On our last night together, Olena Goncharova, Amal Khan and I sat in the dining room of the rental house that had been our home since we started the fellowship.
We had a few hours left before embarking on a new journey: we were leaving Missouri to go to our host newsrooms, which would be our training grounds for the better part of our stay in the United States.
It was a bittersweet moment infused with a sense of excitement, anxiety and uncertainty. We were eager to explore the numerous possibilities that came with working in American newsrooms, but we weren’t sure how we would cope without each other.
“We will be fine. If it gets overwhelming, we will do video chat…” we told each other while nibbling on leftover pizza.
We marveled at how just three weeks before, we had met as complete strangers from different parts of the world, brought together by the journalism fellowship, and now the idea of separation seemed so painful.
We were at the same table where we had partaken several dinners and had conversations about our countries, families and the things that defined us as journalists. Olena constantly talked about her newsroom and the stories she did in Ukraine. Amal always reminded us of how interestingly different life can be in Pakistan. I had talked tirelessly about my love for strong coffee and music.
Through these tales, we had weaved a bond that went beyond sharing a room. We became a sisterhood. It was now time to physically loosen the connection and prepare for what was ahead.
I was heading to Cleveland for the Association of Health Care Journalists’ annual conference, before reporting to the Oklahoman newsroom.
My girls and I talked through the night, mostly about the rapid changes that were happening and how we needed to prepare for them.
If only I knew what awaited me in Cleveland, then perhaps I would have focused more on preparing for the transformation that was going to happen deep inside me.
I arrived in Cleveland slightly before midnight. It was a chilly night, and even though it was late, a group of people were scattered all over the hotel lobby typing away in the depth of the bewitching hour. I didn’t need to be told they were journalists.
Seeing them engrossed in their work, oblivious of the time, made me feel right at home. The familiarity of having to file copy was not lost to me. I had done it too many times before.
At the breakfast table the next morning, I sat with a group that discussed the use of proton therapy to treat cancer. It was interesting listening to them demystify a subject so complex. I felt like an interloper, eavesdropping in a conversation not meant for me. For a moment, I started wondering if I would fit in. However, it didn’t take long before I realized that I belonged.
There were several sessions running concurrently. Choosing the one to sit in was difficult. My first one was a talk by Jacqui Banasynski (a member of the Alfred Friendly Press Partners advisory board) about how to get a story even when ‘access has been denied’. I went for it because I had encountered Jacqui before, when we were training at the Missouri School of Journalism. She had taught us how to structure our stories so that they can jump off the pages and sing. That is how she had put it at Mizzou.
I want my stories to perform like an opera in the pages; powerful ones that can break glass. I felt like they’ve been stuck playing a dull drum beat on blank pages. I want my stories to sing, and make my audience rise and dance to the rhythm of my narratives.
Listening to Jacqui at the conference was powerful. She was solid. She answered all the questions journalists asked. Like how to do investigative pieces on health without compromising the integrity of the information you are giving, or how to break down complex reports that scientists release. Even more importantly, she taught us how to ask “So what…?” when we received information from sources, to assess the relevance.
When one journalist from New York asked her how we could ensure that we remain relevant and not engage in conveyer belt reporting, Jacqui paused for a moment and said: “You have to ensure you are writing for the people. Think about public interest. Not yours, not that of the scientists and definitely not that of the communication officer.”
It was apt. She had defined for me the hallmark of journalism; something that remains elusive even among the most established members of the fourth estate.
I needed that reminder: We write for the people!
Later that evening, I attended a roundtable discussion on how to report in places under crisis. Representatives from U.S. cities facing different challenges such as gun violence, protests and unrest talked about walking the delicate line and breaking the story without aggravating the situation.
It was amazing how the things that we battle as journalists are so universal. It doesn’t matter if you are covering a shooting in Baltimore, women protesting naked in Nairobi, brutalities of terrorism in the drylands of Garissa or a disintegrating political system in Cuba. Journalism is universal.
With every speaker who talked about the things he or she grapples with, I was hit by the realization that we are enveloped by that feeling of belonging and solidarity shared by people in the profession, which acts as a mirror for society to view itself.
We strive to tell stories that allow people to look at themselves and their surroundings. It doesn’t matter who is holding it. We are charged with a responsibility of telling people what is going on, and hoping that they will believe us and get impacted by the things we report.
It was so profound.
When I went to bed that night, I was overwhelmed by the way things were beginning to fall in place. I got consumed by a deep sense of belonging.
I glanced through the window of my room at the 21st floor of the hotel and noticed white flakes dropping from above. It was snowing. My first experience of snow.
It was one of the many ‘firsts’ I experienced in Cleveland, Ohio, the homeland of the Rock and Roll museum.
Many more awaited me….