Outside In: Q&A with Author and Reporter Scott Johnson

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MIJE Staff
February 19, 2014

Scott Johnson has spent much of the last decade in the Middle East, covering the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and in Africa, reporting on politics and current affairs. He has been the chief of Newsweek’s Mexico, Baghdad, and Africa bureaus, as well as a special correspondent from Paris. He was part of the team that contributed to Newsweek’s 2003 National Magazine Award for reportage of the Iraq war, and in 2004 the Overseas Press Club honored his reports on Latin America.
Most recently he worked for the Bay Area Newsgroup where he covered  the Violence Reporting Fellow at the California Endowment between 2010 and 2013. During that time, his work was recognized by California Newspaper Association and the Society of Professional Journalists Nor-Cal.

In his recent critically acclaimed memoir, "The Wolf and the Watchman: A Father, A Son and the CIA." Johnson writes about growing up the son of a spy for the CIA.

We talk to him about  how his childhood influenced his career and the ways journalists can do a better job of covering the totality of this country.

"The Wolf and the Watchman: A Father, A Son and the CIA" is now available in paperback.

Q: In “The Wolf and the Watchman: A Father, a Son, and the CIA” you write about your experiences traveling around the world with your father as a child, and even when you lived in this country, in many ways you were still an outsider. Your work in Oakland required that you, a white journalist, go into communities of color and build the trust and access that would result in in-depth, nuanced stories. Do you think your childhood experience of being such an outsider helped prepare you for that assignment?

A: Very much. As a child overseas in India, Pakistan and Yugoslavia, I always felt like an outsider, and I think it even came to feel like the natural state of things for me. I even came to enjoy it. Whereas I think it can be a destabilizing feeling if you’re not used to it. Being exposed to that feeling and having to cope with it from an early age sort of inoculates you from the criticism people might level at you.

I enjoyed learning about people who were different from me, and I feel like I learned how to appreciate people’s differences without being overly judgmental. That’s not to say I succeeded always, but at least I think it helped. Also, as the outsider, you realize that it’s incumbent upon you to adapt, not the other way around. So you learn flexibility, empathy, compassion as tools for surviving and getting along, and those are good tools to have as a journalist as well.

Being always the odd one out also means that you have to develop a kind of keep curiosity about people and, in fact, it is a pleasurable experience. Simply learning and listening to other people is one of the greatest pleasures in life, and I think that stems in part from having had to do that as a child.

When I first got to Oakland, I met a Latino man who was openly derisive of my being able to do anything of value in Oakland since I was from out of town, was white, was more or less privileged and had no understanding of what the troubled teens he worked with had gone through. I could understand his anger, and perhaps even his sense of outrage that someone like me had been sent in to examine the intricacies of his community.

But what I think he missed is that you don’t have to be from the same community to write effectively, report accurately, listen compassionately or understand deeply someone else’s experience. I hope my work in Oakland helped him see that, too.

Q: In “The Wolf and the Watchman,” you also write about your experiences as a war correspondent covering Iraq. Do you see parallels between the trauma of war and the violence you covered in Oakland? Were the effects similar?

A: There’s no doubt they’re similar. War as I’ve seen it in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere across Africa, for example, has the effect of creating traumatized communities. And this is exactly what we see in places like Oakland, where in addition to the individual stories of death, maiming, prison, gang activity that are part and parcel of everyday life, we also see a deadening of the civic life and social fabric that makes communities whole.

The sad fact is that there has been such an intense, albeit kind of low-grade warfare going on in certain sections of our cities, and for so long, that the consequences are maddeningly, eerily familiar to what we might see in Baghdad, Kabul or Goma.

That is, high rates of PTSD among small children and adolescents, unhealthy coping mechanisms for a population that may be suffering from various kinds of acute mental health issues as a result of chronic and untreated exposure to trauma, a collective retreat into insularity as families and communities begin to distrust each other, higher rates of depression and anxiety and so forth. The list goes on.

The point is that while most of the media attention in this country focuses on the horrors of mass shootings such as Columbine, Newtown, etc., they ignore at their own peril the plight of small pockets of America that remain stubbornly violent areas, with profiles very similar to war zones.

Consider that while rates of violence have been declining nationwide for at least 20 years, there remain these isolated areas, such as parts of Oakland, where these rates have not declined at all, but have in fact increased. That alone tells us that something is deeply wrong with how we are thinking about violence, its outcomes, and that we’re ignoring the fact that we have several small war zones right here in our own country. 

Q: What is the greatest thing you learned from being embedded in East Oakland, both in terms of how the news media tend to cover communities that are perceived to be poor and of color and the ways those communities differ from the preponderance of coverage?

