Q&A: Evanston Township High School alum, now NY Times writer, wins Pulitzer Prize

Cat Zakrzewski

Jeffrey Gettleman, who graduated from Evanston Township High School in 1989, won the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting on April 18 for his “vivid reports, often at personal peril, on famine and conflict in East Africa, a neglected but increasingly strategic part of the world,” according to a Pulitzer release. Gettleman, currently the east Africa bureau chief for The New York Times, took some time away from traveling across central Africa to email The Daily last week.

Daily: What was your initial reaction when you learned you won the Pulitzer?

Gettleman: I was really emotional. When I picked up the phone and heard the editor of The New York Times say, “Congratulations, Jeffrey, I’ve got good news,” I started crying. I don’t know exactly why. It was probably just all the pent-up tension and the feeling that I had worked my butt off for this and now finally was getting the ultimate award.

Daily: How has reporting on famine and conflict in East Africa affected you personally?

Gettleman: It’s depressed me, seeing people suffer, on such an overwhelming scale, when so much of this was preventable. But the work has also made me feel good about myself because I’ve helped shine a light on abuses and problems and sometimes that attention has brought life-saving aid and catalyzed change for the better.

Daily: How do you usually travel throughout the region and where do you stay when you’re reporting?

Gettleman: I travel every which way you can think of – by plane, car, pickup truck, bus, ferry, canoe, by foot, by bike even. I’ve ridden camels and donkeys and I’ve hiked through jungles and muddy rivers with my camera over my head. Seriously. I stay sometimes in nice hotels and complete dives where the walls are smeared with bug blood. I’ve camped out in the jungle and the desert. Many times.

Daily: Why do you think it is important to share these stories with your readers?

Gettleman: My goal, and maybe this is going to sound helplessly cheesy, is to help. For example, I figured that if I could shine a light on the famine, reduce it to human terms, describe exactly how people were suffering and how this was so preventable, so avoidable, then maybe folks out there reading the stories would be moved to help. I tell people that as a journalist, you have to be objective but you don’t have to be morally neutral. You want to be fair, but you don’t want to be numb. I am one of the few Western journalists with the resources to cover Somalia closely – I’ve been in and out of there dozens of times in the past few years, and it’s always tricky and usually very expensive (a typical trip involves hiring 10 gunmen to guard me, which adds up to hundreds if not thousands of dollars each day). And I felt an acute responsibility to use all the resources and contacts I have to show the urgency of this famine.

Daily: With so many conflicts in East Africa, how do you decide which issues to primarily focus on in your stories?

Gettleman: This is one of the toughest parts of the job. I try to pick stories with the most impact, ones that will really send a jolt to the reader. It’s sometimes hard to know from the outset what stories will really resonate, but I’ve been in this region long enough to have good sources that can help me.

Daily: What has been the most challenging aspect of reporting internationally?

Gettleman: I’d say the dangers of working in conflict zones in Africa and the Middle East and the psychological impact of reporting closely on conflict. It can be very upsetting to be steeped in misery, and while I am able to leave these places when my work is done – unlike the people stuck in the middle of it – the disturbing images stay with me for a long time.

Daily: When you were a student at ETHS, did you ever think you would be a prize-winning international journalist?

Gettleman: Nope. I thought I’d be a lawyer, like my daddy.

Daily: Were you involved in the newspaper during high school?

Gettleman: No, not at all. But I enjoyed writing.

Daily: What big news stories do you remember from when you were growing up in Evanston and Chicago?

Gettleman: I was fixated, like so many others, on the nuclear arms race and very clearly remember charts in Newsweek that compared how many missiles the US and Soviets had.

Daily: What are some lessons you have learned from your work in Africa?

Gettleman: I’ve learned to help people and to try to feel connected to people, no matter how different they seem. Journalistically, I’ve learned the payoff of doing dailies, of doing the small stories which will eventually take you straight to the big ones.

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