Jane Ferguson is a Polk, Emmy, and DuPont award-winning special correspondent for PBS NewsHour covering the Middle East and Africa. She just returned from a reporting trip in Kabul where she spoke to those attempting to escape Afghanistan as U.S. forces withdrew and the Taliban seized control of the country. Newly based in New York City, she lived in the Middle East for 12 years covering everything from the Yemeni Civil War to famine in South Sudan. Originally from a small farm in Northern Ireland, she moved to Yemen after college to learn Arabic and begin a freelance journalism career. She worked for CNN and Al Jazeera on a freelance basis before joining PBS. She also taught at Princeton last year as a visiting lecturer. Ferguson spoke to us about letting yourself process sadness, the importance of strong relationships in the field, and the difference between bravery and bravado.
On her morning routine:
I take comfort — as many people do — in little routines and rituals. When I’m off work and I’m genuinely R&R-ing in between assignments I try to hit as many of these as I can in my morning: journaling, running, and meditation. I rarely hit all three. Two out of three though is a pretty good morning. There’s a Buddhism center in Chelsea that has been keeping me sane throughout the lockdowns. They do these early morning live half-hour guided meditations. Obviously that all goes out the window when I’m on assignment. I still try to journal. I’ll be up earlier than the rest of the team for the embarrassing reason that I have to blow-dry my hair. I’m the only one who has to look very presentable so I’ll be ironing a shirt or blow-drying my hair, but also I do a lot of my own producing so I’m up early working on that kind of thing. I don’t normally eat breakfast, but when I’m on the road, I eat a big one, because you never know when you’re going to eat again that day.
I graduated in 2007, which was kind of disastrous because it was the financial crisis, and so I struggled. Graduate job programs were canceled and it was just an apocalyptic scene media-wise. I had been heavily involved in student journalism and was very excited to launch my career, and it just didn’t happen. So I decided to go to Yemen and study Arabic, because at the time, I was worried about just having a big hole in my résumé where it didn’t look like I was doing very much of anything other than waiting tables. It was an incredibly immersive experience. I spent four months there living in Sana’a, but it wasn’t really until I moved to Beirut a few years later that I was able to lean into the study. I took about six months off between working for Al Jazeera and working for PBS and in that time I took intensive private classes. I was learning more of the street Arabic, and that was the most rewarding for me because I started to see it in my assignments where I could really chat with people.
On language and connection:
So much of my work takes place in other peoples’ spaces. I enter their homes. I sit at their dinner tables. I attend the most intimate and private moments of their lives — funerals, weddings. I really kind of intrude, as a reporter. The least I can do is be able to talk to them. The Arabic is important for the journalism, for the news-gathering, but ultimately, it’s really just about making those connections more authentic. I’m sitting at a woman’s house, I want to be able to ask her about the dinner and tell her that it tasted delicious and actually mean it. I want to be able to interact with small children. I want them to talk at length. I want to be able to say “Tell me your story,” because 90 percent of interviews should be listening and I can’t do that if there’s this awkward back-and-forth with an interpreter.
On asking yourself “Why?”:
It’s really, really such an important distinction between bravery and bravado. What you’re doing for the people that you’re telling the story about, versus what you’re doing for yourself. It takes a lot of very brutal self-awareness to be honest with yourself about these sorts of things. Why am I doing this, really? You can’t be a television journalist because you want to be on television. You have to love this work. You can’t be lying to yourself about it and grinning and bearing it because you have a successful career and it’s fun and you’re on TV. To do it well, you have to care. So if that is your overall career philosophy then it’s going to be easier in those moments when you ask yourself: How much of a difference can my reporting make? Are there already loads of reporters there? Do I genuinely think I’m the only person or one of very few people who can get there and make this happen? When you find yourself — perhaps it sounds arrogant — but when you do find yourself the only reporter or one of very, very few reporters at a vastly important story, especially one that involves a lot of civilian lives, there is a sense of responsibility. I certainly don’t enjoy risking my life. I’m not an adrenaline junkie and I have no death wish whatsoever. I have a wonderful life and I very much look forward to returning to it after assignment but I’m willing to take risks for stories that matter.
The reality is this is a dangerous job. But I’m comfortable taking extreme risks if I feel as though my reporting is necessary. Other people have a different kind of risk perception, and it really varies. I have two sisters and one of them will fret more than the other. My boyfriend’s very supportive. He understands these sorts of stories. I think a lot of people want to be supportive but they worry about you. Most of my friends are journalists and so I think that they have a similar risk assessment to me. I’ll only hear from them when it’s like, “The Taliban walked into town,” or there was an explosion. They’ll just check in and be like “Are you okay?” But other people in my life who are not journalists, they get concerned. I try to be honest. For years, I would downplay the dangers and be like, “Oh, it’s fine! It’s not that dangerous,” but now I try to be honest and say: “Look, I don’t take ridiculous risks.” I’m not mindless and thoughtless. People don’t see the trips you didn’t take or the interviews that you turned down. There is a much more measured, careful, thought-through process to the risk-taking, because don’t forget, I’m also taking a camera person and a producer and a local fixer — a driver. I’m the one who’s bringing the team in, so I feel a profound sense of responsibility for them. I wouldn’t just say: “Everybody just toughen up, we’re going in.” I sit down and discuss: “Here are the risks. Here’s what we’re doing to mitigate the risks. Are we okay with the risks that we can’t mitigate?”
On processing human suffering, war, and conflict:
I try to not process in the field. To be a good journalist — you’re an empath, you’re listening 110 percent, you are connecting with people in a very real way when the cameras are on and when they’re off, all day long. You’re absorbing other peoples’ trauma. You give a shit, basically. However, there is a necessity for self-preservation, which I actually struggled a little bit on this trip [to Kabul]. This is the first trip where I’ve done a lot of crying. Normally I don’t cry at all. We had to keep editing out chunks of me crying when I was interviewing a female surgeon from Herat City (a big city in Western Afghanistan) who was basically just begging me for help and trying to get on a plane and her whole career was collapsing and the Taliban wanted to marry her off because she was single and they find that unacceptable and she was living alone with her sister. I don’t want to cry on camera because I don’t want it to be about me, but at the same time, we have these feelings. You can’t just put them in a box and ignore them forever. I come home and I have what I’ve described before as the Big Cry with a capital B and C. It might happen a week later, a week or two later. It’s important for me to be alone and just allow myself to feel the things that I couldn’t quite allow myself to feel fully when I’m in the field.
On relationships in the field:
There’s nothing more important than having this incredible symbiotic relationship with your team. These trips are psychologically and emotionally draining, so it matters to me that I’m with someone who I would want to be with in those scenarios. Picture a disaster-movie scenario and who in your life would you want with you in that moment. It’s a specific kind of character. People who don’t complain, who are collegiate, positive — people [who are] supportive, who look for solutions, who are extremely tough physically.
On the fickle news cycle:
Afghanistan as a story has been one that has been largely ignored. I could almost feel the eye roll through the phone when talking to editors and bosses about Afghanistan [before this month], other than at PBS. So Afghanistan has been the hardest sell of all for years for journalists. Suddenly, all anybody wants to talk about is Afghan women and there’s a sense of frustration, you feel like you’ve been screaming about this for two years. So I would say, not to see it as a negative or a complaint, but to see it as a positive. It just felt good to be in peoples’ living rooms talking about this issue and to feel like you had a captive audience to talk about something that matters and has mattered to me for years.
Interview has been edited and condensed.