A: The community where I lived was very interesting. There were people who were incredibly engaged, who wanted to build the community up, who worked with each other in innovative ways to bring about change and improve the lives of the residents. There were also gangsters hanging out on the corner, and one night, there was a massive shootout that brought everyone spilling onto the streets.

It was a truly diverse community as well — with African Americans, Latinos, whites, Asians, Iranians and others. Most of the people I met had pretty much given up on the standard news coverage. One man put it best when he told me that all the stories he ever read about his community had a few key ingredients: a shooting, the circumstances, the location, the police officer’s response, the tally of the dead and how that tally compared to last year’s tally.

It was almost comical, he said. There was simply no coverage of anything else — no community meetings; nothing about the cultural life in that area; nothing about food, books, street art, religious gatherings, music or simply “slice of life” reports from the neighborhood, which is really the lifeblood of the city.

Their perspective really shifted my own. I came to believe that a local newspaper has a duty to cover the people and places of the city which it purports to serve. Not doing that effectively undermines democracy in that it helps deprive citizens of a voice in their own affairs, however subtly.

I received more feedback from readers, and learned more about Oakland, in the little time I spent in that neighborhood than I did with any of my other projects. As a result, I’m now convinced that the paper, all papers, should have dedicated resources in the places that seem, on the surface, to be the least “newsworthy.” These are the neighborhoods that will determine the city’s long-term fate. Coverage should reflect that.

Q: Are there stories you wished you had done differently, or looking back on the experience, stories you wished you had tackled?

A: Of course. One can never do all the stories one hopes to. I wish I had done the Oakland Hotspot work at the very beginning and used that to launch into a series of more in-depth stories, rather than the other way around. l think newspapers have a duty to tell stories at the length, speed and rhythm that makes sense, and I wish some of my stories had been approached with that philosophy in mind.

I think I could have done more, and better, work on exactly how neighborhoods work or don’t work, and what makes them healthy or not healthy. And I wish I had done more video, multimedia work as part of all of my stories. 

Q: As you prepared for the Oakland Effect project, did you look for examples of other journalists doing similar work? If so, can you recommend some?

A: I looked at some work by journalists at The Boston Globe, which examined some of the same things I was looking at — homicide rates and the effect on the city. And I also looked at the work of some academics, like researchers at Drexel University who have done some terrific work on trauma among at-risk youth in and around Philadelphia. But mostly I wanted to make the project my own, so I kind of did what I wanted.

Q: When we work with student journalists, they often voice trepidation about going into communities that are very different then their own. Can you give them some pointers about how to build the trust that will allow them to do a good job?

A: I can certainly try. :) Let’s see, here are some tips:

•    Do Not Patronize. People smell a rat immediately. If you want to understand and engage with people anywhere, be genuinely interested in them and their stories. The worst is when you see reporters talking, nodding their heads and so forth, and you can see the disdain just dripping off them. No wonder people hate reporters. Don’t be that person.

•    Be as good a listener as you can be. Sometimes people just want to talk. They’ll talk and talk, and maybe they’ll get angry and maybe they’ll even get angry at you. Just keep listening. Try to really hear what they’re saying. You can’t be a journalist and tell stories unless you yourself have understood at least something. So you’ve got to hear what they’re saying, see what they’re seeing, smell what they’ve smelled. Take it in and then, if you have digested it, see if you can put it out again in a way that draws other people to the story.

•     Some people don’t want to talk. That’s fine. Let them know that you understand and if they want to talk in the future, you’ll be there to listen. Give them your card and go on your way. Then find some other people!

•    Get to know the area. When I was in East Oakland, I used to go every day to get breakfast at a local diner. I got into conversation with the waitress and owner, and she became a great source. Be friendly. Be yourself. Be genuinely interested. You can be a journalist even when you don’t have your notebook out. You can absorb, listen, talk, see, smell and so on. Use all of your senses all of the time.

•    Don’t leave when people stop talking. Instead, stay with them. Don’t start talking. After a while, the person you’re talking to will start talking again. And that’s when you really need to listen up because here comes the important stuff!

•    Don’t be afraid to disagree with people. This is related to not being patronizing. Have your own views and opinions, and be yourself. People will trust you more, as they should, just as you trust people more who you don’t suspect of having an agenda all the time.

•    Don’t make promises you can’t keep.

Q: What do you think are the greatest mistakes journalists make when they attempt this?

A: Being patronizing, not listening and conveying the impression that once you get the story. you’ll never see them again.

Q: To that end, can you give us some tips for journalists covering communities unlike their own?

A: I think I covered that above, right? :)



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