Amanda Sperber Rethinks Foreign Correspondence

Photo Courtesy of Patty Boltman
Sperber holds multiple journalism awards for her international reporting in East Africa.

On Nov. 2, people gathered into Science Hall 181 to listen to Ottaway visiting professor and international reporter Amanda Sperber talk about foreign correspondence and human connection across borders. 

Ironically, the crowd for her “Rethinking Foreign Correspondence” lecture divided themselves into two groups separated by the middle aisle of the room. “There seems to be a divide on the age demographic,” SUNY New Paltz President Darrell P. Wheeler said as he introduced Sperber, bringing attention to the older and younger crowds that had gathered on either side of the auditorium. The crowd erupted with laughter.

Division is what brought that same crowd to sit before Sperber. It’s why she spent her lecture referring to international reporting in quotation marks. Division is the reason Sperber’s job as an international reporter even exists.

“The dominant political project of the last 300 years, by the most powerful people and institutions on Earth, has been to divide humanity into national identities, ethnic identities, religious, gender and so on,” Sperber said to the audience. “It is the job, I think, of the international correspondent then, to look deeply at and report out who and what is keeping us apart, regardless of borders.”

Sperber’s work as a freelance journalist and international correspondent has taken her across the borders of various countries such as Somalia, Kenya and South Sudan. Her writing has had a massive impact, prompting changes to U.S. military policy such as a civilian casualty reporting protocol after Sperber’s reporting on U.S. airstrikes in Somalia. Sperber holds multiple journalism awards, one being the Kurt Schork Memorial Award for her investigative reporting in Somalia. 

She starts her lecture talking about the very investigative reporting that earned her the award: her story about the international development of the Somali National Army, a long, deep investigative piece, that a publication expected her to write within two weeks. In her reporting, she assessed and experienced Somalia’s building of an offensive national army combating al-Shabaab, a rebel group most often defined as terrorists by the West. 

The army’s offense didn’t end there; they even targeted their own training camps to threaten foreigners such as Sperber working with the army. Their violence towards the camp Sperber was in served as a protest strategically wielded to get money. After hours of rising tension and aggression with rocks being thrown and guns being pointed, Sperber left the scene. She only found out later that their act of protest was successful, and someone came and distributed money after all. The factors involved in reporting this story- capitalism, personal security and the concept of the nation-state caused Sperber to question her personal and professional relationship with international reporting, as well as the craft itself.

“To have this role as a job is a staggering privilege,” Sperber said. “It is absolutely the honor of my life, and to teach it is a massive responsibility.”

James H. Ottaway Jr. and Mary Ottaway, the founders of the Ottaway Visiting Professorship, were seated for Sperber’s lecture. The professorship honoring James H. Ottaway Sr., the founder of Ottaway Newspapers Inc., aims to equip students with the skills to be better journalists and writers. In her International Reporting class, Sperber seeks to answer questions of what it means to be an ethical and international reporter. She discusses the profession’s links to colonialism and encourages students to question how such origins impact the news today. Her students practice the craft from the safety of the small town of New Paltz.

Sperber’s class has read articles such as “The Other Afghan Women” and “I Hate Elephants” to deepen their understanding of the U.S.’s role in international affairs and correspondence. They’ve also read the likes of Edward Said and Suzy Hansen in their respective books, “Orientalism” and “Notes on a Foreign Country.” 

“What I have found, then, studying premier examples of the craft this semester, has really clarified that the greatest of this work is an interrogation of power, class and examining the forces that keep working people all over the world from unifying. Even work that has nothing to do with those topics at face value ultimately does,” Sperber said.

Sperber has always wanted to teach, and finding a class where she and her students can embrace, rethink and learn from the flaws and strengths of her profession has satisfied this dream. “It’s exciting to work with students who are really passionate and energetic. I think that journalism is a profession where you can get jaded pretty quickly,” Sperber told The Oracle. “I think fresh eyes and fresh ideas and fresh outrage are super, super important. That’s been invigorating for me as I’ve been teaching.”

After reflecting on her time so far as the Ottaway Visiting Professor, Sperber told the story of Mohamed Osman Abdi, a journalist whose niece died in an attack the American military claimed to have killed one terrorist. After months of Osman tweeting and advocating for his 18-year-old niece, receiving threatening phone calls from the Somali government in the process, the U.S. military finally admitted their mistake in calling an 18-year-old civilian a terrorist. Sperber has covered many civilian casualties caused by U.S. airstrikes.

Being a worker of a Somali government news agency, Osman was silenced. The relationship between Somalia and the U.S. mattered to the government more than the lives of civilians did. The global media describes al-Shabaab as terrorists, but doesn’t accurately capture the terror the Somali government enacts onto their own civilians.

The Somali government outlawed Somali reports on al-Shabaab, instead encouraging covering the army’s offensive. The majority of American media outlets covering this issue have complied with this narrative, producing stories with no criticism of the Somali government.

Through this example, Sperber encouraged journalists to report corruption on all sides and with this, maintain humility and self-awareness. Just as her talk was named, Sperber encouraged news readers to “rethink” foreign correspondence.

“I hope what people take away from [the lecture] is that they reconsider some of how they view the world and they view the world less as a place with borders that divide us and more as a single body that is united in a struggle,” Sperber told The Oracle.

Sperber’s lecture was followed by a lively Q&A, where audience members on both sides of the aisle proved they were already rethinking the news they read.