FOUNDER AND DIRECTOR OF THE FULLER PROJECT FOR INTERNATIONAL REPORTING | TURKEY
What do you do as Founder of The Fuller Project for International Journalism?
The Fuller Project is a nonprofit news organization based in Istanbul and founded to address the imbalance in women’s voices in media coverage of conflict, foreign policy and international affairs.
We produce top-notch, story-driven investigative journalism on and by women for publication in major international outlets. In our first six months our reporting has been published in The New York Times, ELLE Magazine, CNN, TIME Magazine, Foreign Affairs, The Daily Beast, VICE and others. We also produce TV and film documentaries. Most recently, we were invited to present our hour-long film on violence against women in Turkey at the Sheffield, (UK) film festival, and it’s currently being considered for distribution worldwide.
My background is as a print journalist and nonfiction author, not as an advocate, and our coverage reflects this drive to be accurate and balanced. Yet after a decade covering the Middle East, it’s impossible to ignore that the majority of international news is reported by men and about men. This occurs even as women now make up more than half the civilians killed in conflict, and half of refugees worldwide. Women are increasingly leaders in government, informal peace negotiations and businesses, yet their voices continue to be overlooked. Research shows women are much less likely to be quoted in newspaper articles on world affairs, appear as experts on television, have their op-eds published, have their books reviewed or be the focus of an international stories. The overall decline in in-depth foreign news coverage even further reduces the chances that women’s solutions, analysis and perspective will be heard on a global stage. Readers are missing half the story. We know that there are important stories out there, and we’re dedicated to telling them.
What is a typical day like?
The Fuller Project's network currently includes journalists from 6 different countries, but our headquarters is based in Istanbul and includes a team of eight who meet most days, including 2 print journalists, a photographer, a filmmaker and three student researchers. We speak a total of 5 languages.
My day starts the night before, when I plan out what I want to get done the following morning. Then I start the day around 8:30am catching up on email or writing. The rest of the team arrives at 10am, and we catch up on each others work and spend the rest of the day either researching story ideas, pitching or writing or going over ideas with editors. If someone is writing or on deadline, they may leave the office or sit outside on the garden patio to completely focus without interruption. We are always working on a few stories at once.
Due to the time differences, I usually work at night to stay in touch with US-based editors, so I often take off a few hours in the late afternoon and then work two more hours from 8-10pm. We all travel a lot as well, and when out reporting, we usually go for several days to places like the Syrian border, Eastern Turkey, Jordan or Northern Iraq – and whilst there we work around the clock which is fun and exhausting. The team culture is completely results driven and schedules are flexible. No one works set hours, and I avoid meetings unless they are completely necessary and driven by specific goals. Given the nature of our work, everyone on the team is really passionate and driven so motivation is not a problem.
We also try to keep up with the news and stay in the conversation on social media. To help stay connected to the world, we invite interesting women from different fields to be speakers at a Friday lunch once a month. The office is really a salon-like environment in which we get to deepen our understanding of an issue and broaden our network. The vision is to build up expertise on global issues that most affect women’s lives socan see the patterns and connections that drive ground-breaking journalism. We aim to support the work of journalists and filmmakers covering women from Azerbaijan to Africa to London, and eventually do stories with a global focus.
Tell us about covering the Iraq War and the region for the The New York Times in the early 2000s.
In 2003, The Times higher education editor and I came up with the assignment for me to cover the intellectual transition from Saddam’s closed dictatorship to Western democracy. I arrived in Baghdad in 2003 with no experience in the Middle East, or conflict reporting, and not knowing anyone. I thought I would stay 3 weeks, but I stayed almost 2 years, and wrote dozens of stories and became interested enough in women's experiences to write a nonfiction book about women in the war, “Sisters In War: A Story of Love, Family and Survival in the New Iraq”
It was an extraordinary time, and a fast moving, complicated story – within a year the story evolved from liberation to chaos to uprising and insurgency. Dozens and dozens of reporters were there, but few were interested in looking at the intersection of Western feminism and Islam, and how democracy can curb women’s freedoms. Women suffered under Saddam but they attended school and moved around freely. Today they are much worse off. As one of the only reporters writing about them, I felt a lot of ownership and a tremendous responsibility to get their voices out.
You are one of the founders and senior editor of The Solutions Journal. What does it entail and why did you decide to set up your own publication?
