Getting facts wrong in Cambodia

I’m an avid reader of an excellent blog hosted by Brevity, and one of their recent posts touches on something I think about a lot: Your personal essays in my journalism.

At the Washington Post, Eve Fairbanks takes a look at the recent trend of first-person narratives used to fill column inches that were previously journalism, and questions whether they really open up new vistas, or are instead inescapably biased and perhaps even jejune.

The original article at The Washington Post is very thought-provoking. Two other excellent articles in this vein are Journalism is not narcissism and The problem with the problem with memoir. It’s true that it can be quite lazy and even self-indulgent to always write from the ‘I’ perspective, which is my usual style for published writing. It’s not that I think I’m the most interesting person in the world — far from it — but as someone who just writes a little on the side and is consumed with other things full-time, it’s difficult for me to write pieces that go beyond my explicit point of view. It’s basically as the Washington Post article claims, that the cheap substitute for extensive research is to instead plummet the depths of your own experience, which no one can claim more expertise in than you. In any case, I don’t call myself a journalist and prefer the moniker of writer, which I think is a better description for my tendency towards personal essays. I guess it’s partly for my own protection; an immediate disclaimer.

Common Threads in Peppermint
Common Threads in Peppermint

My stance on this ended up being helpful recently because after my trip to Phnom Penh last year, I ended up writing a piece for a magazine I like very much called Peppermint. I wrote a piece that was published mid-year called Common Threads, which linked my visit to a project in Cambodia that empowered women through sewing skills, with my family’s own history sewing in Australia during the 90s. These women had escaped sex trafficking or even slavery; my family had escaped their homeland after the Vietnam War. This is one of the few stories I’ve written that is not just about me — and what’s happened since has given me a lot to think about in terms of how careful I will have to be in future in any endeavour that’s vaguely journalistic.

The timing of my piece was unfortunate. Around the time it was published the organisation I visited, AFESIP, fell into disrepute because its founder, Somaly Mam, was subject to a massive article in Newsweek which busted her story. It claimed that her incredible life story about surviving sex trafficking was just that — incredible. Full of holes, and even outright lies, as well as serious claims of manipulative practices. There was massive international public outrage, as well as all sorts of people coming forward to confirm the criticisms. There were also a lot of broken hearts, because so many had tirelessly campaigned on behalf of her cause of sex trafficking in Cambodia, including lots of high profile people like Hollywood celebrities.

Regardless of the ins and outs of the story, which is not my intention with this post, it’s an interesting case study into the practices of non-government organisations (NGOs) in developing countries like Cambodia. International development is very much an industry, full of opportunists — that’s not such a surprise. But this has also raised interesting problems about the nature of journalism itself.

Over the years there had been dozens upon dozens of articles written about Somaly Mam and both AFESIP and the Somaly Mam Foundation, and they were mostly uncritical because it would seem that the fact checking didn’t occur as it should. Journalists often work in good faith and with good hearts in partnership with NGOs, and don’t necessarily have the critical distance that is warranted.

Sewing machines at the centre
Sewing machines at the centre

I wrote to the editor of Peppermint as soon as I heard the news, to ensure that they were prepared if one of the readers put two and two together and criticised them for publishing my article about an organisation that was becoming discredited. In the end it flew under the radar because luckily, the piece was largely told from my perspective about my story, rather than a naive profile of the organisation or its founder. I also ended the article with a question, raising the fact that these women were perhaps going from the frying pan of sex work to the fire of Cambodian garment factories.

In the centre's training room
In the centre’s training room

At the time of my visit to the centre, there were a couple of things I felt uncomfortable with, and I saw my unvoiced concern subsequently discussed in the comments of the Newsweek articles and others. I remember on the day feeling that by listening to the women’s stories — which I never questioned as being anything but sincere — I had the distinct feeling that I was in some way also exploiting these women, even though I was extremely respectful. It didn’t seem quite right to me that as a random writer I got to talk to the women, and subject them to my various questions. To get them to go through who they are and why they were there. What right did I have to interview these two young women, really? As I opened the door to the passenger seat of the car to leave the site, I impulsively decided to give both of the women some fair trade gifts as I was heading off and they appreciated my small gesture.

I’ve been thinking about all of this again because this past month there has been a fresh batch of articles about the fact the Somaly Mam Foundation has now closed. I’m not quite sure about the status of the AFESIP but its website suggests its future is far from certain. A sad but not unsurprising end to this whole saga.

I was paid a modest amount for the piece ($200) and I’ve been giving those funds away to different journalism-related causes including Free Peter Greste, an Australian journalist being wrongfully imprisoned in Egypt, and a Kickstarter to support a huge suite of excellent public radio programs (mostly US-based).

While I don’t call myself a journalist, I passionately believe in the importance of a free press. Even though there’s no such thing as totally objective reporting, I’m glad that there are those out there who devote the time to report beyond their own experiences, both reporting on and scrutinising the work of others. The value of journalism, as with all writing, is that it’s an important mirror for society — just as personal stories can provoke reflection as well. All these forms are important.

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2 thoughts on “Getting facts wrong in Cambodia

  1. This is a fascinating topic. I also get uncomfortable reading back something I’ve written that is ‘I this, I that’, thinking ‘why should anyone care what I do or think?’ But blogs are not the same as journalism.

    1. Yes, you’re right, blogs are the not same as journalism — luckily! A friend asked me the other day that I shouldn’t just be publishing on my blog but actually turning these posts into articles. But it made me realise how glad I am to have a space to write which is all about ‘I’, and I don’t need to worry about the broader principles that guide journalism.

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