“It is fascinating to be granted access to an under-reported place”

IWMF Reporting Fellow Edythe McNamee about her trip to Western Sahara

by Erin Luhmann

March 13, 2013 — Edythe McNamee is one of six female journalists who participated in the first wave of IWMF?s Western Sahara Reporting Fellowship. In December, the group utilized unprecedented access to sites and officials in the region, secured by IWMF, to explore a range of economic development issues.

McNamee?s background in photo and video content production helped round out the radio, broadcast, and print skills that the other women brought to the investigative team. She started out as a multimedia producer for an English-language daily newspaper in Abu Dhabi, after graduating with a dual degree in photojournalism and international relations from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2007. In 2011, she moved to CNN Digital, where she continues her reporting and editing as the digital content producer.

Now back at CNN Digital, McNamee is in the process of producing the stories she collected from Western Sahara. The IWMF asked McNamee to share some of her reflections on the experience.

IWMF: How did you break into the field of journalism and how long have you been creating video content?

McNamee: I decided to start studying journalism at the end of my sophomore year of college. I figured I?d double major in photojournalism and international relations, thinking that when taking photos didn?t work out financially, that the degree in international studies would be a good back up plan. As it turns out, the photojournalism classes taught skills that were easier to translate into a job straight out of college. Shortly before graduation, a professor emailed the class about a job opportunity in Abu Dhabi. The job was for a multimedia producer for an English-language daily newspaper. I applied, and moved to Abu Dhabi exactly one month after graduating. That was in January 2008, so I?ve been creating video content for just over five years.

IWMF: As the digital content producer for CNN Digital, what stories do you find the most compelling to tell?

McNamee: Like many journalists, I like to tell a story that hasn?t been told before, or to tell it in a new way. I?ve had the opportunity to work on some stories that address human rights, and there?s nothing better than focusing our readers? attention in a direction that really needs it. I also love meeting new people and learning new things, whether it?s science, art, technology, politics, sometimes I don?t know I will be interested in a story until I start an interview.

IWMF: What made you a competitive candidate for the fellowship?

McNamee: I think the work I did last year for CNN in Mauritania showed the IWMF that I had a bit of familiarity with the region. That and having lived in the United Arab Emirates for three years meant I?m used to working in Muslim countries. I also noticed that I was the only full-time visual journalist on the trip, so I like to think that my photos and videos helped. My supervisors at CNN recognized that this would be a good opportunity for me to meet other journalists from other organizations, and a way to gain additional international reporting experience outside of my usual CNN assignments.

IWMF: How familiar were you with the Western Sahara before traveling there? How did you prepare in advance?

McNamee: I was fairly familiar. I?d read about the conflict and the resources in the region. Upon learning I was going to travel there though, I definitely started reading much more, from sources that supported both the Moroccan point of view and the Sahrawi point of view. I began following the day-to-day news coming out of the territory in general news outlets and on Twitter. And I read up on the phosphate industry and the science behind the idea of peak phosphorus.

IWMF: What story did you anticipate pursuing and how did this develop once you were reporting in Western Sahara?

McNamee: I anticipated doing a story that would address the political conflict and the role of natural resources in the region. It changed a bit on the ground when we realized who we would be able to meet, and what we would be seeing, but I tried to let my experience inform the way I covered the story and not force the story to fit into any pre-planned shape.

IWMF: What key challenges did you encounter while reporting in the Western Sahara? How did you mediate these challenges?

McNamee: From the moment we arrived in the territory, we noticed that we were being followed everywhere we went. We thought that that might become a problem, but at no point were we asked to stop shooting. However, some people we wanted to speak with would not meet with us because they knew we were being monitored.

IWMF: Reporting amongst a group of IWMF journalist fellows granted unprecedented access to people and sites in Western Sahara, how were you received by local sources?

McNamee: We were very well received by sources on both sides of the conflict. We got access to many of the sites we asked to see, and there were more people willing to talk to us than we had time to meet with. One source from the government would not talk with me on camera or a voice recorder citing that there would be trouble if he did. But he retracted that statement the following day saying it had been a misunderstanding of the access we?d been granted.

IWMF: From your experience, what advantages do female reporters covering issues such as politics, conflict, natural resources, and economic issues in Western Sahara have over their male counterparts?

McNamee: Sometimes it seems that as female reporters, less is expected of us, so you might be granted access to a person or a place because someone doesn?t think that you know what you?re doing and will be easily manipulated. I also always hope that women who are involved in the issue that I am covering will feel more comfortable speaking with me.

I would say though, that there is a disadvantage as well. Many sources expected us to be reporting mainly on women?s issues rather than the issues we said we were addressing, no matter how many times we clarified that, while we were indeed women, our focus was on the economy, conflict and natural resources. It became a problem as we had limited time, and were occasionally sidelined by unplanned interviews.

IWMF: How has this reporting fellowship impacted you professionally?

McNamee: I think I benefited a lot from working with the other journalists. I rarely work with more than one other journalist for a story. I am often on my own, or shooting a video to go with a writer?s story. So it was really interesting to work in a group and see how others approach the same story, what questions they ask, how they focus a conversation in a new direction, how they follow up dodgy answers with informed questions.

When you work on a story by yourself, you don?t get to debrief after an interview or anything, and it was really interesting to chat with the other journalists after a day of reporting and learn about what they?d noticed that I hadn?t, and share what I noticed that maybe they missed. Those discussions really made me aware of where I needed to improve as a reporter, and I hope I helped others as well.

IWMF: What was the most beneficial aspect of taking part in a fellowship?

McNamee: It is always fascinating to be granted access to an under-reported place. I don?t think I would have had access to a story of this scale outside of the fellowship. I really did enjoy the digital security training as well. It made me realize just how easy it is to be digitally vulnerable. Every time I travel for work in the future, I?ll be using those skills.
I think this particular fellowship is a great way to learn from other journalists and to have a chance to report on a story that is typically very difficult to access. I am also curious to see how the second group?s trip experience will compare to ours.

IWMF: What advice can you offer other female journalists interested in international reporting?

McNamee: It?s always served me well to jump on unexpected opportunities. Every opportunity leads to another, and the first chance you have to report internationally will probably not be in a place you?d ever thought about going.

Photos by: Edythe McNamee

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Photo Story: Sahrawi refugee camps | By Reporting Fellow Whitney Shefte

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