Empathy and Imodium: advice from foreign correspondent Frank Viviano

Dec 1, 2015   //   by Susan West   //   Advice From the Pros, Blog, International Reporting  //  No Comments
Susan West is an award-winning writer and editor who launches and advises magazines and websites. With an M.S. in science journalism from the University of Missouri at Columbia, West started her career as a staff writer at Science News and Science 80. In 1986, she co-founded a popular health magazine called Hippocrates (now known as Health and owned by Time Inc.), which won four National Magazine Awards during her tenure.
Frank Viviano interviewing in Iraq

On assignment in 2005, Frank Viviano (center, rear) interviews young Iraqi men following a suicide bombing. At left, in a white shirt, is his fixer Yerevan Adham, an Iraqi Kurd. Photo courtesy of Ed Kashi.

Frank Viviano has reported from one corner of the world or another since 1977. Working first from Central America and Asia for Pacific News Service, the Far Eastern Economic Review, Mother Jones, the San Jose Mercury News, the Register and Tribune wire services, and the San Francisco Chronicle, he later served as the Chronicle’s chief European and Middle East correspondent.

Among many other world events, he covered the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising, the collapse of the Soviet Union, organized crime in Sicily, and immigration crises and conflicts the world over. He’s the author of seven books, including a memoir about his Sicilian heritage, Blood Washes Blood (Simon and Schuster, 2001), and, among many honors, is a two-time recipient of the World Affairs Council’s Thomas More Storke Award for Achievements in International Reporting.

Now a resident of Italy, Viviano has most recently been covering archaeology in the Caucasus, Southeast Asia, and Italy for National Geographic. He graciously agreed to answer a few questions about his long career as a foreign correspondent.


IeiMedia: Why did you decide to become a foreign correspondent? How did you prepare to take on your first post?

Frank Viviano: I decided that I wanted to be a foreign correspondent—to travel abroad and write about what I saw and experienced—when I was 10 years old. That’s when I began reading National Geographic magazine, where I wound up four decades later after serving overseas for many other publications. 

My first serious assignment abroad was Central America in the 1970s, the civil wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua, for Pacific News Service, a small independent wire operation. I read everything about the region and its people that I could get my hands on prior to departure, which in those days meant combing the shelves and periodical files of libraries. I also interviewed refugees (there were thousands in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I then lived), NGO aid workers, and Latin American academics at University of California, Berkeley, and Stanford.

But to be truthful, nothing could have adequately prepared me for my first encounter with the work of government death squads set loose on a rural village. I’d say much the same thing today, more than 20 wars and insurrections later: Nothing can immunize you against the emotional trauma of witnessing carnage.   


IM: How do you prepare yourself for a story?

FV: Reading, above all. It’s the best way to harvest background facts and begin a personal education in the history, geography, political structure, culture, customs, and traditions of the place and people who are to be your subject.

The rest of your education comes after arrival, of course, in constant engagement with those people. They are the teachers who most count. As you acquire professional relationships, it is also valuable to share information, contacts, and impressions with other journalists, especially local journalists.


IM: What was your most difficult assignment?

FV: All foreign assignments are difficult, as they all entail finding a way inside of a world that is often very different from your own. What varies is context, the surrounding circumstances.

In that respect, Iraq at the height of the war between 2003 and 2005 was extraordinarily demanding. Among other things, the violence was so pervasive and arbitrary that you came to expect it every waking minute of the day.

Another factor was the specific targeting of journalists. National Geographic photographer Ed Kashi and I were identified by name in anonymous phone calls warning officials not to agree to interviews, because various sectarian groups planned to liquidate us. Anyone nearby would pay the price for “collaboration” with the Western media. 

Next most difficult, perhaps, was China in and around the events at Tiananmen Square in 1989. I was on the run from the state security police for several weeks, due to unhappiness with my reporting, and in a 2,000-mile journey before my eventual capture and expulsion, I never knew who among those who offered to help me might be government informers. In the end, clearly, somebody did betray me.


IM: What was your most rewarding assignment?

FV: An impossible question to answer.

You learn something on almost every assignment, some profound lesson in human nature, its strengths and its weaknesses. The most rewarding lessons for me have to do with those strengths.

Above all, I count myself very lucky to have met people who maintain their decency, their generosity—their breathtaking courage and commitment to others—at enormous risk.

In 1994, a few miles outside the ruined Bosnian city of Mostar, I stumbled by sheer accident onto an underground refuge, hidden amid the shattered remains of a bombed apartment building. It was full of small children, hundreds of them, overseen and cared for by half a dozen aging nuns. No one knew what had happened to the parents. The children were found wandering alone in what was left of Mostar, and brought to the refuge in the middle of night by a clandestine network of supporters, along with supplies of food and medicine, to avoid detection by the lethal militias that haunted Bosnia in the ‘90s. I asked one of the nuns if the kids were Catholic. It was, after all, a highly sectarian war. She smiled and said, “Who knows?” God told us that children are innocent, she continued. “He never said anything about their religion, and we never ask.”


IM: What would you say are the three to five most important attributes of a successful international reporter?

FV: Number one: empathy. A willingness to try to imagine the world through the eyes, and experience, of the people who animate your articles.

After that, in no precise order, I’d list the following: unlimited curiosity about life in all of its enormous diversity; a love of words and writing; Ernest Hemingway’s famous “shock-proof s**t-detector”; and, alas, subjecting other vital considerations—personal relationships, for instance—to the demands of a profession that is emotionally and intellectually all-consuming.


IM: You and I once talked about the importance of having a “fixer.” Can you discuss who fixers are and why they are so vital to foreign correspondents? And how do you find a good one?

FV: Put simply, you can’t work abroad without fixers. They are local hands, often indigenous journalists, who speak the language of the land in every sense: they know its nuances, its makers and shakers, its mentality, its secrets. They can save you from your own follies, and in several instances in my own career, a fixer has almost certainly saved my life. In assembling a file of contacts prior to leaving for an assignment, no item has more importance than pinpointing and lining up the best possible fixer.

How? Two ways, overwhelmingly: tips from reliable colleagues (other foreign reporters) and recommendations from trusted NGO staffers, who also depend heavily on fixers.


IM: Are there particular tools that a foreign reporter should be sure to take along on assignment?

FV: A portable clothesline and mini-clothespins. I’m not kidding. A hidden supply of cash, in US dollars or (less satisfactory) euros. Imodium.

Far more important is what not to take. Always, always, travel lightly. I haven’t checked a bag on an airplane flight in 40 years. The rule of thumb is that you need the same amount of clothing in your luggage for five months or five days. No matter how much you cram into a suitcase, that’s usually the most you can go without need of laundering something. So why burden yourself with more than a five-day wardrobe?


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