Let's Talk: Personal Boundaries, Safety & Women in Journalism
JINA MOORE, EAST AFRICA BUREAU CHIEF, THE NEW YORK TIMES
Sarah Stillman: What makes you feel most alive as a journalist? What is it that you really love about the profession? What draws you towards it?
Jina Moore: That's a very good question. People always say that, don't they? I feel like people say that when they're being asked a question that's actually somehow flattering themselves, but it does feel like a very good question. My favorite moment, it's like a whole other plane of physical, mental, spiritual existence, I feel like. Being on the back of a motorcycle on some dirt road in the middle of Rwanda, or Eastern Congo, in the middle of banana fields in particular. I love them. Ending up on somebody's farm, or pulling over on the side of the road to talk to somebody. Encountering people who didn't expect you, and you didn't expect them, but something about where they are, or who they are, or what's going on, is integral to whatever it is you're trying to understand, and then convey to other people.
Sometimes, that's a delight, and sometimes it's a moment of real tragedy. There's something really electric about those encounters, both from me, and I think based on the feedback that you're kind of into it when you're talking to people, for them as well, especially if they've just come from something that's monumental to them, good or bad, and here's a chance to communicate it to the outside world. I'm a conduit for the people I meet. Very clearly, who I am as a person, it's not relevant, generally, to the situation. It's more about what it might mean to be able to get someone to get this out there. That's a very special privileged space of human interaction.
Sarah Stillman: Interesting, you mentioned being on a motorcycle and that joyful feeling, because actually, one of the stories I was thinking about sharing for this video involves having to make that choice of, "Do I get on the motorcycle? Do I not get on the motorcycle of this random male stranger who's promising me a story." They've got a motorcycle and he was really wonderful. Later, I found out this guy was subsequently convicted of sexually assaulting women. I wonder if you've had situations like that when you're like, "Do I, do I not get on the motorcycle?" How you thought about those moments when you're out in the field reporting, making choices. Are there are moments when your gender has informed the choice and could you tell us a little bit about it?
Jina Moore: I tend not to think gender-first, which maybe is a mistake. I don't know. It is, or it isn't, it's just how it works for me. I tend to have a gut feeling about something, and then the last 10 years of my life as a professional journalist has been learning to trust that feeling, and feeling very, very, very lucky when it maybe kicked in a little late. Or when I, early on, chose to ignore it, and then was lucky that nothing happened, but realized looking back, maybe that was a mistake. I think I had been a reporter, reporting as a foreign correspondent in Africa, for I don't know, two, three years, when I was doing a project in the Central African Republic. This was prior to the current violence — there's a whole other phase of war going on at that point. There were a lot of different rebel groups, and the main one that everybody thought, "If we can get them to the table and sign a peace deal, then we'll be able to move forward in a meaningful, sustainable fashion."
That particular rebel group had agreed, in principle, to all these proper instruments of peace, and the Western consultants and the diplomats and UN was there, and the I’s were dotted, and the T’s crossed. There was a group of rebels who was still in the bush, so to speak, and everyone thought, "They're the well-behaved ones, it's just a matter of time before we get them all to lay down their arms and go back to civilian life.”
I really wanted to test what I was hearing in the capital against what the rebel commander in the bush seemed to be thinking or feeling. We drove, me, my translator-fixer, and a driver that he knew and trusted. We drove about 14 hours from Bangui, which is the capital of the Central African Republic, to the last sort of outpost towards the border with Chad. That was a very unstable area — there were rebels, but also for reasons that had nothing to do with the conflict.
We got to the last outpost and we slept at a UN Base, it was run by a guy from Burundi and he was like, "Let's call the general and make sure he knows you're coming." He was like, "Give him a call. Here's his number." I didn't understand the phone number he'd given me. He was like, "You need to use your Sat-phone." I was like, "I don't have a Sat-phone. I'm a freelancer." He was like, "Okay, I guess we'll use mine because you're not getting on the road without calling the rebel commander."
