University of Wisconsin-Madison alumna Erin Luhmann discussed her experiences and newly gained insights after traveling abroad with New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof at a lecture Monday.
Kristof served as Luhmann’s guide through Mali, Niger and Chad as they practiced humanitarian reporting and helped raise awareness of global health issues, including food security, malnutrition and family planning.
Luhmann secured her position as Kristof’s mentee through his 2013 Win-A-Trip contest.
Luhmann owes her success in the journalism field to her ability to tell people’s stories truthfully while still incorporating compassion, according to UW-Madison Global Health Institute Associate Director Lori DiPrete Brown.
“I think that humanitarian reporting has kind of a bad rep of being soft news or human interest news, but it’s intense and it’s important,” Luhmann said.
Luhmann explained the act of helping others is an innate quality of humans, which often results in walking a fine line between reporting and participating. She added that ethical concerns can make distinguishing between helping subjects and intervening difficult.
On this topic, she discussed several of her particularly controversial situations, including an encounter with an infant suffering from malnutrition who she and her team ultimately decided to transport to a hospital.
Additionally, Luhmann touched upon the challenges of interviewing people after traumatic events and discussed serious topics with sensitive subjects across a language barrier.
“Some of the niceties and all of that you would like to say you just don’t have the language for,” Luhmann said.
The task of transforming people’s stories, lifestyles and experiences into words challenged Luhmann as well. She explained it is hard to detach words from judgment and values.
“People are very sensitive to their image and how they’re portrayed,” Luhmann added.
Humanitarian reporting encompasses all of these challenges, which are sometimes overlooked and a central reason Luhmann encourages people to “have an appreciation for this sort of news.”
Hannah Chapman, a UW-Madison Ph.D. political science student, expressed her admiration for Luhmann.
“I think a lot of people in the field are controversial, but to see a female coming fresh into the field and getting a different perspective, I think that’s very interesting,” Chapman said.