The idea behind creating Solutions Journal in 2009 was to create a publication that translates the best research from academia into readable, journalist-driven stories. This was a real respite after six years of covering the biggest foreign policy disaster of my generation. My own perspective had become very negative and, I wanted to use investigative journalism to shed light on what works, and I saw equal value in doing serious reporting on good ideas. Two environmental professors had funding and so we joined forces and the idea immediately took off. Since then, you've seen many other publications come to realize the public is interest in well-reported stories about what works, and we now have the NY Times Fixes column, The Solutions Journalism Network and other efforts at solutions-driven journalism, which shows how the idea resonated with readers. Our own circulation has skyrocketed and we’re now in our sixth year with major funding.
You have written two books, Sisters in War (Random House 2009) and The Emergency Teacher (2007). What was that like?
Very rewarding. Articles disappear, but a book feels like forever. Still, people email me years later about my books, especially The Emergency Teacher, which is about a year I spent at 26 years old teaching in Philadelphia’s toughest urban school. New teachers still read it and identify with my experience and want to talk about their own. I love long-form narrative, character-driven story telling and the chance to dive deep on a subject, and I’m looking forward to writing another one in the future.
While a sophomore in college, you interned for the Office of the First Lady at the White House under Bill Clinton. What was that like?
The opportunity to work in the White House was unforgettable, but it helped me realize I was not suited to work in government. I’m more comfortable as an outsider questioning and analyzing the uses of power and I’m quickly frustrated with bureaucracy and meetings. When I entered Boston University, I thought I would be a teacher, and then I realized I liked to travel and imagined I would try to work in the State Department. This White House internship showed me I didn’t want to be a government bureaucrat, and shortly after that – my junior year – I tried the college newspaper and fell in love with journalism. In that way, internships are so useful in helping form your career path. Nevertheless, the chance to work alongside Hillary Clinton in 1993 was nothing short of inspiring. I observed first-hand her drive and energy and how she fearlessly pushed the boundaries for women against criticism, at a time when there were almost no role models for young women in politics or journalism.
Yes, but I think the type of degree was less important than the quality of the teaching. My professors at BU were first rate, and many had come from the fields they taught in. However, my programme at LSE was very airy and theoretical, and I should have looked more closely at the teaching staff before choosing that focus. In journalism, you’re judged by the quality of your work, and not your number of degrees or GPA – so if there’s something more rewarding for you than grad school than I would recommend following that path and not getting the degree for the sake of it.
How do you use your degrees in your current career?
I intentionally chose not to major in journalism, but to get a broader education in history, philosophy and politics, and learn journalism at the school newspaper after classes. This was a good choice because it’s hard to find the time after you graduate to read and think about bigger philosophical issues, and it’s great to approach topics with a grounding in history. Specifically, I’m very grateful for my American government courses because I learned the basic structure, history and philosophy of the founding of our country. My philosophy classes really taught me to think critically. It’s probably useful to take a few classes that give you solid skills you can put on a resume, like video editing. This sounds minor, but don’t graduate without a solid grasp of grammar, because everything is emails these days and when I see someone spelling words wrong or with poor punctuation, it looks terrible.
What are the particular advantages and barriers a woman journalist might face?
Statistics show that women are under-represented in the newsroom, as newsroom leaders and as contributors on op-ed pages. Women are also quoted much less often in articles. There are many reasons as to why, but young women journalists should be prepared to fight for good assignments, and speak up at meetings. They should recognise that their opinions might be given less value because they are women, but they should not let that slow them down or deter them from speaking up.
What would you recommend to a young woman who would like to pursue a similar career?
Come and intern with The Fuller Project. We have several reporting and research programs for undergrads and grad students throughout the year. Or work for your hometown newspaper or radio station and try to get solid news reporting experience before you graduate. Try to develop additional skills, like basic video editing or fluency in a second language. If you want to be a foreign correspondent, you probably have to send yourself overseas in the beginning, but you can try and find grants to support your work, like with The Overseas Press Club, and then try to land a job as a correspondent. Or try to find work at an NGO or think tank and freelance writing articles. Reporting as a foreign correspondent has become a very competitive and challenging field, though.
What was your first job and what did you learn doing it you still use nowadays?
My first journalism job was at The New York Times Boston Bureau, and one of the many things I learned was the importance of getting out of the office and talking to as many people as possible. Some young reporters feel to shy about just walking up to strangers, but you have to master that skill.
