Jane Ferguson

610: Report stories that are additive and talk to those no one else is talking to

Jane Ferguson might have dreamed of working for the BBC or CNN as a young reporter, but she encourages young journalists to think beyond the headlines to find the places where their work can be “additive.” 

A foreign correspondent for PBS NewsHour and a contributor to the New Yorker, Ferguson was recently named the inaugural winner of the Neal Conan Prize for Excellence in Journalism and last year published a memoir about her career. 

“I grew up in Northern Ireland, in a very rural place, in the midst of what was called The Troubles back then. I had this mix of curiosity about what made people tick, what made people commit acts of violence, about what divided people, what united them,” she says. “I had a lot of questions growing up as a kid in a place where you weren’t really encouraged to ask questions and have discussions about these things.” 

Ferguson’s relentless curiosity and passion for digging for the truth, combined with a healthy dose of wanderlust, led to her moving to the Middle East shortly after graduating from college. She worked as a reporter for an English language newspaper there before freelancing for CNN, Al Jazeera English. She joined PBS in 2015. “By the time I was pitching to PBS, I was living in Beirut and I was drawn to the fact that they were doing magazine-length reporting. I wanted to do longer, in-depth pieces, that was always my passion and my intention,” she says.

Along the way, Ferguson has learned that chasing the biggest headlines in the places where other news outlets already have a presence might not be the best way to contribute to the world’s information base. 

“I have the ability now to think a bit more about what it is I want to cover, which stories would I do, which do I think are additive. When you’re a young reporter, there’s a tendency to want to be where everybody else is,” she says. “Over the years, I’ve learned to go to where places are not being reported from. In the early stages, I did that out of necessity. If you want to sell a story to CNN and you’re a kiddo, don’t go to Baghdad; they have a fully stocked bureau. (I went to) Yemen back then when nobody was going there and doing that. Over the years, I’ve realized that ended up being my greatest strength, going to places that were under-covered. Now I don’t view it through the lens of me and my career. Now I’m able to look at these stories and think, ‘Where can I be additive? Where could my reporting actually help fill a gap in global awareness or American awareness, at the very least?’” 

Ferguson also encourages young reporters, like those she teaches at Princeton University, to find people to talk to and report on at intervals. “I’ve always been fascinated by how conflict impacts society and communities. Try to dig deeper into stories to help audiences connect with characters. I’ve loved doing that, finding someone who I can spend time with, whether it’s a female doctor in Afghanistan or someone in Yemen anywhere I go, especially in places like Iraq and Syria. Find someone who’s really interesting and thoughtful and return to them. I’ve loved finding someone my audience can connect to and going back to them again and again. That really matters to me. It’s sort of at the heart, hopefully, of good storytelling.” 

Jane Ferguson, a foreign correspondent for PBS NewsHour and contributor to The New Yorker, was recently named the inaugural winner of the Neal Conan Prize for Excellence in Journalism. She discusses how covering news in conflict areas has changed in the course of 20 years.

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