PRODUCER | THE CENTER FOR INVESTIGATIVE REPORTING/REVEAL
You studied English at Earlham College in the US...
I actually did my last semester of college in Jerusalem, and after that, I got really interested in Journalism - it didn’t seem like there was any reason to stop. Now, I get a lot of calls from journalists who ask if I went to Graduate school. I think it really works for some people, but, looking at the student loan situation right now, it's really hard for me to recommend that people go to graduate school. Particularly for something like Journalism, which is something you can do just by practicing.
Having said that, I'm sure there are things people learn in grad school that I haven't learned.
Can you tell us a bit about your first job at the NPR (National Public Radio)?
I got an internship with NPR while I was in Jerusalem. Earlham's programme placed students in a homestay in Bethlehem for three weeks and then in West Jerusalem for three weeks. It was a time in my life where I was really interested in ethnic conflict. I was from Southern California, in my opinion, a culturally placid place. I wanted to stay, so I faxed out my résumé, because that's what you did back then. That's how I hustled an internship with NPR - which I don't think actually existed at the time. I told Linda Gradstein (NPR's Israeli correspondent, 1990-2009) that I wanted to help her out, and pretty soon I was going out and gathering interviews in Jerusalem by myself.
Now that I see what the application process is really like, I'm glad that I got my first start there. The NPR internship process is very competitive nowadays. I was in Jerusalem for two years.
What did you do next?
I got a temporary job at Morning edition, so I moved out to Washington D.C. to take it. I also worked at All Things Considered. I got a permanent position as a producer for the National Desk. By then, they'd started NPR West in Culver City, California, so I was the field producer in the Western United States. It was exactly what I wanted to do - I got to travel and work on the big stories. I also did work for the foreign desk - I was in Iraq in August 2004, in Haiti after the earthquake, and in Libya during the Arab Spring in 2011. I was embedded in Afghanistan with the military for some time.
Do you think being a woman changed the way you did your job?
In Afghanistan, I was more aware of my gender than I have been before. There was one base where I was literally the only woman there, and they had to change the shower schedule so no one could be in the shower at the same time as me.
However, I do not think my gender was a hindrance to my job. It is difficult when they don't have the facilities you are used to having, and I had to stay by myself in a separate tent, away from my male colleagues.
What was your plan when you came back from Afghanistan?
I thought about doing more work for NPR. Al Jazeera America started, and I had always been interested in Al Jazeera English and Al Jazeera Arabic, so I started working for the Al Jazeera America flagship show in DC - America Tonight. It was a little more 'America' focused than what I wanted; I ended up working at Al Jazeera English in Doha (Qatar) for about a year. It was a great experience, and I enjoyed working with such a diverse group of people. It was also interesting to see the news from outside the United States, and working with people from all over the world - the UK, Pakistan, India, Zimbabwe, South Africa, other Arab countries - you see everything differently, not just seeing it through the eyes of Americans. It was an invaluable experience.
How did you end up back in California at Reveal/ the Center for Investigative Reporting?
A colleague of mine from NPR started working at there, so I applied. It's very fun to work on a weekly investigative show. I've previously worked on TV channels, on 24-hour news, magazine shows - but still the weekly show at Reveal has been very challenging. I'm learning a lot as I'm doing it.
What's a typical day like?
There aren't a lot of typical days. I've been working on one story for most of the time I've been there. It's not uncommon to have a print reporter working on a story for a year or more. My current story should air in the next month. I spend all of my time working on that story - we've travelled to Malawi, South Africa, Denmark, Louisville (USA), and the East coast to do this story. Plus, I went down to LA to get court documents for my research. So, putting all of this together into a radio story takes time.
You have two Peabody Awards, the Robert F. Kennedy Award for Journalism, the Alfred I. DuPont- Columbia University Award, among others. Which story are you most proud of?
I worked with Laura Sullivan at NPR a lot, and that's where a lot of the awards came from, I definitely have to credit her on all the stories we worked. We won a Peabody and the RFK Award for Journalism for our series uncovering the truth about the 1972 murder in a prison in Angola, Louisiana.
What I'm most proud of was a story I wrote about Dr. Hazem Chehabi, a local honorary Syrian consul in Orange County. While he was still on the Council (and close to Assad), he was also a major funder of UC Irvine in California, and the President of the UC Irvine Foundation. When I interviewed him, he wouldn't speak on the record at all. Some college students caught wind of his position as part of the Syrian Government and on the UC Irvine Foundation, and protested. Six months later, he called me up and said he didn't want to work for the Syrian Government anymore, and he had quit. I'm proud of that story.
Do you speak any other languages?
I've dabbled in Arabic and can sound out the words but my speaking hasn't developed much past that unfortunately. I can speak a little bit of French and Spanish - I can charm people. I have had to do interviews in Spanish, and have to find someone to translate the Spanish for me.
What advice would you give to a young woman who wants to pursue a career in journalism, especially investigative journalism?
I would definitely try to get involved in any journalism outlets available to you. Right now is a great time to get involved because you can produce your own podcast on your phone. If it's your first time, I would recommend pairing with a professor, a mentor, or another journalist to work on such a project
What skills do you think are most important for your work?
Curiosity is irreplaceable. Commonly, you'll hear 'seasoned' journalists complain that the newest batches of interns and early journalists aren't curious enough. Curiosity also helps with doggedness, especially when investigating. Accuracy and attention to detail are equally as important. You have to be able to check the details of your story, and be as accurate as possible.
Amy Walters | Producer | The Center for Investigative Reporting/Reveal
15 years' experience
CV in brief
Studied BA English at Earlham College
Exclusive interview by Aisha Babalakin, San Francisco, 22 January 2016