He did that for me, and thought, "Okay, that's great." So off we drive. For whatever reason, we got detained at a checkpoint. This is kind of no-man's territory — calm, but the rebels were manning checkpoints and doing their "We're in charge" kind of thing. We ended up getting detained, and the guy who held us back from traveling said, "I don't know anything about you coming. Who are you?" I was a freelancer, so I didn't have a press card, I didn't have a Sat-phone, I didn't have a B-GAN, I didn't have any of the things that this guy was used to seeing as signs of “foreign press.” I had a letter of assignment that I had used to get permission across a Bangui border and that was it. I didn't even think to print out clippings and bring them with me. They were in English, but still, anything, you know? It was just me, and my word.
He was suspicious that I didn't have any of the tools he associated with the job, and we were in a beat-up truck they didn't recognize, not an NGO truck, and all these things that from his perspective, rightly, set off some alarm bells. He said, "Call the general." I said, "I can't." I had a little Nokia. There had been no reception for probably 600 kilometers or something. He said, "Use your Sat-phone." I said, "I don't have a Sat-phone." He was like, "Who the hell are you?" He problem-solved and said, "Okay, here's what we're going to do. I'm going to send one of my runners on a motorcycle up to fetch the general. If he's expecting you, he'll come down, and if he's not expecting you, we'll know you're not who you say you are." I wasn't somehow nervous at that point because I was like, "Of course he was expecting me, we called him yesterday." We waited, and waited, and waited, and waited, and I don't really know. I think it was four or five hours, it felt like forever.
Then it was very quiet. It's a part of the country that had been burnt to the ground by the government, and when the government troops had come through and burned everybody's homes, they had fled to the bush, so people had been living in the jungle for years at this point. There was no one around. It was a kind of silence I have never heard anywhere else. When this flock of motorcycles roars up, you really hear it. It was stunning and kind of terrifying. It must have been 20 guys, 20 soldiers, on motorcycles in a V-formation with the general in the middle. They were all wearing things that seemed to pass as a uniform, so they all kind of had fatigues, and some of them had nabbed them from the French peacekeepers, and some of them had nabbed them from the Chadians, and it was just whatever uniform they had gotten their hands on somewhere.
They were all wearing red berets and they all had some kind of a gold pin, except for two guys, one of whom just looked like he had no idea how he ended up there, the other of whom looked like a suburban history teacher. He was wearing mom-jeans and a t-shirt. The other guy, who was young, and just looked pissed off. I mean, he had rage in his eyes like I had never seen, so probably he was high as well. He was wearing what he thought made him look tough, which was a surgical mask, and the effect was pretty dramatic, I guess, because there was something uncomfortable about the mask.
Sarah Stillman: How did you navigate that situation? That's very intimidating to be by yourself in this very solo spot, then have these men roll up.
Jina Moore: They were all armed. They all had AKs. This kid didn't have an AK — maybe he did have an AK, I can't remember now. I remember them all being armed, and it was the guy in the surgical mask that drew my attention to how motley everyone else was, and the general was making pleasantries with my translator, which bought me some time to get my mind around the situation. I realized, "I am surrounded by 20 men with guns. I am the only civilian besides my translator for 600 kilometers. I'm the only woman I've seen since I left Bangui. I'm probably the only woman they've seen in a very long time." Then we sat down to do an interview, and it was a completely useless interview — in part because he was talking such talking points, and in part because I was frozen with fear. It was just in that moment that I had realized what I had gotten myself into. None of this had ever occurred to me.
We got through the interview, and then the general was like, "Ask my men questions." I tried, and they kept saying, "We agree with what the general said." I felt a little more comfortable at this point because this was a demonstration of power, and authority, and acquiescence that I understood from other places. I knew I was being respected enough to be given a show that was politically meaningful, so I knew at that point where I stood. I relaxed a little bit, but I think it was 45 minutes later. I don't really remember. I remember hearing nothing. I just have no memory of what anyone said. Then we packed up, and everyone relaxed after the whole thing was over, and gave a collective sigh of relief. Out of the blue, someone's cell phone rang. It was the most improbable thing. There hadn't been coverage for I don't know, but somehow, someone's cell phone rang, and it was the most unexpected sound at the end of one of the most tense moments in my life, and I leapt like 30 feet in the air. I jumped, and all these soldiers with their AKs just cracked up laughing. One of them said to me in French, "Madame, that is not what an AK sounds like." I was like, "Okay. All right, all right, now we're cool. I'm going to get in the car, I'm going to go. It was nice to meet you." My mother doesn't know this story, sorry Mom. It was a really profound demonstration to me of my complete inability to assess that kind of risk in advance, or let alone plan for it. Hopefully, in those situations, you're with people, fixers, or drivers, or whatever, that you trust, who can help you navigate this.
