How to report on refugee communities with compassion: an Insta Live with journalist Nadja Drost

In our last Insta Live, our alumni Mariam El Marakeshy (2020 Fellow) spoke with journalist Nadja Drost, who won our Refugee Reporting Award in 2021 for her story, When can we really rest? about migrants who travel the border between Colombia and Panama. Nadja is a Pulitzer-prize and Emmy-award winning journalist and documentary filmmaker based in New York. These are some highlights from our conversation. The full conversation is on our page.

What made you choose this story and how did you come across the people you met? How did you plan for it?

I had been living in Colombia for a long time at that point. I had known about this migration route that people from all over the world travel, making their way northward to reach the US or sometimes Canada. I started feeling like this was the moment to report this story when I dug into the statistics and saw that the numbers were really going up. It made me question who these people are and why are they taking such a long and circuitous and dangerous route. It really made me want to understand not just the mechanics of the route but the people and what their experience was like.

The planning process took several months. We decided the most important thing for us was to find guides, somebody who really knew the territory. This is a very dense swath of jungle. It’s very easy to get lost. And there’s a lot of physical dangers and risks on the route. There were other dangers that were more concerning to me — groups of armed bandits that were routinely robbing, raping, assaulting and murdering migrants. A lot of our planning revolved around how to cross safely with these guides. There was the logistical element of the planning and the reporting planning. I was doing both television as well as long form print so I had to keep two checklists going in my head of what material I wanted to gather along the way and what I was going to wait to get after we crossed the Darien Gap.

What is your advice to journalists when they face unexpected situations, especially if it involves dangers and risks, as you explained. How do they keep themselves safe and still do the story? 

When logistical hiccups happen, the key is to not flip out. The way to deal with it is to accept what we can change and what we can’t. Our guides for example, had some pretty hard rules. They did not want to walk at night. As soon as the sun set, they wanted us to have camp set up because of extra risks. And a lot of the migrants wanted to keep on going. I was walking with them through the day and I really felt a great affinity towards them and wanted to continue the whole journey. So that’s one instance where you just have to keep in mind these are the limitations and I’m just going to do the best that I can.

In this particular case, there were a lot of safety precautions that we took. Part of it had to do with our equipment. We bought very expensive anti-venom medication that required carrying IV bags which was quite a heavy load. We took a satellite phone. We also had a GPS tracker and sent our location to our producer at PBS every day.

When you report on refugee communities, what is the most important element to pay attention to while interviewing? How do you make sure you are not feeding into the negativity and the stereotypes about refugees?

I know it’s really easy for journalists to feel like, this is a really important story to me. I’ve got a lot of responsibility. My bosses are expecting a lot. But I think we have to remember that to everybody else, it doesn’t really matter. Migrants and refugees are in very vulnerable situations. And they are often on life threatening journeys. Their goal is just to get to safety. And so when talking to them, it’s really important to put yourself in their shoes, to understand their experience and see how they might be seeing a journalist.

As I mentioned, a lot of people are very vulnerable on this route or they don’t necessarily know who to trust. They’re often worried about their own safety. And so it’s really important to distinguish yourself from other types of authorities whether those are government authorities or humanitarian organisations helping journalists. It’s really important to be clear about who you are and how you’re going to be engaging with people.

Nadja’s top advice for early-career journalists:

  1. Follow your your interests. Follow your passions. Some of the difficult aspects of this job is is just being able to keep going even when you come across a lot of obstacles. So you just have to be really passionate about the story that you’re working on. I think that if you are, you’ll figure out a way to do it.
  2. Experiment. I think that there’s so many different paths into journalism. There’s also so many different types of journalism. Some people are going to discover that they love breaking news, other people are going to want to take a slower, long game approach. There’s different mediums and it can take a while to kind of discover where you want to be within the journalism landscape.