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Waiting for Water: Excerpts

Since the end of the semester nears, I’ve decided it’s time to include some of the story. This is the intro and the conclusion. I wrote the beginning on a hammock in Guatemala and the end on the plane home, while looking at the clouds.

The beginning:

Cranking and whining, the machine delves deeper, looking for water.
Sitting on the highest hill in El Modelo, the contraption has drilled 60 feet so far.
But there’s no water yet.
And even when there is—it won’t be enough and it won’t be free.
With 300 families in El Modelo and the number constantly growing, the well may not be enough to sustain the whole town. The poor village in Guatemala builds on free land from the government. Now, the government-funded well project towers on the hill, reminding everyone that they need the help.

The end:

Majali Ramos Arias lives much farther from the well. Wearing a gray shirt with an American flag and the words “Freedom will stand,” Arias talked about spending eight days in August without water (except small pitchers from neighbors). On those sunny days, it didn’t rain, and she couldn’t afford the water from the truck.
She worries the well could make her life worse because she will have to pay a monthly rate of 25 quetzales whether she uses that much water.
But Arias wasn’t worried about having water that cloudy day in El Modelo.
She looks up at the sky and says, “Somehow, God gives us rain.”

Most of the photographers have put up images that they took in Guatemala: Jeremiah, Carlos and Jason.

Our exhibition will be December 9 at 7 p.m. in the Reitz Union gallery.

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I wrote it. Now who will read it?

I’m in the process of writing a query letter to editors right now in the hopes that one will publish my article. (If anyone knows of a magazine or newspaper that would publish this sort of article, please let me know!)

While trying to pitch my story, I found myself writing that the topic of water is not covered very often in Central America. Then I wondered if that was even true. I started to search archives for other stories similar to mine in the last two years.

Two out of three solid articles that I discovered were from other countries–one from Guatemala and one from Iran. The other had been published in a water trade journal (pdf) and posted on an NGO’s Web site. The article in The Guatemala Times summed up a great deal of what I’ve been trying to say in a features way in its opening sentence:

“Guatemala is a country with a great wealth in water; however, only 10% of it is used because it can not be transported to where it is needed.”

I’m hoping that my article will be able to reach a wider American audience, but I wonder how much a young journalist can do to get the word out about what’s happening in Guatemala.

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The trick of global media ethics

I asked Jeremiah (the photographer who traveled with me) a few days ago to make sure that everything in my story was truthful to what we saw. Global ethics are a tricky subject for a first time international journalist.

Unlike most stories that I have written, the sources in the story will probably not ever see how I portrayed them. My memory, my notes and the few post-trip translation checks are all that I have to make sure that I’m telling the story as it is.

For example, I talk quite a bit about parasites in some of the small villages, but there was no doctor present and no way for me to 100 percent confirm that these children were afflicted. I had to make that judgment call with the evidence: A local social worker had given them parasite pills, there were big bellies and scrawny arms on many children.

This is the most impossible fact checking I’ve ever done.

Story Update: We turned in the “final” draft to be graded by our writing coaches yesterday. It took me about three hours just to get up the courage to hit the print button. It’s hard to let a story go. Luckily, I’m not yet submitting for publication, so I have plenty of time to continue making updates. I’ll post the excerpts in a week when they have been chosen.

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Media (dis)trust not unique to America

The media are universally easily subject to blame. I guess it’s a good thing because it keeps us journalists in check to tell the truth.

Anyway, I had the thought today while watching a DVD of some of my interviews in Guatemala while a friend translated.

I felt very well-received by my sources in Guatemala, but he pointed out when my translators left out some doubts. None of the information was pertinent to my story, but some of it to our relations with the subjects. One man leaned forward after a question that he assumed could make his business look bad and said “What is your purpose?”

It only seems natural to be defensive, I suppose, when put in front of foreign journalists. The man in this example feared that we were trying to make his business look bad in comparison to America. This was not unique to the country I deal with these fears all the time in my interview subjects, especially those in business.

The frustration in dealing with press goes all the way to the top. I read this editorial about President Alvaro Colom getting upset with the press for accusations. The Guatemala Times offers some great (and humorous) advice:

“We know that picking a fight with the Press is a waste of energy and time. You never win anyway. There are more important things to do.”

In short, I’m not trying to screw you interviewees over (unless the truth indeed screws you), I just want to write my story truthfully.

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More bars in more places: The cell phone virus spreads

The cell phone epidemic has taken over Guatemala. It’s an addiction.

Before we left for the trip, Jeremiah told me that on his trip to Peru, he discovered that cell phones were like crack. People would beg for money on the streets and then use it to buy phone cards.

I didn’t see anything quite that severe in Guatemala, but I did see a Tigo sign everywhere I turned. Tigo (one of the three major cell companies) paints the logo everywhere. I asked if people get paid for allowing the painting on the houses, but apparently people allow their houses to be emblazoned with advertising for free fairly often.

Tigo is advertised everywhere. Sponge Bob was a lot of places too.