I didn't particularly trust my fixer-translator, which was also part of the problem, part of my nerves. It was something that I reflected on a lot because it helped me deepen my imaginative practice through which I prepare for these kinds of things. This sort of second, and third, and fourth, and fifth scenario playing, where you think: Okay, if this happens, what will I do? If that happens, what will I do? Where will I sit in a room? Where will I feel the most safe? If it's a room full of men, what can I do to bring a woman in there if I'm not feeling comfortable? If I can get her in the room by saying, "I want a cup of tea," for example. What can I do to keep her in there? Can I get her to escort me to the bathroom? Whatever it is. I can game that out, but it was not something I had ever thought about gaming out before that particular experience.
I like that story, because it has a funny ending, but it really was a very important learning experience for me, and it could have very easily gone very badly. It was just dumb luck that it worked out fine.
Sarah Stillman: This is super-interesting. You articulated you did an imaginative practice. I'm wondering if you could dig into that a little more? The idea that you actually, it sounds like, play this out in your mind prior to going on an interview now? Maybe you can tell us more about that, and what that would look like in the case of you setting off on a story today? I'll add what you would do differently in this scenario, if you were to go back today, is there anything that you would change about how you showed up in that space?
Jina Moore: For the Central African Republic story, if I were to do it today, the first question I would ask myself ... Or if I was talking to someone else who was telling me, " Hey I'm about to go do this," the first question I would ask is, "Do you need the interview?" It's one thing to try and keep yourself safe in a potentially dicey situation, but it's another one, entirely, to get yourself in a dicey situation that maybe you didn't need to be in the first place.
Assuming that I had had the mental wherewithal to know what the hell was on the tape, it was a radio interview I was doing, assuming that I had had the mental wherewithal to know what was still on the tape and figure out how to incorporate it into my reporting, what would have been the payoff? When I look back on it now, I think, "At the end of the day, it was a hunch." I was pushing on a couple of things. I thought, "If this, then that could be interesting, because it might tell me X, Y, and Z."
None of it was that important. If I knew that that was going to happen, and I had to game out how to handle the risk, I think my conclusion would have been, "The risk is not worth trying to get the interview" rather than, "How can I better handle the interview scenario?"
If I had showed up at the general's house, totally welcomed, everyone knew that I was on my way, there was a parade on the way there, "Welcome to the foreign journalist," I still would have been surrounded by 22 men with guns who didn't know who I was, hadn't seen a woman in a while, and I was on their turf in a part of the country that explicitly, the government doesn't control. That's why I was there. It, explicitly, is beyond the UN parameters, that's why I had stopped at the UN Base to refuel and to sleep, and continue the next morning.
I don't know how you mitigate the risk in that scenario. At that point, you're in. Short of traveling with your own armed guards, that's a whole other ball of journalistic wax, right?
The other failure there, it was inexperience and naïveté on my behalf, but also, I had stopped thinking operationally about what I was being told in Bangui. The biggest thing happening in the UN — my job was to report on UN activities in the CAR at this juncture of the conflict — and at this juncture, I was spending a lot of time with the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration people. The DDR people, so they're the guys you bring in when everybody's decided that we're going to sign a peace accord. We just have to figure out what the sequencing is, what day, and how much money will we give all the guys handing over their guns, and what will their reintegration kit be? You'll give me your AK, I'll give you a hoe and a rake, and some seeds, and off you go to be a farmer again, and we'll hope it works out.
