Recent University of Wisconsin alumna Erin Luhmann told students the real world stories of her time traveling through Africa with New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof during a keynote speaker event Monday night.
Lori DiPrete Brown, the associate director for education and engagement for the University of Wisconsin’s Global Health Institute, described Luhmann in her introduction as a reporter with clear sense of compassion.
“We are really grateful for that in her work,” Brown said. “She shows us how we can relate in ways that are respectful and authentic. It’s worth telling the story right.”
Luhmann was chosen from more than 700 applicants to travel abroad with Kristof during his annual “Win-A-Trip” contest last year, in which the winner receives the opportunity to go on a reporting trip in a developing country with the world-renowned columnist.
Luhmann’s talk, sponsored by the Global Health Institute and the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, aimed to provide students interested in humanitarian reporting with real world stories about the issues inherent to writing news about vulnerable groups and the evolving roles of international correspondents.
Luhmann spent the bulk of her speech articulating a number of ethical issues she encountered during her 10 day trip. She frequently asked the audience for their input, inquiring as to if they felt these scenarios she described were handled correctly by journalists.
In one story, Luhmann said she, Kristoff and their team were visiting a rural village where they met a child suffering from severe malnutrition. She said they had to decide whether or not to take the child, who was near death, to a medical clinic.
She said the experience highlighted the struggle between deciding when to be an impartial observer and when to intervene. Making this decision could turn the team into advocates and activists instead of simply impartial reporters, she said.
After Kristoff decided to bring the child to a nearby clinic in their van, Luhmann said she remembered thinking that becoming involved with her subjects was not what she had been taught during her time as a graduate student at UW.
“It’s kind of a slippery slope,” she said. “Where do you draw the line?”
Luhmann said a videographer with the team even requested his name not be associated with the resulting story because of the ethical ambiguity, even though Kristoff felt that the group had the responsibility to act.
When asked about the value of humanitarian reporting, Luhmann said the practice is not as ‘soft’ as some may think.
“Although humanitarian reporting has a reputation for being soft news, it’s an intense, challenging and business-oriented field,” Luhmann said.
Luhmann emphasized the need for both readers and news editors to take more stock in humanitarian reporting. Above all else, she said, humanitarian reporting is “about the business of doing good.”