“I Love Having An Excuse To Talk To Everyone”
Being a freelance journalist in today’s world is not an easy task, especially if you do it because you care. I have talked to Irene to understand what keeps her going and how she makes it all work. Her responses are wise, well thought and inspiring. Enjoy!
How and when did you decide to become a journalist?
My decision was far from linear. I studied International Relations and German at the University of St Andrews, and when I graduated, I felt that I could go into many careers. Development or NGO work was what seemed most accessible to me after my studies, but I was a little clueless. All I knew is that the international world I had had access to during university was the world I wanted to live in, interact with. I come from Naples, in southern Italy, and the people I had become friends with and associated with during my time in Scotland and Germany were much more worldly than the people I knew from Naples, and I wanted to remain in that context.
All I knew is that the international world I had had access to during university was the world I wanted to live in, interact with.
My brother, who is two years younger than me, was studying economics and Spanish at Sussex University in Brighton, and at the time I graduated he moved to Chile for a year abroad as part of his studies. As I tried to figure out what to do, I thought that going to Chile could be interesting: I could learn a new language, get to know a part of the world I knew nothing about, and spend some time with my brother. I could look for internships, and that is what I did. I applied for some NGO work, and I also sent out an email to the Santiago Times, Chile’s only English-language paper at the time.
Steve Anderson, the then publisher, replied immediately and offered me an internship. I was set: I was going to Chile to intern at a newspaper. Steve, who passed away last year, became a significant person in my life because he trusted me. After a couple of months as an intern at the paper (which appeared as a PDF and was sent out to foreign diplomats, businesspeople and such around Chile), Benjamin Witte, the then editor-in-chief announced he was going off to study in Canada. Steve offered me, a non-English native speaker with little journalism experience and who had only recently learned Spanish and gotten to know more about Chile, the position as editor-in-chief. He told me he would pay me a little less and we would do a trial. I said yes: I was incredibly excited and scared at the same time.
I was put in charge of leading editorial meetings, a culture editor and a business editor, picking the stories of the day, assigning stories, writing stories and then editing at the end of the day. But I did it, and I loved it. I now understand that teamwork was essential. I would have never done it without my team. It all finally made sense: I had always liked writing, I had written for my high school newspaper, and I felt that my interest for human rights, social justice, gender equality could become the focus of my journalistic work. I also realised that the times were changing and that I needed multimedia skills, that writing was not enough to make it as a journalist. That is when I decided to pursue a postgraduate degree in journalism at Concordia University, Montreal.
What is your favourite part of the job?
I love having an excuse to talk to everyone, from every walk of life, from presidents to garbage pickers. I think I am deep down a little shy but I love talking to people and journalism is the perfect excuse to go out there and listen to their stories, understand their points of view, and learn more about life.
Since I know a few languages, I have had the privilege to get first-hand access to people, real people, in several parts of the world. That has broadened my understanding of the world.
I love having an excuse to talk to everyone, from every walk of life, from presidents to garbage pickers.
What is the hardest?
The financial side of things is very complicated. In 2017–8 I dedicated myself almost full time to a big project and ended up earning so little that my husband and I had to think about strategies to make ends meet. So we started housesitting, living in people’s homes without paying for rent, dedicating ourselves to what we like. (He is also a freelance journalist, so being two with no stable income in one household is quite a challenge.)
It is also hard to take a break, because my mind is sort of set up as a pitching machine, and I generally find most things interesting. I am all the time thinking of interesting stories when people talk to me, and I am always thinking about the next topics I would like to cover.
The latest big challenge that I have had to face was a betrayal. I have had to deal with a photographer who published my writing without crediting me, despite me having invited her to join me on two different reporting trips. I am baffled by the ethics of those that think that hours of research, interviews, and translations may not be credited — just like sometimes it happens with the work of fixers.
Overall, it is hard to find the right balance between working by yourself (which is very challenging and can even be dangerous) and working in a team, which comes with a whole different set of challenges. I tend towards teamwork at this point in my career, but this latest experience has taught me that it is essential to establish ground rules before going into a project with someone.
What do you feel is missing in modern news coverage?
I feel that not enough women are reporting, especially on issues that deal with women. For example, I recently read a piece in Germany’s Sueddeutsche Zeitung about women who fought against Hitler and how their names do not appear on memorials and their stories have partly been forgotten. The quite impressive piece was written by a man, Jakob Wetzel, and I wish it had been written by a female journalist instead. I say this because I think the vision would have been different. Part of the piece talks about traditional gender roles and how some women decided to retreat to private life after the war instead of keeping active in public life, and I think that I would have written it very differently, from my perspective as a woman.
I also think that sometimes we lack depth when it comes to translating and to understanding material that comes from foreign countries. I have recently started working as a senior editor at Worldcrunch, a news site that translates articles from different languages into English, and despite Google Translate and many other apps, there is nothing like knowledge and a human editor to make an interview come to life. It is an issue that Alice Driver has brought up many times.
