Photo courtesy to CBS News
Carnegie Mellon University

Opening our Eyes to the Spectrum of Humanity

In psychology, we are taught that a single story can change or inspire us in ways a million statistics cannot. Therein lies the heart of journalism’s power: a single story can force accountability at the highest levels of government or the private sector, compel us to do good, transport us to places we would not think to visit, and change the way we think about the world. For CBS News correspondent Vladimir Duthiers, who discusses his winding journey toward reporting and the insights he has gained over the years in a phone interview with HS Insider, this spirit is exactly what drives him to keep going in a field that is often stressful, dangerous, and depressing.

Duthiers had always wanted to be a journalist. “People would talk about being lawyers, doctors, and astronauts, and police officers, [and] I wanted to be Mike Wallace… or Ed Bradley [of 60 Minutes],” Duthiers reflected.

To him, journalism’s appeal lay not only in “travel[ing] all over the world and report[ing] from interesting places and meet[ing] interesting people”, but also in the “shared humanity… on display in the reporting they do.”

True to this early love of journalism, at not yet 10-years-old he started an investigative newspaper.

“[The contents of the newspaper were] basically spying on my little sister,” Duthiers recalled to much laughter on both ends of the phone. “It was essentially finding whatever was in her room, in her journal, and putting it in this newspaper I sold for like five cents to other family members. It was called Top Secret.”

Top Secret was Duthiers’ first “experience” with investigative reporting.

When he went to college, he started as a journalism major, although his immigrant parents believed that the path to success in America was to become a doctor, lawyer, or an engineer. He struggled to find a journalism job out of college, and some of his classmates in college suggested that he look into the field of finance and banking. “I’m not interested in JP Morgan, I’m interested in Nelson Mandela,” he remembered thinking when he heard the suggestion, “but I do need to pay the rent this month and probably for the months after.”

He took a job in finance planning to stay for a few months or a year to save some money before pursuing his dream of becoming a journalist, but then “[the] next thing [he] knew, it had been 20 years.”

The years in finance rolled by in part because he was assigned to positions abroad in Luxembourg and France, in addition to traveling regularly to places outside of his base in the Middle East and Asia — from Taiwan to Beirut to London, and traveling was part of the reason journalism had appealed to him as a child.

Yet, despite this, he found that this wasn’t what he wanted to spend the rest of his life doing. “When I look back at the end of my life… I want to be able to look back and say I made a difference,” he stated.

He credits a quote, usually attributed to St. Augustine, for being a catalyst for his career change: “the key to immortality is living a life worth remembering.” At that point, he was in his late 30s and didn’t yet feel that he had done anything worth remembering.

Thus, at age 38 he left his successful finance career behind and applied to the Columbia School of Journalism. He was pleasantly surprised when he was accepted. “That was one of the signs,” he remembered. “I said to myself: ‘If I can get into this Ivy League school, with really terrible grades as an undergrad… that’s at least an indicator that I’m on the right track.’”

One might think that Duthiers would have had to overcome a high psychological barrier in order to forgo the security of his former career and pursue his dream in a new field when he was already older. But he says that this is a mistaken notion.

“For everybody in the world, ego is what trips you up,” he pointed out. When he started out in journalism, he kept this in mind and humbly learned everything about his new profession from the beginning.

His first boss, then in her mid-20s, was over a decade his junior.

“A lot of managers worried I wouldn’t be able to take directions from somebody who was that young,” Duthiers remembered. But Duthiers also proved these managers’ assumptions mistaken as he took directions easily.

“There’s another quote that I. . .keep close to myself, which is… ‘In the mind of an expert, the possibilities are very limited. But in the mind of a beginner, the possibilities are endless,’” he explained. “[When] you’re a beginner, you don’t know anything! So you can… absorb a lot more when you are a beginner” and generally be open to more new experiences.

Duthiers’ first big story as an intern hit close to home. The son of Haitian immigrants, Duthiers was sent with CNN’s Anderson Cooper and his team as a production assistant and interpreter to cover the devastating 2010 Haiti earthquake. At the time, the journalists had not realized the scale and scope of the story and anticipated being there for a week—instead, they reported from Haiti for over a month. “I’d never seen anything like that; I hope to never see anything like that again,” Duthiers said, recalling the widespread devastation.

Emotions, understandably, sometimes ran like a river there. Once, the CNN team came across some mass grave sites that the government had set up because there were so many killed. While they were there, a dump truck came up to the site. Duthiers clearly remembers hearing the “beep beep beep” of the truck, which proceeded to start dumping out bodies, one after another after another, into the mass, unmarked graves where no one would ever know who they were. The next thing he knew, he was standing there with tears streaming down his face.

The producer on the team told him that he could sit in the car if the scene was too much for him. But he chose not to do that, because, as he recalled, “[he] want[ed] to stay here and bear witness to what [he was] seeing.”

For him, that was his essential duty as a journalist — to not only bear witness, but to show and feel the humanity behind the headlines, and that came with letting the emotions flow when appropriate or necessary. He is wary of taking on an attitude where the stories he reports become mere, “normal” statistics in his head — the mentality of “just another tragedy here.” “I never want to get to a situation where [tragedies such as terrorism or natural disasters become] normal… I never want to get to the point where it becomes. . .‘Yes, this is just the way the world is’,” Duthiers explained. In other words, he aims to open our eyes to the full spectrum of humanity through his storytelling.

