On keeping a journal | Lisa De Bode | TEDxLeuven

On keeping a journal | Lisa De Bode | TEDxLeuven


Translator: Els De Keyser
Reviewer: Denise RQ It was the summer of 2014 and every morning began in the same way: getting up at the crack of dawn, blurry eyed, coffee in hand, I’d rush to the news room
in New York City, where I live, and start producing stories
on the conflict in Gaza. It was a conflict in which
more than 2,000 people were killed, and more than 10,000 were injured. Four boys who were last seen
on a beach, never returned home. Schools were hit, and hospitals badly damaged. Image after image of death
and destruction filled my screen in those early morning hours. And this went on for about four weeks, during which the world,
and I, and perhaps you too, slowly got used to those tales
of loss and suffering, as so often happens in times of conflict. We grow tired of them. Until a 16-year-old girl
entered the scene. She live tweeted how she felt, as bombs rained down
on her neighbourhood in Gaza, while she was taking shelter
in the basement of her parents’ home. In so doing, she made headlines. Here is what she tweeted, and I quote: “I’m 16 years old,
and I’ve witnessed 3 wars. As I see, this is the hardest one.” Another tweet read: “We are sitting in darkness
because the power is off. Flares are lighting up the area
just like it is midday. We are just hearing bombs,
drones, F-16s. # gaza” She struck a chord with thousands
of users around the world, who retweeted her messages
to their own group of followers, and created a global narrative
on the basis of her voice. And while my mornings in August
were still very bleak, someone had managed to pierce
through the endless stream of data and capture the world’s attention, by speaking up in a very personal voice. Such was her impact that Al Jazeera, the organization
that I work for, dubbed her a ‘sudden Gaza spokesgirl’. This is her. Someone on Twitter went one step further
and put it this way. She said: “Reading Farah Gazan’s tweets and thinking about the first time
that I read Anne Frank’s diary.” And this is an interesting observation: for many, Twitter has become
a contemporary version of journalling, a place where we turn to record
our own, uncensored voice, without anyone telling us what to say. And that’s why journals,
such as Anne Frank’s diary, or Farah Baker’s Twitter account, are powerful political documents and can change the way
that we consume news. And this is what I want
to talk about to you today. What can journals mean to you,
as consumers of news? How can they change the public discourse
or collective of ideas? As a journalist, I’ve been grateful
to get access to voices that weren’t a part
of the mainstream conversation. Whether they be women in Saudi Arabia, Afghan or Iraq War veterans, or people who were homeless
on the streets of New York City. Those people have been generous
to share their stories with me, and took the time
to allow me into their lives. But each time someone like that
decides to talk to me, to us, to a journalist, they take a risk. Will I be quoted correctly? Will my voice ring true? Will my story be relayed
the way that I had envisioned it, or will, instead, someone
take ownership of what I had to say, and use it for their own narrative, that serves their purposes and not mine? I commend people who talk
to journalists, I really do. It’s always a leap of faith, and you never know
what you’re going to get. People say we are out to get a good quote, a catchy phrase, a quick soundbite, and they’re right. So I have a question for you,
for the audience, this afternoon: Is there anyone here
who has ever been misquoted? Or maybe noticed inaccuracies in reporting when reading a story
that you happened to know well, or better than the journalist involved? Could you please raise your hand? This is a rather large showing of hands, so, my apologies for that. I’m not offended. So, perhaps even worse yet, in times when news outlets
cut down on resources, and don’t have the money
or time to cover stories that are difficult to report, or cover voices
that are difficult to access, important stories
are falling through the cracks. We are missing stuff. So, going back to my question: “What can journals mean to you
as consumers of news?” Journals are powerful tools
to shape your own narrative, irrespective of who’s listening. And in turn, they help me do my job
as a journalist, to get the story right. And a lot is at stake here. This is an example
of a story we got wrong. The war in Iraq was one of the most
defining stories of the past decade, and continues to be so, unfortunately. And this journal helps explain why. This is the journal of Marine Corps
veteran Timothy McLaughlin, in which he documented his experience
in the war in Iraq in 2003. He put this away at home, after he quit the military, until two journalists,
