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‘Journalism should be about generating empathy’

  • Published at 04:39 pm November 13th, 2019
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Photos: Mehedi Hasan

Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times journalist Jeffrey Gettleman in conversation with Zafar Sobhan

The simplest way to describe Jeffrey Gettleman’s love for Africa is to refer to his book title: ‘Love, Africa: A Memoir of Romance, War, and Survival.’  His relationship to the continent is that of love, as he tells an audience at the Lit Fest while talking to Dhaka Tribune’s editor Zafar Sobhan about his book. 

Jeffrey Gettleman was always drawn toward writing, even as a boy. He remembers attending all the creative writing classes. Even though he never wanted to be a journalist, he ended up becoming one by age 26. 

Within the next few years he went from becoming the bureau chief in Atlanta for the Los Angeles Times to joining the New York Times and becoming the bureau chief of the Nairobi-based East Africa bureau of the Times. 

Gettleman won the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting by the time he was 41 years of age. Currently posted as the The New York Times’s South Asia bureau chief, the journalist has appeared as one of the star speakers of this year’s Dhaka Lit Fest. 

Gettleman was struck by a “different value system” in Africa, that people can live such a simple life with nothing but a few utensils and no property. “I am not glorifying poverty, but it was completely different to where I came from,” he said to a fully packed auditorium in Bangla Academy. 

What prompted him to write this book, answers Gettleman, was his frustration with writing reports for the New York Times in straight, unengaged, emotion-free language. “Not too many adjectives, you can’t put a personality, you know, cautious, classic news writing.” 

Even though he wanted to write the book to document his journeys through Africa, for which he “risked his life many times,” it turned out as a “confessional memoir” exploring his relationships with his wife, with Africa and how he reconciled the two at “great cost at times.” “It was not easy, but my wife Courtenay and I had a beautiful life in Kenya,” he said. 

Gettleman also felt a sense of responsibility to tell the stories of the people that are unable to tell it themselves, often constrained by a complete lack of press freedom in many of the countries he covered. 

The journalist recalled how he worked with Ethiopian dissidents to publish leaked documents. With limited press freedom, Journalists in many African countries stand to face severe repercussions if they exposed the powerful entities. “I think it was my place to fill, hopefully in a non-arrogant way and to tell the stories they can’t tell,” he said. 

But to do that, said Gettleman, you need to care about those people. “Whether it is a woman in an Okra field in Congo or a woman in a village where a rebel army came in and shooting and raping everybody in sight, and you are talking to her and you are trying to connect,” he said.

Ultimately, “journalism should be about generating empathy,” the acclaimed journalist and author said. 

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