That's an oversimplification, but that's the idea. Everyone in Bangui was focused on this. This was the rebel group that was going to agree to it, it was the biggest and most powerful rebel group in the country. It all stacked up to "This is the right way to do this." Everyone was talking about DDR as a foregone conclusion, because politically, it was a foregone conclusion. That was new, and that was exciting. And that meant that everybody talked about it as if it were a given, and one of the reasons I was interested in going way up to this border post and talking to these soldiers, was to find out whether they really felt it was a given. Whether they were really as on-board with this as it was made to sound in Bangui.
I just forgot that what that means is that they're the guys who still have the guns. It's not going to look like what everybody in Bangui is talking about things are going to look like, because the DDR thing everyone was excited about hadn’t actually happened yet.
It's not that anybody was trying to mislead me. They were doing their job, and we were all talking the same talk, and I just forgot to think through, "What is the state that we're in, and what does that mean about what I'm going to see when I get there?" This goes back to your original question about imaginative practice. I have had to learn over time when I do risk-assessment to imagine occupying a physical space, almost like a camera. What's in your line of sight, what's in your wide-angle, what can't you see behind you unless you turn around?
That kind of thinking is also what I use that to help people tell me stories about what happened to them, or what they've been through. I try to imagine the experience in a sequential way and have them walk me through that sequence, and I try to think about their sequential experienced in a 360-visual way, and have them tell me what they saw around them, heard behind them, smelled — all that narrative stuff.
I use the same set of question-orientations to help myself figure out what risks I might encounter. It's something I do now. It's not something that I did then. So, I try to walk myself through that process about what I myself might encounter in a dodgy scenario. It's the same skill-set, it's just twisted a little bit inside-out, so that I can use it to help figure out what I need to be aware of.
Sarah Stillman: Interesting. Can you give us a really rapid-fire example of that? If you were to line up that practice?
Jina Moore: In Eastleigh, if I'm going to work in Eastleigh in Nairobi, which is a huge community, largely of Somalis, the Kenyan government thinks that there is a lot of al-Shabab sympathizers there. It's seen as not particularly safe. If you're going to go to Eastleigh, you have to know how you're going to get in, and how you're going to get out. You have to know when you get in, how quickly can you get out. What that means is you have to think about the time of day that you're going. You have to think about the street that the restaurant is going to be on. You have to think about being in public places. You have to think about what you're wearing when you're sitting in a public place in Eastleigh, which is a Muslim community, which is different than sitting in the Westgate Mall in ex-pat Nairobi. That's the easiest example.
For me, the operational difference there is, I won't go to Eastleigh without Bernard, who's my amazing driver in Nairobi. Knows everything backwards and forwards, that can tell me, “At this time of day, your in is here, your out is here. If there's a problem with that out, there's an out here, but at 4:00 PM, that road disappears because it's full of people with market wagons going back home." Or whatever it is. I can talk through that with him, and make sure that we have a plan that is executable come disaster, which has never come, but I want to be ready. I think more about that now.
Sarah Stillman: I'll ask you a few really quick, simple questions. The first of which, is how do you define sexual harassment?
Jina Moore: How do you define sexual harassment? It's such a hard question because there's the theoretical answer, then there's the in-your-life answer. I covered global women's rights for three and a half years for BuzzFeed. Lots of my conversations are with women who are being harassed in any manner of ways, and any manner of places, online, offline, in their homes, in refugee camps, at the airport, whatever it is. I understand all of that, I feel like, pretty quickly. Recognizing it while it's happening to me takes a lot longer. Sometimes, it's hard to know what side of the line you're on if someone is just trying to see how far they can push you and how you'll react.
Is someone trying to push your buttons as a journalist? Or is someone trying to harass you as a woman? Those are not necessarily the same thing. One can achieve another objective, obviously. They can sort of interact, but they're not always the same experience. Then there are really big differences in culture. This is difficult to talk about and articulate in a way that's clear, because it's very complex. The boundaries that American women draw around how they believe they should be allowed to hold public space, or around acceptable rhetoric or forms of interaction, or things you can say — they're different in Kenya, for example. I worked, at one point, on a piece about sexism in Kenyan media. The kind of things that women who work in the media have to put up with, and the kinds of things that are just on the front page, or said about female politicians, or that get said on talk radio programs.
