk, Emmy and DuPont award-winning foreign correspondent for PBS “NewsHour,” contributor to The New Yorker, and 2020 McGraw Professor of journalism at Princeton University, with over 13 years of experience living in the Middle East and reporting from the Arab world, Africa and South Asia. Her work focuses on US foreign policy and defense, conflict, diplomacy, and human rights. With an emphasis on in-depth, magazine length broadcasting, Ferguson’s reporting is characterized by exclusive, ground-breaking access, thoughtful story-telling and character-driven reporting. Her debut book, “No Ordinary Assignment: A Memoir” will release on July 11, 2023, via Mariner Books, an imprint of HarperCollins. The title details Ferguson’s unlikely passage from a bright, inquisitive child to an intrepid war correspondent from the front lines of the most dangerous conflicts and dire humanitarian crises of our time.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I grew up on a small farm in rural Northern Ireland. It was not far from the border with the Republic of Ireland, during a time of conflict called ‘The Troubles.’ There was a violent uprising by Irish nationalists against the British army in the area, with ongoing bombings and killings. In the hills around our farm, much of this played out in the shadows as insurgents plotted attacks against the British soldiers. As a result, the area was quite militarized, with large helicopters flying overhead and army checkpoints on the road. Society was starkly divided between protestant and catholic communities, informally segregated in schooling, housing, business and social spaces. It was a fairly religious part of the UK, and I was raised in a Protestant community where church was attended each Sunday and religious holidays observed. My community was also very much rural and based around agriculture. Farming was a way of life, and a real part of our culture.

I can see all these themes running through my life and career now, but I never would have predicted as a child how northern Ireland would shape my work and life overseas. As a child, it all seemed normal. And besides, I was more interested in the Spice Girls, field hockey, and horses. I was also a bookworm, always reading something, and forever dreaming over maps and atlases — whispers of a wider world.

When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life? Can you share a story about that?

I read so much, where to begin? Biographies and real life personal stories inspired me beyond all else. Perhaps Kate Aide’s autobiography was the one that first opened my eyes to the real behind-the-scenes life of TV foreign correspondents. She was a BBC correspondent and household name when I was growing up. I read it as a teenager and was amazed to read her account of reporting from the streets of Beijing during the Tiananmen Square massacre. She was able to report what was really happening. How amazing, I thought, to witness history and make sure it is documented, especially when atrocities like that risk being covered up. Later, when I read Martha Gelhorn’s biography, and that of Gertrude Bell, their lives seemed like remarkable, brave, and deeply authentic odysseys of adventure, purpose and expansion.

I also read a lot of fiction as a child. I grew up reading Enid Blyton’s “Famous Five” and “Secret Seven” books. In it, a group of children go off on adventures together. There are dogs and ginger beer involved. Looking back, I laugh at how much those tales resembled TV news teams on the road. As I grew older, I also read the Sunday Times (of London) and National Geographic magazines. Each Sunday after church, we drove to the newsagent to buy a stack of newspapers, and then, as my mother cooked a big lunch, I would lay on the floor of the living room surrounded by newspapers, my fingers smudged with ink.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

I once ignored all advice to carefully pack away my belongings when staying in a military camp in Mogadishu, Somalia. I was exhausted and fell asleep with my rucksack open and toiletries out, wrapped only in a plastic grocery bag. I had been warned a giant rat menaced the place. It did. It was so massive it’s squeaking and walking around woke me up. I ended up fighting it with my torchlight before running away. It made light work of my plastic bag, ate my entire soap bar and dragged my toiletries across the base. Always take the advice you are given upon arrival to a new place seriously. Every single other person knows more than you!

Can you describe how you aim to make a significant social impact with your book?

Journalists these days are under attack in ways I’ve never seen before. People are encouraged not to believe us, even when we head out on the road and risk our lives to get that information to them. Yet sometimes we are also heroized and I don’t think that is reasonable either. What I wanted to put out into the world was a true, honest and raw account of what life really is like on the road, and the kind of people who do this work, and how we got there. I don’t speak for the industry, but hopefully I can offer a glimpse into it. We are often complicated, flawed, passionate, hardworking, brave people and professionals, and much like many others we are simply doing our absolute best, within contexts and personal lives those watching and reading have no idea about.

I also wrote it for the young reader, perhaps someone who struggles to find their place in the world and doesn’t really know how to find a way forward. I would love young people to feel inspired, and also to understand that careers are not smooth upward trajectories. To never give up on their dreams, to keep going, and to find meaning in that journey.

What was the “aha moment” or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? Can you share a story about that?

I had wanted to write my story for a few years, jotting down potential chapters or segments in my downtime. I knew I wanted people to see past whatever ideas of my career successes they had. I wanted people to know that it was failures that shaped so many corners and peaks in my career. To make sure young people didn’t look at me like I had looked at ‘successful’ journalists when I was their age, and ache with wonder at how they got there, and what magic they must have known. Yet, I struggled to know where my story ‘ended.’ Where was my narrative arch building towards? The answer to that question can only come from self-reflection and some closure. Mine came in 2020 and 2021.

