The Uncomfortable Role of a Journalist

Much of the news centers on tragic events and the people caught up in them. But getting those stories can prove disconcerting for journalists — something NPR's Jennifer Ludden experienced on a recent trip to El Salvador.

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So much of the news tells stories of people caught up in tragic events.

NPR's Jennifer Ludden has this Reporter's Notebook about how uncomfortable it can be for journalists trying to get those stories.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: When I was covering wars in Africa in the '90s, colleagues would joke about an old journalist memoir. It's titled, Anyone Here Been Raped and Speak English? We laughed because it rang true. You could feel like a vulture descending on people in tragedy. As NPR producer Marisa Penaloza and I found ourselves doing recently in El Salvador.

We met a planeload of immigrants just deported from the U.S. With limited time, we split up and worked the crowd.

And you were there how long?

Unidentified Man #1: Where?

LUDDEN: Las Vegas.

Unidentified Man #1: Six years.

LUDDEN: And so what do you plan to do now?

Unidentified Man #1: I come back because, you know, I have all my family in the United States.

LUDDEN: Their arrival in processing was like a walk of shame. Somewhere along the way, each had made decisions that caused pain for loved ones. Some left children behind. One young man had lost his legal status after killing someone in a car accident. You start with the assumption that people really don't want to share this information and then you try to get them to talk anyway. Amazingly, they do.

Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking in foreign language)

LUDDEN: One young man had a wife and five-year-old child in Kansas, but he said they haven't decided yet whether to come live with him now in El Salvador. After hearing something like that, whatever follow-up question you ask, you feel pretty stupid.

Unidentified Man #3: (Speaking in foreign language)

LUDDEN: We followed one middle-aged deportee to his house. There, Julio seemed humiliated. He failed to provide for his family here or to find success in the U.S. As he shared the circumstances of his near death in the Arizona desert, the entire family broke into sobs, at which point my colleague Marisa and I also teared up. I used to fight hard not to cry, I worried somehow it would compromise my journalistic integrity. The older I get, the more silly that seems.

(Soundbite of sobbing)

LUDDEN: I'd say most people I've interviewed overseas have never heard of NPR. They may not understand the power of a national news broadcast, and I'm not sure they care. What I've come to believe is that for some people in the midst of crisis, it's helpful just to talk, to have an outsider listen, try to understand, and sometimes even cry with them.

STAMBERG: NPR's Jennifer Ludden.

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