It's very, very different than what many people would consider acceptable, or tolerable, in the United States. Understanding when you're just in a different space, culturally, and when someone's intentionally, explicitly, harassing you can be a little tricky. That's important, because I don't think that my job is to stand there and re-educate sexist, patriarchal people about how they should talk to women. My job is to get my job done, and to do it as safely as possible, and that means understanding the line between an intentional form of harassment that's meant as an expression of power, and the use of power, to a particular end, which is at the minimum, to marginalize me, and at the maximum, to harm me, for whatever reason.
That's different than, "I'm operating in a place I would consider sexist. How do I deal with that as I try to do my job?"
Sarah Stillman: Part of me wonders, to an extent, if someone's making me feel uncomfortable intentionality, how much it matters. One of the things we talk about is how a lot of people are perpetrators of either sexual harassment, or other forms of boundary-crossing are not even cognizant, if that's what they're doing. It's like how do you wrestle with that, when someone might knock themselves, either be conscious of that, or culturally, maybe reading it differently, experiencing it as negative. I'm also wondering if any of it was to do with your work?
Jina Moore: I don't have the answer to that. Obviously, it's not a question that has a clear answer, but when I'm thinking about doing the work, doing the work responsibly and doing the work safely, both for me and the people I'm talking to, all the theory kind of disappears on these sort of questions. It's more a matter of, "Is it getting in my way?" and "Does it feel risky?" Sometimes, I'm really slow to see risk, like the Central African Republic story is the best example of that, but are there other small ones? I'm not so worried about things that maybe could be categorized as harassment that don't really feel like they're in my way. Mid-level government officials in a lot of the different places that I've worked especially love to see if they can get away with touching my legs. It's like, "All right, if you feel like you won something because you're going to tell me about whatever the President's secretly doing behind the Vice-President's back about whatever the hell it is I'm interested in at the time, because your hand is on my thigh, fine. I don't give a shit."
That's probably not the thing that you want everybody to be doing, right? We shouldn't all be going, "Well, I guess." But it's not the battle I'm going to fight. Butif every time you tell me something, your hand moves up my thigh, then we're going to have a problem, and that's something that has to be dealt with. It's less, for me, about where is my boundary, because some boundary-crossings are very clear, right? You don't get to grab my breasts, okay, done. Other boundary-crossings are about people seeing what they can get away with. I only care about people seeing what they can get away with when it gets in the way of the work, or when it becomes an imminent danger. That can happen very quickly or very slowly.
It might be that you're at an interview at a bar with a drunk government official whose hand is running up your thigh, and you take care of that really quickly. You get out of there, whatever it is you do, but it might be that you've been talking to a source for four months, and suddenly the interactions are starting to change, or he'll only talk to you at night after he's been home to see his wife, and he'll only talk to you if you also have a beer, you know? Trusting myself about what I feel like in that moment is going on, and whether it's okay, is something that now I just accept. I don't argue with myself, I don't try to justify it. If I don't feel like it's right, I get out, or I write "You can't talk to me like that” on the text message, whatever it is. I reassert a very clear, very firm, boundary. You might say you build a wall.
Sarah Stillman: That's good. I actually would love to return to that when we talk more about some of the best practices stuff, because I think those are really good examples and intuitions. I'm wondering if you could give some examples, or any example about a crossing of this road that you're describing to the extent that you'd feel comfortable. Is there anything you've experienced in that realm? How you navigated it, or how you would navigate it if you faced it now, especially with the source.
Jina Moore: The ones I can think of are not things I want on the Internet. This is not going to answer your question, but just to expand the idea, I feel like it's not easy. I feel like the conversation about safety quite often goes to source-relationships. What's worth the risk? How do you know if you should follow the guy into the forest? How do you know if you should get on the back of a motorcycle? Should you ever do any of those things if you're solo and not with someone else? That's a question I ask myself a lot. It's one thing to trust a guy enough to get on the back of a motorcycle, but it's another thing to agree to do that completely alone. It took me a long time to figure out that those are not always the same thing, at least in the context in which I work.
