Making Them Care: How to Sell An International Story to an American Audience

By Aurora Almalvez May 28th, 2014

On September 9, 2013, Muslim rebels stormed into Zamboanga, a large, mostly Christian city in the southern tip of the Philippines. The rebels laid siege to the historic downtown, the commercial and cultural heart of the city, and took hundreds of men, women and children hostage. The Philippine military aggressively responded by sending in armed troops to the city.

As one of the few American freelancers in the Philippines, I thought it was my duty to get down there and work. I got myself onto a C-130 military cargo plane and flew from Manila to Zamboanga, crowded into the hull with 150 soldiers leaning into their rifles. When we landed, I hitched a ride in the back of a rumbling military and was dropped off at the hotel where some local journalists were waiting in the lobby.

“We’re going to the frontline tomorrow morning. Want to come?”

I went to Zamboanga with the idea of covering the refugee situation, and I did not own a flak jacket or a helmet. “Neither do we,” one reporter said. So I went.

This was my first war reporting experience, and it was also my most unsellable story.

It certainly wasn’t because the events weren’t newsworthy. We drove towards the fire, against the wave of people escaping on foot and in trucks. I recorded audio of people screaming as they ran down the street and took photos of the squalor in the evacuation centers. When I got back to my hotel room, the emails from my editors were all some version of this line: “I don’t think the events in Zamboanga have reached an international level. I’ll pass.”

Here’s what I did wrong. I completely misjudged the difference between an international story and a national story. Many times, the biggest story in your country is going have zero interest to Americans, in the same way the biggest story in America can have little interest in another country. The siege in Zamboanga probably didn’t appeal to editors abroad because it was too complicated, and it didn’t explain much about Filipino culture in relation to America. The story was about a regional treaty and political in-fighting between the two main Muslim groups in Mindanao. Does that mean much to you? Probably not.

I don’t have much competition for work in the Philippines, but outside of the country, my story was competing for airtime and print margins against the war in Syria and any number of other global conflicts editors had already decided not to cover. Before getting on the C-130, I checked to see if the New York Times was covering the siege—they were, but the stringer here was monitoring it from Manila. He’d left the footwork to the wires, something I could have done too.

An editor at an international desk recently told me he was after stories with a tight focus that took one step back from the breaking news and had significance to other parts of the world. I’ve also learned to look for an angle with a direct link to America, usually by way of an American character, that can build on a larger theme that already has traction in the U.S.

I probably should not have gone down to Zamboanga before I had a commitment from an editor, but I could have kept pitching the story until someone accepted it. After four days, I cut my losses and took a C-130 back to Manila, crouched on the airplane floor, leaning against the white coffin of an army ranger who’d been shot in the head.

When a magnitude 8.2 earthquake hit the central Philippines a few weeks later, I didn’t go. I offered to do a spot report instead from the comfort of my untouched apartment in Manila.

Three weeks after that, Typhoon Haiyan hit the country. It was the largest hurricane ever to make landfall, killing at least 6,300 people and leaving millions homeless. As the typhoon was barreling towards the Philippines, it was already global news. The eye of the storm did not pass over Manila, which meant I had electricity and terrible (but functional) cell service. I monitored news on local radio, filed multiple spots, and did interviews with American outlets.

Once the storm passed, I made my way to Tacloban, the hardest-hit city in the area. When I first called the military for a C-130 ride, they told me the airport wasn’t fit for landing because bodies were still floating down the runway. I eventually flew to a city on an adjacent island, took a ferry to the destroyed island, and went overland in an ambulance with the curtains drawn, filing two-ways and spot reports when cell service allowed, and borrowing satellite phones from better-appointed reporters when reception disappeared.

The reporting conditions were incredibly tough—I slept on a wooden board in a squatter settlement for the first two nights—but it didn’t take much to cast a story in a way that mattered. It all mattered, for a while. Eventually, I had to find different ways to get people to care. About two weeks after the storm, I pitched a story about gathering the dead. An editor in America wondered: “Are we a bit past that point? I’m willing to be convinced otherwise, but let me know what you think.”

I could have convinced her otherwise. We were still seeing and smelling dead bodies every day, but I understood her position. Far away in America, the experience wasn’t raw anymore, and I could see why another straight story about people dying during the storm could seem repetitive. So, I tried to tell it differently. I ended up filing a story about a woman rebuilding her house, in the same spot where her children died, so she would have a place to stay while she spent her days turning over debris, searching for their corpses.

Jason Strother, a freelancer friend from the U.S. who has been reporting from South Korea for seven years, told me: “If you’re pitching a story from overseas, you need to explain how this subject more broadly explains the country you’re in and touches on points that readers can relate to.” You’re often explaining something to an audience for the first time, and I’ve found that what may seem like an old or very general story to local reporters, for an international audience, becomes brand new.

I’ve also been advised repeatedly to search for universal themes or American activity. It also helps to keep an audience member in mind—a housewife in Des Moines, for example. And if you’re a freelancer, reporting from overseas is mostly a features game; it’s silly to compete with the wires, who are great at what they do, and staff reporters who analyze news from desks. You have to leverage your physical presence with field reporting, which, for me, is the best kind.

“In the end, it comes down to the whims of the editor,” Strother added. “The writer really has to know what kinds of stories the outlet is interested in and how to tell it in a voice that matches the overall tone of the publication.” Building a relationship with an editor is important to all journalists, but when working abroad, it has unique value. Editors probably don’t know your country, but when they know they can trust you, you get more assignments.

The way you tell stories about Mexico, Syria, France or Tajikistan to an American audience depends on understanding many moving parts on the ground of a particular nation. But the most valuable piece of advice I’ve gotten, and I’ve heard this from several people, is that it’s your country. It’s up to you to make them care.

Tags: , ,