Go abroad, brush death, write a great story, and stuff your pockets with cash

By Angus Chen

Of the four panelists, Apoorva Mandavilli, a freelance journalist formerly of Nature, managed to stay the truest to this panel’s title: “International reporting: how to NOT screw it up.” Though to be completely truthful, the whole panel might as well have been called “Foreign reporting: Wherein things are already screwed up … Good luck!”

Mandavilli was talking about a trip she took to South Africa when she was an editor at Nature. She booked meetings with local clinics and had set up days to talk to scientists or visit sites. “I’d planned everything,” she said. “But my best story came from reading the local paper which I highly recommend doing. I saw an ad for a drug called Secomet.”

Secomet V was an experimental drug derived from red clover that a University of Cape Town professor named Girish Kotwal was selling as part of a miracle elixir to cure HIV. Needless to say, a mid-2000s South African version of Dr. Oz with an HIV potion sounded like a great story. Mandavilli had hooked her curiosity around Secomet, but Kotwal wasn’t on her carefully planned agenda.

She booked the visit anyway and scrambled to meet Kotwal. “He gave me all this scientific hoopla about why it would work,” Mandavilli said. But with a little digging she found that there had been no clinical trials to support Kotwal’s claims, that other tests had shown the drug to be toxic at low concentrations, and that a local clinician blamed Secomet for the sudden deaths of two HIV/AIDS patients in her hospital.

Mandavilli had to leave South Africa because she hadn’t given herself extra time to cover other stories, but one of the first things she had done in the country was connect with NGOs working in the area and local journalists. One of them was able to continue following the story for her.

Mandavilli ended her monologue with one more anecdote. “Be safe,” she said, leaning into the mic. “Really.” On her last day in South Africa, Mandavilli had asked her hotel to rent her a car and hire a driver, but she’d also skimped on buying a phone with good cellular coverage. “I stupidly had not told anyone where I was going,” she said. Her driver made unscheduled stops in areas questionable enough that Mandavilli thought, “I was going to die that day.”

Mandavilli made it out with a bit of luck, a feigned phone call, and a strongly worded objection to the stops. But international reporting can get dangerous. It’s the job of a foreign journalist to navigate an unfamiliar and sometimes unfriendly environment.

Charles Choi is a freelancer who holds a prestigious portfolio — The New York Times, Science, Scientific American, National Geographic — the list goes on. But he has an embarrassing story for avoiding death as a foreign reporter. “If you’re in a ridiculously stupid situation … okay, I’m not proud of this, but I pretended to be a really lost Asian tourist,” he said.

Choi was in Guatemala reporting on drug plane airstrips in wildlife refuges. He said he was in an area controlled by people both “evil and clever, which is what you’d expect a successful drug dealer to be,” but he decided to drive through anyway, ever the fearless journalist. He came across a brand new truck in the Guatemalan wild with two guys bearing shotguns and a pregnant woman saddled between them.

“So I was like — 'Oh — I’m just taking photos,'” Choi said with a smile plastered on his face and miming a camera with his hands. “I’m not proud of it, but I didn’t get shot. So … ”

The story is very telling of foreign reporting. Choi and Mandavilli and the other panelists’ stories are epics of improvisation and adaptation. Doing the job is all about being quick and inventive, from staying safe to recouping the costs of traveling and reporting abroad.

Choi and Cynthia Graber, a freelance print and radio journalist, both talked about selling as many stories to as many different publications as you can. “There’s nothing like getting paid twice for one story,” Choi said. It’s this kind of resourcefulness that’s an international journalist’s best friend, and you need it from start to finish.

“I’ve never gotten a journalist’s visa,” said Eliza Strickland, a reporter for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. “Just always a business visa — getting a journalist’s visa is a nightmare.”

“You can lie, it’s OK,” Mandavilli said, laughing.

“It doesn’t backfire,” somebody chimes in.

“Well, the truth sometimes backfires,” Mandavilli said.

“For some reason if you say you’re a children’s writer, they’re OK with that. And I have written — one thing for kids,” Choi said.