It doesn't mean it's the wrong thing to do, but to think it through at that level. In any event, what are we willing to do to get the story, and what are the risks to get the story from the source, is where I feel like a lot of conversation happens.
There's also conversation to be had about fixers, especially if you're working in traditionally patriarchal societies. Megan Stack wrote a book called Every Man in this Village is a Liar. It's a sort of part-memoir, part-war reportage of her time in Iraq and Afghanistan. Two places I've never reported, but I recall very clearly, a story about a source who made a pass at her in Afghanistan. She was like, "Are you kidding me? We've been talking for years and now this is going to happen? Do you realize what a cliché you are, sir?"
But also having problems with fixers. That's a hard one. I've never had a fixer who I've had an overt problem with, but especially if you're a print reporter, you don't need a camera guy, you don't need an audio guy — so you’re alone with your fixer. It’s just you and him — in the places I work, the fixers are often men. Obviously, I'm a woman. I'm working in overtly patriarchal societies where there's a lot of different assumptions about how relationships works, how sex works, who American women are. A number of times I hear, when people finally decide they're going to approach me as one of the guys, not a woman, they're going to try to get in bed, how easy they heard it was to get American women into bed, and why am I so different? All these things that suddenly come out, and you realize you're occupying this whole other space that maybe you're not aware of, because you don't think of yourself that way when you go through the world, or when you go through their world.
With fixers, you're putting a lot in someone's hands. You're in the middle of a village, and they're the only other person with you. I think that's also a risky space, and then, how you handle that when this is someone you have to be in the middle of nowhere with for the next 10 days, and he's the one who has the phone number for the driver, or he's the one who speaks the driver's local language. You can speak to him in French, but he's the one that speaks Sango, which is my case in the Central African Republic. That's a whole other tricky dynamic. It's sometimes easier not to deal with it head-on when someone makes a pass at you at the hotel that you share, or whatever it is. It's all some variation on survival instinct in the moment.
Sarah Stillman: What would you advise a young woman in this scenario as you just described? You've talked a little bit about intuition being incredibly important and how you cultivate it over time.
Jina Moore: I think every brilliant woman, and every brilliant female reporter I know, has spent too much of their lives second-guessing their first feeling about whether this is a big deal or not. As soon as the question enters your head, it's a big deal. It doesn't matter. The time you spend litigating it is time you were distracted from figuring out how to deal with what your system, whether your brain has caught up or not, has identified as a risk. If there were one thing that we could all just flip a switch about, that would make all of us a lot safer, I think that's a strong contender. Just listening to intuition, and following it, and not worrying about what it means for the story, or whatever.
My editor when I was at BuzzFeed is a woman — Miriam Elder — and we were talking through a risk scenario around a different kind of risk — overt physical safety risks from conflict zones kind of thing — for a story I was doing in Somalia. She was like, "Look. At the end of the day, the best thing I can say, and I really mean it, is no story is worth a life, worth your life."
This is always true. If you leave and you didn't get the interview, you leave and you didn't get the interview. If you beat yourself up for months because maybe everything would have been fine, maybe you do beat yourself up for months. You'll figure out how to deal with that, but you can figure out how to deal with that because you're alive, and everything has gone back to normal. I think that's really important. I think talking about these things is really important. Not only with other female correspondents to build support and camaraderie, but also in general. To be a person who's willing to talk about that in your newsroom or to your editor, especially if your newsroom is predominantly male, or your editor is a man, to be the person who's willing to raise the question, because maybe somebody else can't or wouldn't, or whatever it is, just to keep it on the radar.
I also think, equally important, is being sensitive to how, in a moment that you identify as potentially risky, even if all the alarm bells aren't totally going off, thinking about how not to antagonize the dude. I have found, I don't know if this is right or wrong, but I have found that my instinct is just to try and keep everyone thinking everything is just what they thought it was before I realized that something is happening, or maybe happening, or this guy wants something to happen. Just be as calm and normal, and as friendly as I was before, but as distant as I can be without putting alarm bells in their head. A physical encounter is a whole different thing. Then all bets are off, but if what you're dealing with is an escalating, verbal situation, or some kind of atmospheric thing is changing, even if you can't quite put your finger on it, you can't say, "Well, he said that and that's what made me feel this." A way someone is looking at you, trust it. The way they're looking at you is the way you feel like they're looking at you.