This sentiment extends to the positive things that we would never know about as well. He is well aware that the media portrayal of countries like Haiti and Nigeria, where he was based as an international correspondent for CNN, is often prone to stereotypes.

As a child, he had personal experience with the unfortunate ways these stereotypes can play out in the real world. He recalled that when the AIDS crisis became a big news story, many people somehow acquired the blatantly false impression that all Haitians had AIDS, which became a very harmful stereotype for Haitians. Although Duthiers didn’t even know anyone who had the disease, other children in school would bully him about it because they either believed in the stereotype or just wanted an excuse to pick on other children.

Later, as a journalist, he strove to report his stories such that they didn’t simply reinforce the stereotypes—striving instead to take viewers on a journey of discovery beyond what they already believe. While it was inevitable that he had to cover tragedies that happened in places like Nigeria—as they are important stories—he emphasized that there were many wonderful aspects to the country that we normally didn’t see. For example, Duthiers said, many Americans probably aren’t aware that Nigeria has the second biggest movie industry in the world, or that Nigerian music was a significant influence on American soul and funk music in the 1960s and 1970s. Nigeria is also the inspiration behind the classic novel Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, who is himself from the country, and the book is now a required reading for many English classes. “There is this whole other world that exists that people don’t know about,” he asserted. Nigeria and other places in the region tend to be associated with the terrorism of Boko Haram and extreme poverty, but Duthiers hopes that through his reporting, he can show that stereotypes about any place or group are never the whole story—they certainly do not show the full spectrum of a place or people. “My job [is] to try to, as best as I can, to obliterate any kind of stereotypes that exist out there about these places. . .to make [people who may have never visited a particular place or contacted a particular group] understand that it’s more than just a stereotype,” Duthiers stated.

Besides opening our collective eyes and breaking down stereotypes, like most journalists, Duthiers feels deeply the calling of one of the highest ideals of journalism — to hold the authorities accountable. Giving the example of the time he covered the 2014 kidnapping of the Chibok schoolgirls by Boko Haram, Duthiers clearly remembered the way some of the girls’ parents were trying to explain the indescribable pain of losing a daughter to terrorism when all they wanted was for her to have a good education, and the double tragedy of the government’s seeming indifference and inaction in regards to their plight. Because no one from the government was in contact with them to help out, they went to the reporters instead, who were able to help tell their story to the world. “Once [the journalists] started to ask questions of the military and government, they were forced to answer… to those families, and they were forced to do something about it,” Duthiers stated. He firmly believes that without journalism, many of these stories would never have gotten told and there would have been no impetus for the powerful to change their behavior. Similarly, we as viewers and engaged citizens have a responsibility to hear these stories — to open our eyes, ears, and hearts to them. As a journalist, he gets to interview — and enjoys interviewing — celebrities he personally admires, but he insists that the real meaning in the job is telling the stories of people who are forgotten by much of the world. “To be able to shine a light on those darkest corners of our society [and] world is something that is very sacred to me,” he said.     

Beyond holding the powerful accountable by asking questions, Duthiers has also more recently covered instances where citizens in our country are trying to hold our elected officials to account. Notably, he covered the Parkland shooting and the #NeverAgain movement, which sprung up in the shooting’s aftermath, extensively. When many people think of the Parkland survivors like Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg, their immediate thought is that these students are so inspiring and brave to try to change the status quo on their own.

But Duthiers sees a larger historical perspective to the movement: that protest and youth activism are as American as apple pie. “This is something that’s been done going back to the founding of this country,” he explained. He gave the examples of the many youth movements that sprung up around the Civil Rights Movement, the anti-Vietnam War protests, and the women’s suffrage movement. “Young people taking to the streets is what America is all about,” he concluded.

Obviously, it is nearly inevitable that a reporter has to cover the tragedies of the world, and many stories can be emotionally draining. For Duthiers, the best sides of humanity give him hope. Although he has witnessed so much suffering in all corners of the world, from his parents’ homeland in Haiti to Paris, a city that he had called home for years, after the terrorist attacks in 2015, he has not forgotten the positive things he saw even in the wake of the most terrifying tragedies.

From post-earthquake Haiti, there is a scene that will always be etched in his heart — he was in a hotel at about 2 a.m. when he heard a noise, and when he stepped out onto the balcony, the square plaza in front of his hotel was filled with hundreds or thousands of people singing songs of hope and thanking their “lucky stars” for their survival. Even though they had all lost their homes and many had lost loved ones as well, they were still able to find a silver lining in their darkest days.

He would interview victims of the earthquake, who had had their lives upended, their property destroyed and their loved ones lost, but they would still smile for him, offer him whatever they had and tell him that they would have offered more if they had more.

“When you see that, you know that that humanity exists,” he reflected.

His job has made him intensely aware of his privileged personal station in life — he sees “people with nothing who are able to smile, …go about their daily lives [and] be courteous and giving, even when they have nothing” and he never ceases to feel grateful for the blessings in his own life.

Despite every tragedy that he’s covered, he is staunch in his belief that “we all have a shared humanity.” “Many times, what happens is people lose sight of that humanity and it doesn’t take a lot to just find it [and] cultivate [it].”

1 Comment

  • Reply Stephanie Kiang May 29, 2018 at 8:50 pm

    Great job!

    Like

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