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The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Freelance journalist Jason Motlagh centers individuals in dedicated global storytelling

‘Put the human experience first,’ Motlagh says
International journalist Jason Motlagh interviewing Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Jason Motlagh.

Jason Motlagh’s international reporting has brought him to more than 60 countries, telling stories of conflict, migration and human rights. His multimedia freelance journalism uses storytelling as a means to bring people together.

Motlagh visited the University of Wisconsin campus April 9 to deliver a public talk — “Human Rights, Human Wrongs: Stories from the Frontlines.” In his talk, Motlagh discussed conflict and human rights in relation to his recent reporting in Haiti, Myanmar and the war in Afghanistan.

For Motlagh, being a journalist is a privilege, and means having the ability to go deeper — reaching places few can access, and meeting people others cannot. His work has appeared in a plethora of outlets, including National Geographic, Outside, The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Economist and Rolling Stone, where he is a contributing editor, according to his website. Motlagh’s work has been supported by The Pulitzer Center, where he is a longtime grantee.


Motlagh founded Blackbeard Media in 2012. There, he produces, directs and hosts news documentaries for numerous outlets, including Al Jazeera English, SBS Dateline, PBS Newshour, National Geographic and CGTN, according to the website.

Using different forms of storytelling, Motlagh said he makes sure to “put the human experience first.” In reporting on migration, this means helping readers see beyond fear mongering and abstraction shown in mainstream media.

“Trying to help people relate to these migrants at a human level, to see themselves in their struggle,” Motlagh said.

Stories of migration have always resonated with Motlagh. His father was a migrant from Iran, and Motlagh grew up straddling both Persian and American culture, never feeling like he was fully part of either one.

“It helped cultivate a perspective where I could appreciate the experience of being an outsider and was perhaps more sympathetic to those who shared that,” Motlagh said.

In 2016, Motlagh was one of the first journalists to go to the Darién Gap, the stretch of mountainous jungle and swamp between Colombia and Panama that has emerged as a route taken by migrants hoping to reach the U.S. At the time of his reporting, Motlagh described the treacherous route as attracting a “relative trickle of migrants.”

In 2023, a record 520,000 migrants crossed the Darién Gap, more than double the number reported the year before, according to Reuters. In 2016, when Motlagh reported on migration through the passage, the number of crossings was just shy of 30,000, according to the Associated Press.

“It speaks to a lot of the turmoil in the world, just the sheer volume of people that are risking their lives on this passage,” Motlagh said.

As more people risk their lives on this migratory journey, Motlagh called attention to a simultaneous increase in hostility toward migrants in the U.S., both online and in public spaces. It is Motlagh’s goal to use journalism as an avenue to build empathy among readers, making them feel connected to the issues on which he reports.

Centering the human experience in his work, Motlagh has also reported on the Rohingya people, an ethnic Muslim minority in Myanmar. In a 2018 project with the Pulitzer Center, Motlagh detailed the Rohingya’s eradication from Myanmar, and the resulting refugee crisis. The actions conducted by the state of Myanmar were determined a genocide by the U.S. government in 2022.

“When you’re reporting on these kinds of stories, you see this all unfolding in real time, and you see it for what it is,” Motlagh said. “But the world and the institutions are slow to galvanize and recognize what is happening.”

In his most recent Pulitzer Center-supported project, Motlagh returned to Myanmar to document human rights abuses in the ongoing civil war that has ensued since a military coup in 2021.

Motlagh’s people-focused reporting emphasizes trust and care. An important aspect of this is building relationships with members of the communities he reports on. He has also worked to maintain and uplift relationships with local journalists who support him while on assignment.

“The greatest responsibility is to be that conduit between suffering and the wider world,” Motlagh said.

Turning to his years of experience as a freelance journalist, Motlagh focuses on shining light on underreported stories that remain largely uncovered by the news.

“Those are the stories I live for,” Motlagh said. “I’ve prepared all these years to become this journalist who can get to the story and bring it back and help people on the other side of the world relate to it in a way that goes beyond figures, jargon and government agendas.”

Amid evolving media landscapes and attacks on press freedom, Motlagh has remained diligent in his reporting. He encourages budding journalists to not let cynicism take over, and to commit to finding and telling impactful stories.

“Use storytelling as a means of bringing people closer together, not driving them apart,” Motlagh said.

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