Just to pretend you didn't see it, pretend it doesn't mean anything, and remove yourself from the space as quickly as you can. That might mean cutting an interview early, or it might mean pretending you have a headache, and going to bed early while your fixer stays up and drinks with whoever they're drinking with, whatever it is. Places of prolonged exposure, to use public health metaphors, to try and keep that up. The worst thing you can have in a situation like the kind I've just described, is a man who feels rejected. I think a lot about how to make sure that the men I work with in the places that I work, if an issue like this comes up, do not feel emasculated because then, the power dynamic shifts. That's, for me, a danger-zone. I don't want anyone to feel rejected, if it's a sexual advance or whatever, I try to dodge the advance. Humor helps a lot, I have found.
There's a thing that I do sometimes, that works with people that makes me seem like a really superficial, flighty, crazy, American girl. Playing up the feminine in their head can play up the masculine, and then you preserve this dynamic that seems important. I don't have any data that says that's helpful, or true, or whatever. Just so far seems to work for me.
Sarah Stillman: Does it ever feel frustrating? Do you ever feel like you're having difficulty with some gender binary that's inherently irritating? Do you just get that that's the operating procedure?
Jina Moore: It makes me feel smarter than everybody else, to be perfectly honest. That's also not necessarily helpful, or real, but I feel like I've got somebody's number in that situation, and they think they're in charge, and I know I'm in charge because I'm playing them while they think they're trying to push me. I feel like I won, and that makes me feel good. It's annoying as hell, yeah, because you have to spend time and energy, and whatever, but I'm not going to spend more time and energy being mad that there's patriarchy that I have to deal with. It's there, okay. The point is, can you beat it? I like to win in the patriarchy game.
Sarah Stillman: You mentioned earlier online harassment. I'm wondering if you could talk a little bit about that? Whether that's something that you've faced in the pieces that you write, or that you've seen colleagues having to navigate, what that looks like and how you respond?
Jina Moore: I haven't really experienced very much online harassment at all, which I always found fairly shocking as the Global Women's Rights reporter for BuzzFeed. Almost none. The one time, I was harassed, and it was nasty and ugly and scary and whatever, had nothing to do with gender. Absolutely nothing. By which, I mean the piece that I wrote had nothing to do with gender. Whether they felt comfortable speaking to me the way they spoke to me because I was a woman, I can't say. They seemed happy to accuse a lot of men of similar awfulness, and this is a bunch of really racist stuff that was coming my way. I don't have personal experience with dealing with that. I've been given advice by colleagues who do.
Just today, I was talking to someone at work who was like, "I block people. It's really effective, because obviously, they can't harass you directly, but it also means that they can't pull your Tweets into their universe of crazy. They're people. They're like-minded people who will then spew all the crazy back at you." It doesn't eliminate it obviously, but it can at times whittle it down. I think there's a lot of, this is well-documented now, there's a lot of lack of protection. The few times that I've reported accounts on social media, nothing is more maddening than the Facebook message that says, "We've received your complaint about the following account, and we agree that there's some questionable material here, and we can understand why you'd be upset, but we don't think it violates our community values." What did you just say? That's maddening, but I am lucky that I've never felt like my personal safety or reputation was on the other end of that.
Sarah Stillman: Do you have any thoughts on what journalists, or the profession could do to discourage unwanted behavior and predation? What do you wish you knew as a younger journalist? What advice would you have for younger women journalists and advocating some of these things, boundaries, particularly when it comes to certain values? Several points of boundary-crossing.
