Sally Hayden spoke to Women in Foreign Policy about her career as a journalist and reporting on the migration crisis.
Interview by Hannah McCarthy
Name: Sally Hayden
Role: Freelance Journalist
Education: Law (International) BCL, University College Dublin | MSc International Politics, Trinity College, Dublin
Previous work: Reporter at VICE News
Recommended Reading: Books that inspired me to become a journalist were ‘Small Wars Permitting’ and ‘The Africa House’ by Christina Lamb, ‘We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families’ by Philip Gourevitch, ‘Nothing to Envy’ by Barbara Demick and ‘Unreasonable Behaviour’ by Don McCullin. Books that got me interested in covering conflict and post-conflict situations specifically were ‘Shake Hands With the Devil’ by Romeo Dallaire and, as a child, ‘Zlata’s Diary’ by Zlata Filipović.
What was the last assignment you worked on?
I was in Liberia for ten days last month looking at the state of the health system post-Ebola. In particular, I was looking at tuberculosis, which was described as "Ebola in slow motion" by one health worker because of the number of people it affects. Tuberculosis is the biggest infectious killer in the world at the moment. I went to isolation wards, a prison, met some amazing doctors working in challenging situations, and interviewed Liberia's health minister.
I am also currently working on stories about the investigation into fraud in the refugee resettlement programme at UNHCR Sudan, the return of Lord's Resistance Army defectors to their families in northern Uganda, I'm continuing to monitor what's happening to refugees who return to Syria from Europe, and I'm also working on a radio documentary about music in Syria.
As a freelance journalist, how do you find assignments and come up with ideas for stories?
I have contacts all over the world, and I am always speaking to people - every day I check in with or am contacted by a range of people. I also send out regular pitches when I have ideas for stories, to see if editors are interested, and I regularly apply for grants to try and get funding to pay for travel and research.
Unfortunately, a lot of it comes down to how I can make enough money to stay afloat financially. There are a lot of stories I think are under-covered and would like to devote much more time to, but without backing, I'm essentially working for free (which I do a lot anyway).
What is your approach for preparing for an assignment abroad?
I read as much as I can and speak to people I know who have been to the country. I scan news stories but also read books, novels and whatever else I come across. I think carefully about what kind of stories I want to do, and try and make contacts in those areas. A lot of time also goes into sorting out the practicalities: what kind of money do they use, are they under sanctions or will ATMs work, what are the risks I should be aware of, what are the cultural considerations.
I am quite conscious of risk, and I make sure I speak to colleagues about that ahead of time, planning out any possible dangers and how I would react to them. I have gone through extensive safety training, which I think is pretty key for anyone doing this kind of work.
Did you always want to be a journalist?
I knew I liked meeting people and telling stories. I also considered becoming a human rights investigator or working on war crimes tribunals (I studied law). I wanted to be doing something that helped people, and I think despite its many detractors good journalism does.
What were the steps you took to becoming a journalist?
I won a writing competition to do work experience when I was still in secondary school and wrote for my university newspaper. With a friend, I actually set up a school newsletter in primary school too. When I finished my masters in Trinity, I was lucky enough to get a fellowship which paid for me to go to Malawi and begin reporting. I also did internships in CNN International, the BBC, the Financial Times and the Santa Barbara Independent, mixing those with bar work and whatever else I could make money from. After all that, I got a staff job at VICE News.
How did you end up reporting on the migration crisis?
I was a staff writer for VICE News in London between 2014 and 2016. I covered a lot of the tragedies in the Mediterranean and ended up going over to Calais, France, to report for the first time in August 2015. There I met migrants and refugees from all over Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. I went back to Calais around a dozen times, but also stayed in touch with many people I met there, and ended up reporting from several of their origin countries, including Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, Sudan, The Gambia, and Ethiopia.
Do you think there are any problems with how stories related to the migration crisis are reported?
I think now there’s a problem with the same stories being run again and again. Rather than just telling personal stories, which many readers have shut off from, there is also a serious need for more investigation and analysis into other issues. For example, how the EU is spending money to stem migration and whether that is fuelling abuses, how complicit some African governments are in the smuggling trade, where exploitation exists along the smuggling routes and why there is so much impunity, and what role the West is playing in various wars (e.g. Yemen). It is difficult to do this work because of the time it takes and the lack of funding.
I also think more could be done to involve journalists from refugee-origin countries in the coverage. I work as a mentor with a project called the Refugee Journalism Project, which helps exiled journalists restart their careers in the UK. We have a community of talented people from Syria, Sudan, Eritrea, Pakistan, and a range of other countries. They have a lot of contextual knowledge, and great contacts, but are not being given the opportunities to work on the coverage.
What are important considerations for a reporter when covering stories about refugees and migrants?
Be aware of the consequences your reports might have for someone you interview, and make sure you talk it through with them whether to name them and what details to include because there can be repercussions both for their asylum claims and for any family still at home.
Be conscious of the trauma that so many migrants and refugees have been through. Do not push them to disclose upsetting details or to relive traumatic events. But likewise, if they want to tell you about something that happened, honour them by listening rather than shutting them down.
Do not patronise interviewees. Ask them how they think their story should be told and what is misunderstood about the situation they’re escaping. Do not assume you know what they have been through.
What are the most important skills for a foreign reporter/journalist to have?
Curiosity. Compassion. Good fact-checking skills. The willingness to work long hours for little or sometimes no pay. This job will change you and make you harder, and that is sad but necessary because you spend a lot of time listening to upsetting stories, and can easily become depressed and cynical. If you are freelance, there is also very little support sometimes, so you have to be able to spend a lot of time on your own and trust in your own judgment.
What advice would you have for anyone who is interested in becoming a journalist / foreign reporter?
Realise how little you know. Be willing to listen to as many people as possible and tease out nuances, especially when you are in a new location, so you really appreciate what you are writing about.
Learn from and support your peers: I closely follow the work of a lot of skilled journalists and do not mind saying I am fans of them.
Spend more time focusing on your stories than trying to network other media people. A lot of new journalists are advised to keep asking people for coffee, but meeting colleagues will be easier and more natural when you actually have some work to talk about.
Do not be embarrassed about showing you really care about an issue, or have been obsessively focused on researching one thing. People appreciate hard work and passion.
Try and avoid writing anything too personal when you’re starting out. Keep your own views out of your reporting. Facts are more powerful than opinions.