Reporting Advice from Ian Urbina and Joe Sexton: 2022 Dart Award Honorees

Reporting Advice from Ian Urbina and Joe Sexton from The Outlaw Ocean Project

Exemplary reporting on traumatic events requires skills that can take years of experience to master.

Ian Urbina and Joe Sexton displayed their expertise in "The Secretive Prisons that Keep Migrants Out of Europe", which was named an honorable mention in this year's Dart Awards contest. An investigation and multi-media project, the piece examines the European Union's shadow immigration system that captures migrants arriving from Africa, and sends them to brutal detention centers run by militias in Libya.

Here, they offer insights on the complexities of covering trauma.

On December 1st, their work will be honored at the annual Dart Awards at Columbia University. The event is free and open to the public. Find out more details, and register for the event here.

What guidance would you give to rising journalists hoping to produce long-form content focused on migration? 

Joe Sexton: The greatest challenge is to break through the apathy. If the planet can act as if its very future is not imperiled, it can ignore almost any story that sounds too big to solve. So while the singular narrative tale can be effective — or one person's saga — there's compelling gold in the gritty data that scholars are now producing about the very real human choices being made to survive. Do I stay or do I go? It's the question for the next 100 years. Climb deep inside that decision-making.

Ian Urbina: The answer to this I'd offer assumes a journalist has the luxury of time and resources, which is often not the case. That said, I think the best migration stories try harder to go all the way back to the very beginning and then all the way forward to the end of whatever grand journey is occurring in that particular migration. Too often the stories pick up in the middle and only lightly touch on what drove the original launch or ultimate arrival. 

This piece illuminates the very stark individual impacts of political and policy-focused decisions. During the writing process, were there any structural challenges you faced when combining these two strands? 

Joe Sexton: I think we discovered that policy questions can be told through individuals as well. Matteo Renzi came undone by migration policy. That's a compelling human story.
Ian Urbina: Lots. Mostly these were solved by striking the right rhythm in shifting between the two chords. Hitting that right beat was all about having a couple good editors involved. The larger challenge, truth be told, in my view was deciding whether to include first person and if so, how much to include without distracting from the main story, the more important story. Here too, this calibration was helped by good editors, who had a bit more remove from the content than I did. 
The written narrative is supported by an assortment of imagery. Do you have any specific advice about collaborating with photographers and videographers on such pieces? 
Ian Urbina: The imagery was captured by Pierre Kattar and he was a man wearing many hats: videographer, translator of multiple languages, fixer, co-reporter. One thing I can say is that when heading into complicated and thorny places, when choosing who to incorporate into your team for such stories, you likely want as few people as possible so as to avoid becoming an entourage that draws huge attention. As such, selecting videographers or photographers who can shoot still and video imagery while also potentially translating is, for me at least, essential.
When reporting the piece, what approach did you take to building trust with and protecting sources?
Joe Sexton: For me, it hammered home one truth about journalism that has become clearer to me over the years. It's stipulated in many circles that getting the hard-to-get interview  persuading someone to tell you the story they don't want to or are afraid to tell  is a badge of honor. Whether through genuine compassion or pure cleverness, such alleged triumphs are evidence of prowess and expertise. In too many cases, for me, it's the exact opposite. We need to listen and respect more when people say no. It's not a defeat. It's a responsibility.
Ian Urbina: This feels like two separate though overlapping issues. When it comes to building trust, my approach is to be extremely transparent with the source right from git go. This for me entails having a sober talk aimed at managing expectations and proactively, preemptively explaining foreseeable risks. Often the source has limited awareness of the range of risks and they also sometimes think (for logical reasons) that the interview might afford them benefits down the road. Having a discussion in which you make clear the level of potential risk they face in telling you their story, the fact that there is no financial gain, not now, not tomorrow, in some book deal or movie or other type of renown, explaining that the story they are helping to tell may well change things some, lots, not at all, for better, for worse... These are the sorts of things I try to speak to before launching into the relationship.
As for protecting sources, there is a lot written about this already but I would simply add that it is pretty important to build methods for staying in touch with the source after you walk away since that is when harm is likely to happen to them and if you don't genuinely have methods in place for checking back with them, and you don't actually have means and commitment to getting involved if harm does befall them, you are sort of deluding yourself about your commitment to protecting sources. It's not always easy to keep tabs on people. It's also tough to figure out when it is ethical and emotionally functional to begin ramping down that relationship. But it is still an important — arguably the most important — form of protection you can offer. 
The piece describes a frightening experience your team had while being detained. During your career, have you developed any techniques or practices to help navigate the aftermath of such experiences that you think might be useful to share with others?
Joe Sexton: I think newsrooms are sorely lacking in providing their reporters with resources for their own trauma. Many reporters covering troubled parts of the world speak of moral injury. It's a real thing. It's not weakness but strength and needs to be identified, acknowledged and treated.
Ian Urbina: How people deal with trauma varies widely. I think it's important to be aware of the fact that the traditional counseling methods are not what everyone wants or needs. That said, I do emphatically agree with Joe that such should be offered by newsrooms. I just think too that looking out for your reporters and yourself when it comes to this type of trauma starts with the awareness that people may want distinct things. One person might want funding for therapy. Another might want time off. Another might want to keep working and lock down into their routines. Some like to discuss what happened. Others not so much, or only with certain people. You get the picture. My point is I try to be very careful to avoid thinking that any one of these is the right method.  

What lessons did you learn while reporting and writing this piece? 

Joe Sexton: Be more careful. Reporting on trauma does no one any good if it risks traumatizing only more people. 

Ian Urbina: When it comes to reporting in conflict zones, the most fateful decision is whether you go to the place or not. What happens after you get there tends to be a lot of fast judgment calls. You have to trust your instincts and strike the right balance between a commitment to the story and avoiding harm. Constantly check in with folks on your team and remind them of their right (duty) to step off any portion of the reporting if their own Spidey sense is telling them that the next journalistic steps feel riskier than they are comfortable pursuing. Yes, you can also surely improve security precautions, checking-in protocols. Yes, you can retrospect after the trip is over and theorize that the decision to do this interview, to go to that place, to trust that person, to stay that extra day, was the fateful decision that perhaps was wrong. But I'm deeply skeptical of that sort of analysis.
Hindsight is seemingly wise and decidedly confident, but my general view is that much of what one sees in looking back and assessing these sorts of reporting trips is actually unseeable in looking forward, while you prepare for it, while you operate within these settings. So, lessons learned for me on this one: keep tight control over a small group on a reporting team, know that you are in a very dangerous place even if it might not seem as such, stick religiously to your check-in rules, have a robust emergency plan in place for what people are supposed to do if something goes wrong and, and, be aware that in the decision to report in certain places, to pursue certain types of stories, you are likely right there taking big risks.