The person behind the journalist

In this new era of journalism, the discussion frequently turns to the practitioner: What is the agenda of the storyteller? Can journalists be truly fair and balanced? Can they really cover stories and stay uninvolved?

All are valid, important questions. The problem with this discussion is that some portray a journalist as some sort of fact-gathering terminator, devoid of emotion and humanity.

Soraya Sorhaddi Nelson (Courtesy of NPR)

Over the past several months, NPR’s Soraya Sorhaddi Nelson has reported vigorously from Afghanistan. She has worked hard to cover the entire story, from talking to Taliban leaders to embedding with American troops.

But throughout her reporting, she remains cognizant of her own reactions and explains them to readers. In a May 10 story about a Taliban commander, she noted her fear of sharing her location:

After exchanging a quick, traditional hug with my translator, he [Mullawi Mohammadi] entered the room I had rented at the far end of the garden for our talk.

We told Mohammadi the room is where a Los Angeles Times colleague and I are staying.

But the guesthouse is a good distance from our real hotel. We didn’t trust him to see it, fearing he might bomb it as the Taliban has done to other hotels catering to foreigners.

The lack of trust is mutual: Mohammadi refused to take the sheer chai we poured for him, fearing the sweetened tea boiled in milk was poisoned.

In February, Nelson faced much criticism for replaying the moment when Lance Cpl. Alejandro Yazzie was shot and killed. Her reporting in the story was even-keeled, and her voice avoided the sensationalistic tenor of some of her broadcast peers.

A couple of weeks later, NPR conducted a behind-the-scenes interview with Nelson about that moment. Many times, I find such reporter notebooks self-important and self-serving, but I wanted to hear about life in the trenches with the troops. I wanted to hear how she could tell such a painful story so coolly.

I was surprised at her candor and humanity. She talked of sharing her satellite phone with the troops, of having to relieve herself in the field, of spending the night on a concrete floor alongside the unit.

And when she was asked about the shot, her voice choked with emotion. As I sat listening in the car, my eyes welled with tears.

In that moment, I heard not a reporter but a person — one with empathy and a sense of responsibility of telling the story accurately, fairly, but most of all, completely.


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