“I’ve been thinking about the reporters on the ground. That was as risky a situation as I’ve ever seen.”
One might think that NPR’s Deborah Amos was commenting on a conflict in Syria, Iraq, or another of the war-torn locales she’s covered over the years. In fact, she was reflecting on the recent protests in Charlottesville, VA.
“To see an event like that in our own country gave me pause,” she said. Amos is an international correspondent for NPR and a 2017 Courage in Journalism Award winner for the International Women’s Media Foundation.
Media are a hot topic in the U.S., and Amos brings uncommon perspective to the dialogue. She has covered the Middle East for three decades; her reports can be heard on NPR’s Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. During her first tenure at the network in the late eighties and early nineties, she was NPR’s London Bureau Chief and foreign correspondent based in Amman, Jordan. She has covered ISIS, Iraqi and Syrian refugees, Turkey’s role in the Middle East, and more. She reported on the Arab Spring uprising from Cairo, Beirut, Amman and Damascus, filing stories alongside local citizens in an all-hands-on-deck effort to bring the fast-moving story to audiences around the world.
The hardest part of her early work as foreign correspondent, Amos said, was the learning curve — figuring out how to get the story while saying safe. “At the time, there was no hostile environment training and no flak jackets — the same journalists would just show up,” she said. Amos joined journalists from Turkey, Sweden and elsewhere who set aside their competitive instincts and worked in informal teams in order to avoid harm.
It wasn’t until 1991 that she began to see more gender balance among correspondents in the Middle East. Outlets began sending women reporters to the region because, as Amos put it, “We can talk to both sides.” Women journalists are often in a unique position to discuss difficult or sensitive topics with local women, and with men as well.
Amos started out as an “affirmative action hire” for the ABC News affiliate in Orlando, FL. It was difficult — she described men in the control room taking off their pants while she was on air in an attempt to get a rise out of the young reporter. When she’d had enough, she moved to Washington, DC and enrolled in a course in broadcast management. She landed a job at NPR and transferred her film editing skills to radio, finding it a more balanced and creative environment.
Her big break came in 1980, when someone showed up with 500 hours of tape from the Jonestown settlement in Guyana, where over 900 members of Jim Jones’ cult had died a few years earlier. Amos, still the new kid, took on the project. “I listened to 250 hours and made it into a program,” she said. She got the producer credit for a team at NPR, and the resulting documentary, “Father Cares: The Last of Jonestown,” was a blockbuster, winning several awards and launching her career. She went on to produce radio documentaries, then moved to international war reporting in 1982.
She returned to television news in 1993, reporting for ABC’s Nightline, World News Tonight, and several PBS programs for a decade. One of her most exciting interviews, she said, was with the Ochoa brothers, the notorious Colombian drug traffickers and members of the Medellin Cartel. She traveled with another correspondent to a remote farm and talked to two of the brothers — the third brother was in jail in the U.S. “I remember approaching the house and having no idea what to expect,” she said. She completed the interview without incident.
Reflecting on her extensive travel in the Middle East, Amos said that refugee images in particular stick with her. She described talking with women in Croatia who were washing in a well with a bar of soap while sharing that they’d had a dishwasher and two cars in their previous lives.
“You can’t overstate the refugee crisis — 65 million people without homes, and almost 50 percent are children,” Amos said. “I’ve met them — they’re running away from ISIS, violence, radicalism. It’s tough to see.” She recently began covering refugee issues in the U.S.
Amos’ current passion is teaching. In her undergraduate course on Migration Reporting at Princeton University, lucky students hear about her experiences first-hand. This school year, her class will travel to Winnipeg to report on a Canadian refugee resettlement program. “There is no better time to teach this course,” she said.
What is she proudest of in her career? “That I did what I did as long as I did,” she said. While many news organizations have closed their foreign bureaus in recent years, she has felt fortunate to work for an organization that still sends correspondents into the field.
“No one gives you a test for courage when you start out,” Amos said. Her approach was to look for people who were doing things that she could see herself doing — the person organizing other refugees, Serbian women who were struggling — and tell their stories. She eventually moved away from the front line.
As she put it, “The real stories are always further back.”
Follow on Twitter: @deborahamos
- Courage in Journalism Awards Awardee, 2017