Jina Moore: I'm repeating myself, but just trust yourself. When you feel like it's happened, it has happened. There is no one else who will tell you it has happened. The man who has done this to you is not going to say, "Did you see that? Did you see that boundary-crossing I just did there?" It's you, and that's horrible, and that's the double-standard of patriarchy. You have to know that it's real, and it also doesn't matter if anybody agrees with you. You're the arbiter of whether that was true. That may not be true in a courtroom, it may not even be true if a journalist was trying to interview you about it. There are all kinds of other forms of delegitimizing the truth, but in the moment you're dealing with, if you think it's true, it's true. You need to respond accordingly, whatever that means for you. You have to trust that it's going on when you think that it's happening, but you also have to trust whatever your instinct is about responding.
I really think things are so contextual. They're about culture, they're about personalities, they're about whatever mood you woke up in that morning, and whatever mood the guy who's doing the boundary-crossing woke up in. In my experience, it's men. Whatever mood he woke up in. It's just all these things.
There's no one set of rules you can follow that's going to guarantee a better outcome than another set of rules. There is also no one set of rules that will have saved you if something does go wrong. You say, "God, what could I have done differently?" There's a good way to learn from that, but it's not your fault when this stuff happens. It's not like if you just A, or B, or C, well, you jumped straight to rule four, and skipped rule three — that's not how this works. Any one of us who gets out of a situation that felt a little bit sketchy without harm, is just lucky. Good for us for following our instincts and getting out when we can and doing the best that we can for ourselves. But when something does happen, it's not because we screwed up somehow. I think that's really important.
Sarah Stillman: So, so glad you hit upon that. That was going to be my last question about how we can hold people who are the responsible parties accountable, and I think that really, just the last point, knowing that the blame does not reside in the person who has been targeted. I'm just wondering if there's anything that I haven't asked you that you really want to put out there?
Jina Moore: I don't know if this is helpful, and I may say this in a way that I might take back later, but there's a way in which it's been really helpful to me to be a woman in the places I report. Most of the time, these are very patriarchal societies. In the Middle East, in parts of Africa, hell, in the United States, there are places where you can't get access if you're not a woman. There are issues you understand differently if you are thinking about them from the perspective of a woman. There are stories no one will tell you if you don't share their gender.
There are stores no one will tell you, even if they're not women. I remember sitting with someone who was a refugee and had been targeted by the government from the country that he had fled and told this really difficult story. Every refugee has a really difficult story, but he hadn't told it very often. The only strangers he told them to had been legal officials. At one point, he just started bawling, and then he apologized and said, "I'm really sorry." I said, "I've interviewed a lot of people from your country. I understand the context that you're describing based on the other stories I've heard, you're not alone in your experience. You don't need to apologize for what you've been through and how it's made you feel." I gave him a tissue and he got himself together. Then he said, "So it's not the first time you've seen a grown man cry like a baby?" I smiled and said, "No, it's not." I don't think that encounter would have happened with a man. Maybe it would have, I don't know.
There are advantages to the gender, as well. Some of them are the same things that make the situation so annoying, or difficult, or sometimes dangerous to navigate. It's a double-sided coin. It's very important not to get confused about those — to be clear-headed that how easy it is to flirt your way into access to the court files doesn't also mean that you have to say "yes" to a drink with the court clerk at 11:00 PM. Not to fool yourself into thinking you're cleverer than you are.
Sarah Stillman: No, it's good. It's easy to be just totally doom-and-gloom about it, and I think it's nice to remember that there are ways to reach it at certain moments. It's advantageous. For him, this was great and I think we have a lot of wisdom. I think the point about intuition was just tremendously valuable. So thank you so, so much.
Jina Moore: The more years I do this, the more I realize that when you look up and say, "I don't have that problem, you actually do. You just don't see it yet." Then it's important to examine the blind spots and go, "Right, maybe this wasn't the best scenario, or maybe I need to be more aware of that." It also changes depending who you're writing for, what kind of equipment you're carrying. It's not just about who you think you are in the world. What you're wearing, all that stuff.
Sarah Stillman: As a freelancer, you need some other defenses navigating about all the conventional apparatus behind you.
Jina Moore: It's a tricky space, but is it a useful reflection for me to be like, "Right." I don't have that problem, but do I have that problem? I might have that problem. If I'm right that I don't have that problem now, it doesn't mean that I won't have that problem tomorrow. How do you be ready for it?