How J-School Did and Did Not Prepare Me to Report Abroad

    by Meagan Doll
    July 27, 2015
    Photo by Meagan Doll.

    Every time I have traveled and no matter how hard or long I’ve prepared, I am always humbly reminded that one can never get fully ready for an experience abroad.

    I was slapped with this reality yet again when I arrived in Mukono, Uganda, to spend six weeks reporting on maternal health and associated issues.

    "In a tech world that is constantly evolving, J-Schools run the risk of putting the novel before the necessary. Don’t do it."

    Partnering with Save the Mothers, an international NGO committed to improving the health of mothers and babies, I hoped this brief residency would give me a peek into the “real world” of foreign correspondence and human rights journalism – the one beyond wanderlust travel, paid exploration and glamorous Nicholas Kristof-esque bylines.


    And it did just that.

    At different times and somehow all at once, my time reporting was challenging, exciting, frightening, exhilarating, disheartening, inspiring and always rewarding.

    Reporting from the field in Uganda illustrated the power of critical and ethical thinking. Photo by Meagan Doll.

    Reporting from the field in Uganda illustrated the power of critical thinking and ethical consideration. Photo by Meagan Doll.


    Those are intense adjectives to try and unwrap, but it’s human, natural and responsible to wonder how this “real world” experience correlates with my university studies. Did my journalism education prepare me well enough?

    When in doubt, think it out

    It is important to note that besides studying journalism, I have certificates in public health and African studies. These disciplines, along with my J-School training, illustrate the first and most valuable way that my education prepared me for reporting in Uganda: critical thinking.

    The importance of pre-interview research has been drilled into me since I was a wide-eyed freshman staring blankly in my Intro to Mass Communication course. I would have never dreamed of traveling to Uganda or reporting on maternal health if I had not put in the lectures, readings and individual research ahead of time. It made all the difference.

    I didn’t have to waste time asking doctors what maternal mortality is or how to calculate it. I had already learned those things. Instead, I spent what precious time I had with overworked medical professionals asking them about their stories. Why do you continue to work in public hospitals when you aren’t getting paid more than $180 USD per month and don’t have running water? What was your most difficult patient labor? How do you do it?

    This critical thinking rescued me in so many situations. At times I used the nearest materials as a makeshift tripod, recorded sound on my DSLR camera in lieu of a proper voice recorder and was able to go deeper than the “what” of maternal mortality to find the “why.”


    A photo posted by Meagan Doll (@dollmeg) on

    In a journalism field that is constantly shifting, my J-School assignments required me to be creative in my approaches. I have no doubt that all the blood, sweat and tears of those courses primed me for resourcefulness and innovation.

    Ethics in Everything

    I am fortunate that the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication takes ethics very seriously.

    Reporting on sensitive subjects like maternal death and structural violence, there was never a second that ethics were not on my mind.

    Truly, whether you’re priming students to be war correspondents or local school board reporters, neglecting the importance of ethics is a disservice to the future of journalism.

    These considerations moved me to identify solid sources, review HIPAA privacy guidelines, ask empathetic questions and always, always think twice before snapping a picture.

    Recognizing the importance of both ethics and critical thinking in my experience is a good reminder that J-Schools can and should teach the newest programs, gadgets and tools. But those things should not come before basics. In a tech world that is constantly evolving, J-Schools run the risk of putting the novel before the necessary. Don’t do it.

    Still work to be done

    While there is room for praise, there is also room for improvement in the ways journalism education prepares students for international reporting.

    In general, reporting in Uganda showed me that journalism education could benefit from two things: more training in freelancing and more training in cross-cultural competence.

    • Many of the challenges I experienced were the same challenges I have heard associated with freelancing — networking in a new place, locating sources, finding stories and writing pitches. And while some of that work cannot be taught entirely within a classroom, it certainly can start there.
    • Cross-cultural competence is a must and can be easily lost in conversations about AP style, Meerkat or Google Glass. It goes beyond even ethics to the practical realities of places, people and politics outside of university walls.

    For example, ethically, I knew before going to Uganda to seek permission for interviews and photographs — a rookie idea to some, right?

    But asking means nothing if people do not feel like they can afford to say no. Cross-cultural power imbalance plays a huge role in gathering information abroad and one that I had not been exposed to before reporting internationally.

    Additionally, introduce students, even briefly, to the challenges and rhythms of using a translator to interview. Interviewing female entrepreneurs in Rwanda was the first time I had ever used a translator, and what a different experience it was.

    I had the opportunity to interview Rwandese women entrepreneurs with a translator. Photo by Meagan Doll.

    I had the opportunity to interview Rwandese women entrepreneurs with a translator. Photo by Meagan Doll.

    Some may wonder if these skills are relevant to the majority of journalism students who will go on to live and work in the U.S., potentially never crossing a border to report during their lifetime.

    The answer is yes.

    In a globalizing world, where 20 percent of the U.S. population does not speak English at home, the need for cross-cultural competence is high.

    Today, nearly any “global” reporting skill one might need to produce international journalism can be applied locally. And it should be. Training in translation, cross-cultural competence and freelance etiquette belong alongside more traditional values like critical thinking and ethics.

    The world is changing, and journalism education must change with it.

    Meagan Doll is a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, studying journalism. She is an intern for the EducationShift section at MediaShift and recently completed a six-week communications internship with Save the Mothers, where she reported from the field in Mukono, Uganda, on maternal health and associated issues.

    Tagged: cross-cultural communication ethics freelancing journalism schools reflection translation Uganda university of wisconsin

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