I could tell by the look on their faces that they weren’t being straight with us. Something was wrong, and they weren’t telling us.
“It’s the hotel owner isn’t it?” I prodded.
Onur finally nodded.
That was enough for me, it was time to go. I was already uncomfortable enough with the fact that three 18 year-olds were about to pay for our hotel room. We had just gone out to dinner with them, and during our conversation Morgan and I had half-joked about how much it sucked we had to cycle out of town to find a campsite in the dark. The high school students insisted we stay in their hotel.
Thank you, we said– but no, we can manage. “Don’t worry” they pleaded. “Between the three of us, it’s nothing. Especially compared to Istanbul.” They obviously came from privileged backgrounds; the bill would be footed by their parents.
When two of the girls ran ahead to pay the hotel owner, we admittedly put up little effort to stop them. For my part, I was talking the talk, but I really didn’t feel like biking 5 km at eleven PM to find a campsite. I could tell Morgan felt the same.
But even so, letting them go was a bad decision; we knew we shouldn’t have let them run ahead. After all, what the girls didn’t know was that the hotel owner was already furious with us. One of the other students there had invited us to sneak into his room and stay for free the night before. Now he wanted the girls to pay for our free stay. Without meaning to, we were causing collateral damage for people who had to stay in the community far longer than we were.
It’s an example of a recurring conflict that the two of us found ourselves running into while collecting information for our first two feature stories. Namely, that relying too much on a limited number of individuals can create serious problems in our reporting.
I can start with this last story, in Gerze. There, we overstayed our welcome, and it was entirely our fault. For a number of reasons.
To begin with, our refusal to pony up for a pension caused us to leave early without all the facts of the story. For the five days we were in town, we never had a stable home base to operate from, and that became a stress point. We spent far too much energy just trying to figure out where we were laying our heads each night, and how we could do it for free.
We also relied completely on a single translator (one of the high school students) for all of our interviews. Because we needed to maintain our friendship with him, it meant we couldn’t be too pushy about where and when we needed him. We missed out on leads, and skimped out on follow-up interviews because of this.
And topping it all off, of course, was the ever-present ethical dilemma of accepting favors from the very people we’re writing about.
This problem has been the most serious, and sharpest in small communities where most of the people we interact with are sources for our story. In Gerze, for instance, we stayed in a guard house operated by the NGO we were reporting on (the guard house being part of their fight against a corporation trying to build a coal-fired power plant in the area). As a purely experiential piece of the story, our first night in the compound felt justified. But on the second night, I felt like we were simply taking advantage of free accommodations. These are the very types of activities that can cause trouble down the line should we decide to write critically of the people who helped us out.
To date, by far our biggest screw up along these lines happened in the town of Calafat, while we were covering the Roma education story in August. There, we wrote a blog post about our Uruguyan couchsurfing host that left a literal wave of destruction in its wake. The article discussed our hosts’ volunteerism, and dedication to fighting injustices against the Roma population in her small town. Her actions inspired us, and we wanted to bring her struggle to light. But critically, we did not ask for our hosts’ permission to write the piece.
A simple blog entry turned into a hurricane that led us to receive shocking and scathing comments from people in town about being a libelous pair of “typical, dirty journalists.” We were accused of painting too glowing a picture of our host, and scolded for not mentioning others who had contributed to her work. Our subsequent attempts to explain that these criticisms were besides the point – that we were presenting our subjective portrait of a single volunteer’s struggle — were futile. What was most disconcerting was that some of the attackers then went after our host, personally blaming her for the story even though she didn’t know we were writing it.
As we would later discover, the situation and relationships in Calafat were unhealthy before we got there, but our actions certainly didn’t help. Besides, we inhibited ourselves in the process. Posting the blog entry dramatically undercut our ability to pursue our investigation of the Roma education story. Our host was now receiving threats from her friends, which included a teacher who we were banking on to take us to six different schools in the area so we could investigate Roma discrimination in the classroom. We felt compelled to leave Calafat before we stirred the pot any more.
Gerze and Calafat were good lessons — effective reminders of how Morgan and I have to navigate a tough road when reporting on small communities. We typically operate on a tight budget, are completely new to our environments, and face constant language barriers. There’s no denying we need people to help us out. But we are also increasingly realizing the need of being extremely careful about the politics of asking favors. This includes being more realistic about our spending – and being willing to concede the expenses for accommodations and hired translators when necessary. We’ve been reluctant to do it because it will place much more pressure on us to fundraise for the rest of the trip, but hey — pursuing stories is the reason why we’re out here after all. Besides, the ethics and quality of our reporting rely on it.