My other worry is that as things get tougher in Europe and the U.S., with the local political agenda driving the daily news, we are starting to look less and less at the international issues. I feel this now in Europe, and I think that while it is an understandable phenomenon, I believe it is essential to strike the right balance between local and international — because a lot of what is international also becomes local.
Did you ever find it challenging to stick to your values while reporting?
Sometimes it is hard to practice your values of in-depth reporting and to give people all the time they need to open up to you because you are on assignment, the time is limited, and you are not being paid that well for that assignment. So I sometimes have to fight against the internal voices that say that I can just grab a quick quote and run, and end up having hours of conversations that linger in my head instead.
I also find it hard to talk to people who have different values from me. When people bring up their racist views, for example, I sometimes am there to actually hear precisely those. So I try to be as equanimous as possible and to ask follow-up questions, but I mainly try not to confront them too deeply, because, in the end, I feel that to give a proper sense of what they are saying, I need to listen first. That hurts. I sometimes want to shout back, but I don’t. I haven’t quite figured out how to go about that. With politicians you can be more forceful, but what do you do with your average Joe?
Can I still be a freelance reporter working on the stories I am interested in ten years down the line, with a couple of children?
Did you ever want to quit?
Yes and no. I often think that what I do is unsustainable in the long term, because I simply don’t earn enough, and my husband is in the same boat. So I am trying to come up with some fixed gigs, like teaching, that could help me have a regular income while sticking to my reporting.
I do not doubt that journalism is my vocation and what I want to do, and what I can do well; I just never know how to make this work long-term. Can I still be a freelance reporter working on the stories I am interested in ten years down the line, with a couple of children? Our son, our firstborn, is due at the end of February, so we’ll see whether I change my mind then.
(…) a lot of what is international also becomes local.
How do you feel about the Internet? Did you ever consider getting off social media?
Our job is considerably more comfortable thanks to the Internet. Do you want to fact-check dates or find an old speech by a president? It is all there if you have the time to go through the information accurately. I can’t even imagine what it was like when you had no easy, immediate access to specific information. It meant that you had to be much more on top of your game, maybe. However, fake news is an issue, and forgery by some journalists is also an issue. And we need to pay attention. We tend to scan material too quickly, and that can lead to mistakes. Was that a fake politician’s account tweeting about something controversial? What if I examine it carefully before retweeting it? I think we are becoming growingly aware of these challenges, but we still need to slow down a little bit more.
As for social networks, I consider getting off Facebook almost every week, but I have come to the conclusion that I can still use it to connect to interesting people and to share my work. I like Instagram’s visuals, though I am growing less and less a fan of posting about my personal life. And I use Twitter as a way to get a sense of what (some) people are talking about in some countries.
I feel that not enough women are reporting, especially on issues that deal with women.
Being an international reporter — is it easy or difficult to know where is “home”?
Home for me is where my loved ones are. Right now home is Umbria because this is where I am shacked up expecting my firstborn, and it feels quite permanent even though we won’t spend more than a year here. I do however long for a home that can be stable, a base to go back to in between trips, where I can have my diaries and my books.
I lived in many countries over the years and left Italy when I was very young, so my sense of home, as well as of my “home” language, is very diluted. I think that even if I had picked another profession, but kept travelling, this difficulty around defining home would have been around anyway.
How did the journalist profession change over the years? Was it ever more stable as a job?
I am not sure, because things vary a lot from country to country and depending on the medium. I feel that what I want to do (be an international reporter) was always a difficult position to achieve since I started. Positions are few and very competitive, and they were equally so 15 years ago when I started up.
How do you juggle, prioritise and organise your work and different commissions you receive?
It is a daily challenge. Usually, I let deadlines help organise my workflow, from the most urgent to the least compelling, which often leaves me with projects that I drag on and on for months (which I don’t like). I often try to do three things at the same time: pitch, produce and write. So I may pitch a story for next month while producing one for next week and writing one due this week. It is hard sometimes, but it is also nice to switch from one task to another. But I think that my writing is affected by it sometimes because I don’t give myself enough time for editing. It is a work in progress.
What would you still like to achieve as a reporter?
So much! I want to start filming and taking better pictures; I want to work on a few documentaries, go deeper into understanding health issues, especially reproductive rights and early childhood development, and gender issues. I want to write a book about my experiences in Latin America, and also understand how to help children make sense of the news.
Now it is time for a little bit of wishful thinking, what would you wish for journalism in general?
I really wish for people to trust journalism and good journalism, and to be able to distinguish between a good source and fake news. In Italy, like in many other places, fake news is so widespread, and people make decisions based on things that are not true.
I hope that we all slow down a bit, both as journalists and consumers of news, and pay real attention to issues, not just to headlines.
Irene Caselli is a multimedia freelance journalist with 15 years of experience in print and broadcasting. She has been reporting out of Latin America for the past decade and has just finished working on A Girls’ Game, a project on women’s football and gender inequality. A Girls’ Game was awarded the 2nd Hostwriter Award for international collaboration at the last year’s Outriders Summit where Irene was one of the speakers. You can follow Irene on Twitter @irenecaselli.