What are the most and least rewarding aspects of your career so far?
The most rewarding aspect is working on ground-breaking stories that move forward people’s thinking on a topic. For example, in my book Sisters in War I wrote about the experiences of women leaders pushing for feminism in Iraq after the war, and the many lessons learned. No-one else was writing about that, and that history would have been lost had I not captured it. More recently, I wrote a New York Times op-ed about loopholes in domestic violence laws in Turkey, which uncovered a disturbing pattern of lenient sentencing for men who murdered their wives in honour killings. Again, we honed in on a topic no-one else was talking about. The least rewarding is that good investigative reporting costs money and there is financial pressure on news organisations to do shorter, breezier pieces rather than shoulder the costs of a well-researched investigation.
What are the key skills that make you good at what you do? How did you gain them?
Curiosity is essential, as well as an eye for detail and an ear for quotes. You can develop that by reading journalism you admire and really studying it scientifically. In college, I used to underline sentences in articles and sometimes I would even rewrite articles just to get the rhythm in my head. Whenever I could I would contact the reporters and ask them to explain to me why they wrote the article the way they did and their process. The other key skill is passion. There are some people who just really love and feel passionate about journalism – and I’m one of them. There’s nothing else I would rather do. Without that passion, the challenges of the industry can be discouraging.
What is the toughest lesson you have learnt?
I used to think that good work would naturally rise to the surface, but now I realise you have to push for attention and promote work you really care about because otherwise it could go unnoticed.
What has been your biggest challenge and how did you tackle it?
Going to Iraq to cover a war by myself as a freelancer at the start of the war seems like the obvious answer, but in fact I think my biggest challenge was reshaping my career after taking several years to write a book and start a family. I wanted to spend the early years mostly at home with my children, but there didn’t seem to be any role models or any obvious paths back in to what I loved doing once they got a bit older, and I felt isolated and began to feel I had nothing to offer. One day, I was talking it over with a friend and she suggested a career coach, which seemed a strange idea at the time. Months later, another amazing female friend recommended one, and over a year we met weekly. She really helped me articulate my career goals, a realistic schedule, and work through internal obstacles like rebuilding my confidence and selling myself. Since then, I’ve founded an organization doing exactly what I’ve always wanted to do with my life. For anyone who feels stuck or uncertain about their career at any point, I recommend teaming up with a trained professional and not going it alone.
What achievements are you most proud of?
Writing two books, learning Spanish and Turkish, publishing in The New York Times, mastering balance in my life, and staying focused on my passion, which is journalism and women’s rights.
Why the interest in foreign affairs?
My parents are immigrants to the US, and I grew up with a foot in two cultures so I always had that perspective. I’m more interested in foreign cultures than in foreign policy. I love to see how people look at issues in a different way. I love the challenges of navigating in a foreign environment.
Do you have a role model and if so who and why?
I have lots of role models, and many of them I have cultivated as friends. Margaret Fuller was a 19th century writer, editor, feminist and one of our first female foreign correspondents. When I think of the challenges she faced as a woman, and in travelling overseas on assignments, I’m really humbled. Her literary contributions were largely overlooked until Meghan Marshall wrote a stunning biography of her that won the Pulitzer in 2014. I met Meghan and she is also one of my role models because she stuck to her vision and stayed dedicated to unearthing important yet overlooked work by women.
Christina Asquith | Founder and Director of The Fuller Project for International Reporting | Istanbul, Turkey
20 years' experience
CV in brief:
Books: Sisters in War: A Story of Love, Family, and Survival in the New Iraq | The Emergency Teacher: The inspirational Story of a New Teacher in an Inner-City School
Recent writing: Why Turkey’s Election Is High Stakes for Women (TIME) | The "Gang of Girls" risks their lives to report from inside a war zone (ELLE magazine) | The Women Battling an Islamist Strongman (Daily Beast)
Author Christina Asquith discusses her book, Sisters in War: A Story of Love, Family, and Survival in the New Iraq, on January 28, 2010 as part of Northeastern University Libraries' Meet the Author Series.
"All wars claim victims far beyond the battlefield. Iraq is no different. The weight of wars' brutality falls especially heavily on Iraq's women. They are witnessing the erosion of hard won rights and opportunities" Christina Asquith explains the nature of their predicament and how they cope with it.