In less than two years, the pandemic stopped me traveling for the first time in my career. I moved to New York. My old, beloved home Beirut was devastated by an explosion. I got divorced. Witnessed Kabul fall to the Taliban. And I fell in love again. Life rushes at you sometimes, with closures and changes that leave no way back, only forward. When I got home from Afghanistan in the fall of 2021, I spent some months quietly thinking about the sum of my life. I was at a stark juncture. I had, by that stage, gained just enough distance from that young girl raised in Northern Ireland, who set out on that journey to the middle east and lived through such remarkable events, and I was ready to tell her story. I sat down in my apartment in lower Manhattan and started to write.

Without sharing specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

I try to sprinkle help constantly amongst those in the industry who might otherwise struggle. There are a lot of people like this I’ve worked with, to help them get into or advance in the industry over the years. Not everyone went to an elite college or grew up in a city with connections, or had parents who knew people who could help them get started. As regional newspapers have disappeared, it’s very hard to work your way up. Networks and national papers hire from top colleges, and if you don’t have well connected professors making introductions for you, then the industry often shuts people out. That was my experience early on so I’m particularly mindful of young people from poorer backgrounds, veterans and recent immigrants, and especially local reporters from the countries we report from who speak good English and might want to work with U.S. media organizations. I’ve worked with mentoring programs, specifically targeting veterans and recent immigrants, equipping them with professional skills.

I usually try to mentor, giving feedback on journalists’ work, helping them scope out their career plan, and introducing them to other industry leaders. I typically make introductions that can be helpful, and advise them when on the road ahead, career-wise. I came up through the freelance ranks and understand the camaraderie and collegiate nature of that specific tribe. I pay it forward because there were people who were good to me.

Are there three things the community/society can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Firstly, be informed. On an individual level, watch, read and seek out quality reporting. Don’t let social media algorithms feed you what news and analysis you will read today. Go to the source, subscribe to quality papers, listen to and watch public broadcasting, and take control of your own news diet. Informed citizens make better, wiser choices. And they are less easily hood-winked by the corrupt, in multiple positions of power.

Secondly, disengage from anger. Reach across to someone from a totally different viewpoint as yours and have a civil conversation. That involves listening in good faith. When you feel a little contraction of anger inside — stop, breathe, listen and respond; don’t react. I may travel all over the world to cover complex geopolitical events, but at the core of it all, I’m trying to help us all understand each other better. To communicate is to commune; to pull together. If anyone watching my work learns not just the surface information I’m providing, but also what’s under the surface — civility, patience, compassion, genuine curiosity — then I consider that a solve.

Thirdly, travel. If and when you can, get out into the world. Don’t let politicians tell you who are your enemies and who are your allies. Go out and talk to people, witness and feel culture, get deeply uncomfortable, go hungry, get sick, adventure, laugh, and do it with people nothing like those you grew up with. Travel creates better people, and better people make the world better.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

True leadership is to lead by example. And thereby, to inspire others. We live in such an angry time when people are always yelling at others as to what they should and shouldn’t do, moralizing and judging. If you are trying to influence others and change their attitudes, then model the behavior you want to see more of in the world. The greats knew this. I read that when Gandhi was asked by a newspaper reporter what his message for the world was, he replied by saying, ‘my life is my message.’ Nelson Mandela said, ‘until I changed myself, I could not change others.’ Look at what these men inspired in the world. That was leadership.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

Stop racing against time. ‘Top 30 under 30’ and ’25 under 25’ lists are pointless. A career is not a race and there is nothing really gained by fast success. You are not behind. Just relax and keep going.

Enjoy the journey. Cheesy, I know, but solid gold. If you aren’t happy scraping away in the less glamorous days just doing the work, you won’t be happy after the glow of an awards ceremony or the rush of a big scoop fade. It took me a while to stop, be present and genuinely find the joy in each day of work.

Taking care of your health is important for your career. There is a macho ideal to how much you can take, how hard you can work, how much you can put your body through on the road to success. Totally unnecessary. Your career won’t fall apart because you prioritized some sleep, didn’t go out for those nights drinking with colleagues, or stopped work for half an hour to eat a real meal. And please, stop smoking, immediately.

You will never be the best looking person in the room. This is particularly tough for women, who feel pressure to look a certain way. Do your best to look good, then look in the mirror, make peace with the results, and get on with your work. Drop any thoughts of your hair or skin or makeup there. Don’t carry them into your workday with you.

Don’t get caught up in what other people are doing. Who is making what career moves and how. Focus only on yourself, your craft, and your own individual journey.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

The Gandhi quote above is something I’ve tried to live by my whole life: “My life is my message.” To make my life a reflection of the world I would want. It’s so ambitious and yet so humble. To mind your own business, so to speak, and in doing so, change the world.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He/she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I would have loved to meet Madeleine Albright and have a lengthy chat with her. What she lived through and experienced and achieved in the world of diplomacy is incredible. She is a true feminist hero and intellectual giant. She passed away last year after an astonishing life.

I would love to have a drink with Bono, if you are offering an intro 😊

How can our readers further follow your work online?

My reporting continues to be on PBS NewsHour, which you can access for free on YouTube and the website, and the New Yorker online. I’m always posting updates on Instagram so that’s the best way to stay abreast of my work and travels. My account is @janieferg

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Social Impact Authors: How & Why Emmy-Winning Journalist Jane Ferguson Is Helping To Change Our… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.