We can thank Maine hippies for NPR global health reporter Jason Beaubien | 

Jason Beaubien

What makes for the best radio reporting on global health and development? We can credit some hippies in Maine.

At least, that’s what led to Jason Beaubien, NPR’s global health and development correspondent. Beaubien grew up way off the grid in rural Maine, raised by hippie parents who only had a radio for keeping up with the outside world. “We didn’t have (grid-based) electricity when we lived out in our log cabin … but we did have radio.” Everything Beaubien learned about the rest of the world came to him through radio, through his ears and his imagination, an experience that has clearly helped make him one of the most compelling audio story-tellers out there today.

Beaubien started reporting for NPR more than a decade ago in sub-Saharan Africa, beginning with a coup attempt in Ivory Coast (aka Côte d’Ivoire). Humanosphere’s founding editor Tom Paulson happened to be in Ivory Coast at around the same time, reporting for the dearly departed Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper on the early days of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation‘s revolutionary investment that eventually, massively, expanded child immunizations in poor countries.

Tom was doing typical ‘parachute’ journalism – flying in for a story and, when the going got too wacky, flying out. Beaubien stayed put in Africa, enduring dangerous situations and harsh conditions to tell the many broader political, economic and social stories. He later went on to Mexico to report on Latin America, including the drug war (which is often deadly dangerous for journalists). On our podcast, he tells us a few tales about being a foreign correspondent and why he thinks covering the fight against poverty was an obvious next step for him.

“In covering these issues, what just jumps out at you is the incredible inequality,” Beaubien said. To a great extent, he said, the conflicts and troubles he reported on for NPR are often rooted in poverty and inequality. He sees his new assignment, which may not sound as exciting as being a war correspondent, as moving from reporting mostly about what is happening to why it is happening – and what we can do about it.

It’s a great conversation. And as usual, before Tom and Jason compare notes on the poverty journalism front, we discuss a few of this week’s top news items. Tom Murphy noted that the campaign to rid the world of polio has again suffered a violent setback with more attacks on health workers in Pakistan. We also discuss Tom’s (the Paulson one) article describing how Seattle scientists are world leaders in a new approach to vaccine research and discovery.

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The Problems with Western Journalists in Africa | 

Western journalists were rightly criticized for the overall level of coverage surrounding the Kenyan elections. However, it is a case that is a part of what seems to be the rule rather than the exception when it comes to how Western reporters will tell stories from the African continent.

The image of a western journalist interviewing a traditional African may seem like a trope of the past, but look no further than the below image from a PBS MediaShift report.

Cornell University English professor Mukoma Wa Ngugi makes the case in Africa Is a Country that Western journalists continue to fail to “tell the whole story of humanity at work.” He says that American reporting on tragedies that took place in the US show dignity of the victims and tell stories of heroism and triumph during tragedy.

A three paragraph article in Reuters offered the choice terms “tribal blood-letting” to reference the 2007 post-electoral violence, and “loyalists from rival tribes” to talk about the hard-earned right to cast a vote. Virtually all the longer pieces from Reuters on the elections used the concept of tribal blood-letting. CNN also ran a story in February of this year that showed five or so men somewhere in a Kenyan jungle playing war games with homemade guns, a handful of bullets and rusty machetes – war paint and all.

Such stories do not make it into the coverage of tragedy from Africa. However, he neglects to recognize the constraints on foreign correspondents or journalists who report on Africa. Page space for stories about Africa is few and far between these days.

Not to excuse poor reporting, rather I point it out to say that it is far more challenging than domestic news. Major tragedies in the United States feel like they are over covered as the press corps descends upon the location of the event and tries to pump out every story possible. Continue reading

Telling Different Stories About Africa Involves Both Journalists and Readers | 

The subject of how to report on Africa has come into focus the past few months with articles from academic Laura Seay in Foreign Policy and a response by Tristan McConnell in the GlobalPost. Both make some points worth considering, but it is the nuanced entry from Jina Moore in the Boston Review earlier this month that provides a critical perspective from a journalists who has dealt with the desires of readers and editors while being mindful of the complexity of telling stories from Africa.

One example of this is the need to reference the genocide when writing about Rwanda.

Nearly every story I published from Rwanda in my three years reporting there included a reference to the 1994 genocide. Dredging up suffering can win a busy audience’s attention, but it’s a limited kind of attention. It’s the attention of the kind-hearted stranger from a distance, the reader who stops eating his breakfast or reading her stock quotes to remember just how bad it is in other places.

By narrowing the lens of storytelling into one that largely focuses on compassion, a single and problematic narrative emerges. Continue reading