By Jessica Weiss
Each month, IJNet features an international journalist who exemplifies the profession and has used the site to further his or her career. If you would like to be featured, email a short bio and a paragraph about how you have used IJNet here.
This month we feature digital journalist Leigh Cuen, a co-organizer of ONA Jerusalem, the only peer-led group for Israeli, Palestinian and international journalists in the Middle East.
Cuen, who is originally from California and based in Tel Aviv, has contributed to outlets including Al Jazeera English, Salon.com, The Jerusalem Post, Yedioth Ahronoth (Ynet), Culture Magazine, San Francisco Public Press and World Literature Today. Her creative writing has appeared in the International Museum of Women, Poetica Magazine, Dagda Publishing and War, Literature & the Arts.
Cuen talked with IJNet about why it’s critical for freelance journalists to build a professional network, her perspectives on coverage of the Middle East and how literary writing informs her work as a journalist.
How have you used IJNet?
I’ve used IJNet to find opportunities around the globe to meet and exchange skills with fellow journalists. Through the IJNet website, I discovered the Media in Conflict Seminar 2013 in Israel. That seminar proved to be an invaluable opportunity to meet diverse young journalists. I collaborated with several of those colleagues in later reportage for both local and international organizations.
Through IJNet, I also learned about opportunities at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy. That conference widened my circle of professional contacts and gave me a fresh perspective on the challenges young journalists face in the digital landscape.
The most crucial part of surviving as a freelancer is finding a way to develop professional relationships without working in the same office. Freelancers need mentors and co-workers in order to grow their skills and access. Especially if you are a traveling journalist, it’s crucial to be a part of a global network like IJNet.
What are you the most proud of so far in your career as a journalist?
I contacted one of the Syrian writers as a fellow poet and a fan, oblivious to her political work. We talked about poetry and identity. She mentioned some recent work by other Syrian poets. I started making phone calls, Skyping with Syrian writers in hiding and in exile. I didn’t know what I was looking for. I just asked questions and listened. I didn’t set out to write news, political analysis or a human-interest article. I just let the evidence guide me to the heart of the story. I fact-checked everyone’s narratives, but I never tried to define them. It’s time-consuming but for me, organic storytelling is the most rewarding.
What advice would you give to aspiring journalists?
Don’t wait for approval or validation. Don’t wait until someone offers professional work for a fair price. If you want to be a journalist, do your research. Then go out and start asking questions. Make sure to check all your facts. If no one will publish what you write, start a blog.
Don’t try to match other people’s expectations. Don’t write about fashion if you want to write about sports. Don’t let anyone else tell you what “real journalism” is. Learn how to recognize propaganda and always critique yourself. You decide how credible your work will be. So put in that extra time.
Every story has a weakness. Be aware of yours. The best way to handle personal bias is to name it. Admit when you don’t have all the information, when you were involved in a story or when one side refused to comment. If you are upfront about what you don’t know, readers can trust you.
Don’t accept labels that writing about rape is a “women’s issue” or that war is only a political topic. If an editor thinks your story isn’t relevant to him, go back to the drawing board. You need to make your reader feel the story. That is the only way he’ll make the effort to understand it. Read, listen, study, ask questions and define success for yourself. Take control of your own career.
Especially in this historic moment of tension, how does creative writing contribute to your perspective of the conflict in Israel/Palestine?
In my personal experience, working as a foreign correspondent can become dangerously exploitative. Literary writing can break free of these pitfalls through ruthless intimacy.
When I wrote for the Palestinian News Network in Bethlehem, I couch-surfed and stayed with Palestinian families instead of staying with fixers in hotels. These experiences humbled me.
Later, I was lucky enough to live with an Israeli family for a few months. This forced me to see my work through their eyes.
I realized how sometimes Palestinians and Israelis both feel like animals in a zoo. Foreign reporters traipse through their lives and hold up their moments of pain to illustrate a political point. Hundreds of foreign journalists flocked to Israel and Gaza this past week to document the atrocities. Meanwhile, UNRWA reports say 45.2 percent of working-age Gazans are unemployed. One man turned to me and said: “They make a good living off of our deaths.”
I can see how Israelis and Palestinians feel objectified by our media industry, which only cares about them when they’re fighting and even then doesn’t trust them to report their own stories.
What I’m saying here isn’t new or unique. Last week, Anjan Sundaram wrote a piece for The New York Timescritiquing the “Western” media’s coverage of complex events. Award-winning journalist Simcha Jacobovici also wrote a blog post, blaming international media for the escalation on the ground. I disagree with his unabashed bias against Hamas. He’s still right about one thing: in Israel/Palestine, we’ve learned that media spectacle is a crucial weapon. On both sides, this war is performed for a global audience.
How can a journalist deal with her own complicity? For me, literary writing is a way to unzip my skin and leave my own motives behind. I try to become someone else, see the world through his eyes.
Earlier this year, I wrote a poem based on what an Israeli grandmother told me about her wedding in 1948. We sat in her kitchen. She served me compote (a chilled fruit soup). Fleshy chunks of apple slipped past my tongue. She told me about a wedding present from her friend in Gaza, an apple farmer. She said he risked his life to give her a wedding present. Then she risked her life to search for him after the war. But she never found him. She wondered if he is still alive in Gaza. She felt helpless in the wake of his absence.
If I wrote this story as a journalist, I would report what experts say happened to many Palestinian farmers. Then I would list how many people from Gaza used to commute every day to work in Tel Aviv. This cute little grandma once served in the Haganah, a Jewish militia. Maybe I would use a few of her quotes in an article about how people love each other in the midst of conflict.
That headline could read: “People are still human, despite crazy situation.”
The journalistic inclination towards analysis serves a very important purpose. Journalism needs to present solutions. But sometimes, especially in Israel and Palestine, it undermines the narrative to categorize right and wrong, illegal versus legal. Trying to moralize the story would’ve put me back in my own shoes, the observer, the all-knowing journalist who uses facts and numbers to pretend everything makes sense. Journalistic detachment would have drained the truth from these words.
Literary perspective helps me understand the complex situation by defusing my urge to write as an omniscient narrator. In creative writing, I can just be the character. I can feel, even if I don’t understand. Sometimes, the story needs to be about a memory. Maybe it’s a memory someone is reluctant to publish under his own name. Maybe it’s a memory that could cause loved ones pain if he set it free.
As Maya Angelou once said, “there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” Literary writing gives voice to the stories that people are too afraid to report.
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