Tigo is advertised everywhere. Sponge Bob was a lot of places too.

In the small village outside Gualan (which I am writing about in my article because they sometimes drink from puddles), Efrian, the community leader, told me that people will walk the 5 miles into the city just to charge their cell phones. There’s no electricity in the village.

I think the irony here was pointed out in the Daily Photo a while ago.

From what I saw, cell phones operate on calling cards rather than contracts. I think the wackiest part is that every few days, the company offers a double or triple day where (surprise!) you get double or triple the minutes for the same price. I had a Claro phone while I was in Zacapa, and I never managed to need minutes on a triple day.

Cell phones can be a good thing for easy communication, but just like in America, when you can’t afford something else because of the phone–it’s time to give it up. I also saw a grown man in Guatemala who couldn’t stop texting like my boyfriend’s 12-year-old sister…

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Giving from across the globe

In one of my sociology classes today, we talked about a Web site called Kiva, which facilitates microlending interest free loans from levels as low as a single person to a single person.

My roommate had already heard of the idea of microlending, but it was a totally new concept to me. The “Today” show picked up on it in this online video.

Basically, I can go online and read about a woman who needs money for materials to start a clothing business, for example. I can donate any amount $25 and up to help her get started. People from Kiva check out all the people who need lending and have less than a 2 percent default rate.

I checked out the site upon returning from campus, and it turns out that a lot of Guatemalans have prospered from the site–most of them women. There’s a field partner group called Friendship Bridge, which aims to prevent the cycle of poverty.

Kiva seems like a great example of social entrepreneurship, rather than simply an NGO. The Web site is done by volunteer work (often through other organizations) and donations.

I can think of a lot of people I saw in Guatemala who would love $50 to start a business endeavor or to fertilize land.

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The trouble with translating culture

I’m now in the process of writing a rough draft and having trouble translating language and culture for American readers.

Not only does my story have a severe lack of quotes because I had to work through a translator, but I find myself needing to explain a lot more than I thought would be needed. Seeing things firsthand makes it easier to grasp a culture. Writing about them is a beast. I got stuck explaining pilafs today–a mere detail in my story.

As mentioned in my previous post, the global sphere of information means the need to translate ideas to other cultures. It seems that the translation problems are going both ways. I’m not the only one struggling.

Luckily, much of my information is on video tape, thanks to documentary maker Isaac Brown who worked alongside me in the field. Unfortunately, my rough draft deadline for class occurs before the tapes will arrive. Even then, I now realize that the translation of ideas is often more tricky than translation itself.

I’ve never wished more than now that I’d taken five years of Spanish instead of Latin. Then I might even have a good job lined up.

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The difference between NGOs and journalists

The balance between a journalist and a NGO is tricky. A journalist must always strive to be objective (though this is often not entirely possible) and definitely independent.

We had this discussion in class last night reflecting on our time spent with Hope of Life in Guatemala. In staying with the organization, many of the townspeople thought our journalism group was missionaries too. That doesn’t seem very independent.

American readers know (most likely) nothing about the organization. What they will know is what we choose to put in our stories. And our stories (should be) from a third party point of view, like a good journalistic story should be.

Some NGOs are choosing to eliminate the middle man (journalist) and do the reporting on their own. Charlie Beckett, who often writes that journalism should involve the public more, noted in his blog that charities want people to see these international places in the same way that they do. I think it’s great that they want to get the word out.

But this isn’t journalism. Beckett questions this practice:

“This is bad for the media and the NGOs as in the long-term both will lose credibility. The news media needs to learn how to use public participation without cheating, while the charities need to learn some media literacy and ethics.”

In class, we came to the conclusion that while Hope of Life wanted us to report in the way they saw it, we wanted to do the stories that we found. Hope of Life is a wonderful organization that does great work, but many organizations do great work. I’m documenting what I saw–not what I want people to think.


Filed under International Journalism

On top of the world: international journalism

In this time of global communication, it’s important for journalists to be able to work abroad.

I think that notion really struck me when I interviewed for a position at the journalism college’s job fair last week. One employer basically told me that the summer INTERNSHIP position would be open to me based on how my story for the FlyIns turns out.

The newspaper isn’t in a very large city, so I started to wonder why he would be so concerned with this work. Many papers now have an international section. With the Internet being a main provider of news, location isn’t an issue to what news is available. Also, our world is becoming so globalized that news from the other side of the planet could actually affect what’s happening at my doorstep.

I saw that the Suffolk University paper decided recently to add an international section, especially highlighting the work of students abroad. Do the students care more about this news than what happens on the quad? Maybe not, but the availability of the information should make a more informed student body.

Though I’m a little shaken up after my blog blunder, I still believe that my work on this story will be important for people to read. There are some great articles about the Latin American water crisis, but none that take that next step into a news feature that tells a more intimate story.

Employers want this news, journalists want to get it and, I would hope, people want to know what’s going on in this smaller, globalized world. Thus, my job is contingent on my ability to get it right.

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