Gary Knight and Peter Maass, who were with Tim in Iraq and covered the war
for their respected publications, found this and convinced him
to share his story with the world, albeit a very different version
than what the media had reported. When Saddam Hussein’s statue
was toppled at Firdos Square in Baghdad, it was Tim’s American flag
that was draped across his face. This scene was dubbed as ‘the most
defining visual moment of the Iraq war’. Hundreds of reporters, who were staying
in a hotel near the square, conveniently, rushed to cover this moment. Images of victory were beamed
into American and Belgian living rooms, prompting then Secretary of Defense,
Donald Rumsfeld, to say, and I quote: “The scenes of free Iraqi
celebrating in the streets, riding American tanks, tearing down the statues of Saddam Hussein
in the center of Baghdad, are breathtaking. Watching them, one cannot help but think of the fall of the Berlin Wall
and the collapse of the Iron Curtain.” Tim’s journal helped tell
a different story. While the event wasn’t planned, it was staged for the benefit
of dozens of cameras, who made it appear
as if Iraqis were still celebrating, when in fact, the the number
of people there was small, and the military had had a hand
in making the statute come down, as the ultimate symbol of victory. Here is what Tim wrote about the event, and I quote from the lines
up there, in his journal, “Swamped by mass of reporters – could not move. Peace protester, ‘How many children
have you killed today?’ Capt. Lewis sent me back to get flag. Chin draped it over Saddam’s face… Got flag back; people tried to get it from me.” His writing reflects what Peter called
a ‘mad rush of impressions of the event’. Gary told me that the journal
was an important element in wrestling back the narrative
from governments and media who had created their own,
self-serving version of events, according to which the invasion
was justified to free Iraqis and to find weapons of mass destruction, when in fact, there were none. Setting aside the conflicts
in Gaza and Iraq for a moment, perhaps my third example
will hit a little closer to home. Gender inequality is a subject
that I hold especially dear and has been the focus of much of my work. One in three women reports incidents
of sexual assault each year, worldwide. One in three. And that statistic represents one of the most underreported
stories of our time. Somehow, violence against women is
deemed less newsworthy than other items. This is an image
from the journal of Carri Noling, a young woman who said that
she was raped twice by her colleagues, slandered by her superiors, and committed suicide shortly thereafter. Her case garnered little attention, and her perpetrators
allegedly walked free. Her father showed me this image and gave me permission to use it today,
in my reporting, and in this talk, and not only to me
but also to Human Rights Watch, one of the most prominent
human rights organizations of the world, who will use this image
in the forthcoming report. So while her case was initially ignored, now her father hopes that this image from her journal,
her diary, can help tell the true story of her assault, as journalists around the world
are using this image in their reporting on the issue. I realize that my examples
have been bleak. But the lesson here is bright: What can we learn
from Carri, Farah, and Tim? History, it is often said,
is written by the victors. It is written by those
who have a stake in holding onto power. But what if this weren’t so? What if there were a way in which we could present a more just,
and a more equitable version of events? Tim’s, Farah’s and Carri’s journal each provide for such a version, by giving us a counternarrative
to the dominant discourse. So let’s be skeptical next time
we turn on the TV, switch on the radio,
or open up a newspaper, and, if at all possible, let’s try and find
that one, uncensored voice, not to solely rely on, – because that would be making
the same mistake all over again – but to complement
our understanding of events, which, without that lived experience, cannot be complete. So keeping an eye on who stands to benefit from what version of the truth
that is presented isn’t just a smart thing to do, but will help us make better decisions
about what we believe to be right. Thank you. (Applause)

4 thoughts on “On keeping a journal | Lisa De Bode | TEDxLeuven

  1. Journals are the truest stories, it's what people write for themselves before anyone else. This talk really inspired me, being a young girl, knowing that my experience and truth has worth.

  2. Thanks a lot. As a non-conformist, with different opinions than the majority of people, this talk really inspired me to write, at least to propose an alternative story to the winners' one.

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