AlumNouse: An Interview with Jane Ferguson


Ella Raw and Grace Bannister (she/her) interview the Emmy-Award winning, foreign correspondent Jane Ferguson as part of the AlumNouse series

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Image by Jane Ferguson

By Grace Bannister and Ella Raw

As war and conflict fall into rotation on the front pages, read with breakfast from the comfort of our homes, it is perhaps interesting to consider the individuals reporting on such conflicts: the risks they take, what drives them, and how they have found themselves in an unstable, tumultuous environment and career. Nouse had the opportunity to sit down with Jane Ferguson, an Emmy Award winning, current foreign correspondent for PBS NewsHour, albeit on a Zoom call that bridged across the Atlantic. Jane has also worked for CNN, as a contributory writer for The New Yorker, as well as recently authoring a memoir about her impressive career that has spanned across the US, and the Middle East. We spoke with Jane about her time at York, as well as her experience as a foreign correspondent.

Though Jane didn’t include much on her university experience in her memoir, “No Ordinary Assignment”, we spoke to her about her involvement in student journalism at York Vision, in addition to her English Literature and Politics degree.

Jane: “My degree felt like this thing I had to do before I could go off and do what I really wanted to do, which was to become a journalist”.

We spoke to Jane about graduating mid-financial crash and her constant rejection in search of a job. She told us how walking into London networks asking for a job was met with “I'm laying off 500 people this year”.

In 2007 she graduated from York before travelling to Yemen to study Arabic.

Jane: “So the fact that I found myself in the Middle East at 23 was quite startling. It was a great surprise, but it was me trying to make the best of a challenging situation, which was the financial crisis. And I went to Yemen because I couldn't get a job and I just didn't know what to do.”

However, Jane’s fascination with the Middle East started well before her move to Yemen. Only 17 at the time of 9/11, Jane saw a war-centred transformation of the news and media. Growing up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, Jane was no stranger to conflict and religious divisions, this gave her a genuine desire to understand the human-experience of conflict in the Middle East, rather than just the perpetual “bang, bang” headlines of popular news.

After spending time at an Arabic School in Yemen, Jane returned to the UK to discover the prospects of finding employment in journalism ill-improved. She quickly moved to Dubai, joining the English-language paper Gulf News as an assistant Sports Editor. Knowing more about flak jackets and combat boots than bats and balls, Jane explained to us that “it really wasn't my dream job living in Dubai and living this fancy life”.

Jane pitched herself for a war and conflict foreign posting in the Middle East to the senior editor’s desk at Gulf News, but was met with confusion and a “why would you want to go there?”.

Meanwhile a climactic presidential election was taking place in Afghanistan. Unable to watch helplessly, Jane booked a flight, walked into the Gulf News office and asked to take her accumulated paid leave; omitting the fact that this was actually to independently report on the presidential election and consequent violence.

This experience highlighted to her what the real work of a war reporter should be: gathering stories from civilian victims and revealing the human-effects and catastrophes resulting from war. As a more experienced foreign correspondent, Jane reflects on this now: her ability to provide a “loudspeaker” to share the aspects of war more often neglected by the media.

But Jane still has doubts over the wider purpose of her work, unable to help the people directly in front of her.

Ella: “In your book you talk a lot about the feeling of physical helplessness, and the idea of the nobility of war journalism. I was wondering if you could talk more about that feeling, because it is quite interesting?”

Jane: “I do feel that it's very hard to be in situations where people are in such dire need, and I’m taking notes…I'm standing here with my notebook, you know, and everybody else is doing something much more helpful. Deep down, I believe wholeheartedly in journalism, and I know that many of these situations would be significantly worse if there weren’t eyeballs on what's going on in the world.”

Ella: “Everyone watches TV and sees the UNICEF adverts of children who are dealing with famine and being filmed, and sometimes you wonder about the person on the other side of the camera, what it must be like for them.”

Jane: “You know, I'm witness to the worst day of people's lives a lot of the time. And I remember a colleague of mine, who actually works at The Times in London, put it much, much better. She said, you know, yes, we're helping people, sort of, but I can't help this one person who's standing in front of me. That's a really very difficult reality to be faced with.”

Describing what she calls an “emotional salve”, Jane explained that she is reassured by the work of others: from humanitarian workers, to field doctors and nurses. However, remembering the long-term importance of war journalism conducted by foreign correspondents, also matters, especially when famine and humanitarian crises are predominantly man-made; a direct result of war and conflict. However, feeling like a note-taker is not the only challenge journalists like Jane encounter.

Where people might assume that field reporting in the Middle East has more obvious challenges for female journalists, the corporate world isn’t without its smoke-filled, hairsprayed rooms. Having reported from the firing lines in Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen, to the sterile hostility found in the corporate offices in New York, London and Dubai, Jane had some comments on the perceived challenges of working in both environments.

Grace: “You mentioned a lot in your book about being a female journalist and reporting in the Middle East, often you were with an all male team. Could you expand on any challenges you faced as a result?”

Jane: “People say, oh my gosh, it must be so hard to work in those conservative countries as a woman, it must be. But it never threatened my ability to do my job. And they often think that it's the Afghans or the Iraqis or the Lebanese for whom this becomes an issue. But predominantly, in terms of how it impacts my life, in terms of pressures, in terms of the decisions I have to make, the gender issue is more of a challenge in television, in the industry, at a corporate level than it ever really was in the field. A man in a corporate position, those people can make your life harder than people in the street in Baghdad, who are usually incredibly friendly and lovely.”

Jane: “You know, I’m just trying to, in the book, put forward a very honest account of my life on the road, and being a woman was just a part of that. I really didn’t want to write the book about being a female journalist, I really didn’t want to entrench a sense of gender identity that was like a grievance…For me, what has been really interesting is watching the gender conversation change so much over the years. Things are improving, but you know, ten, 15 years ago it mattered. All the networks were run by men and the executive suites, and those at the very top were men. The reality was it mattered what you looked like. It was a very insipid part of TV because nobody would call you up and be like, well, babe, you didn’t get it because ‘such and such’ got the job because they’re just spectacularly good looking. And no one really openly talked about looks. It was all just very much inferred. And then you would simply look on, watch the TV and be like, well, okay, I can see maybe where the differentiator was there. And that’s incredibly hard to deal with in your twenties, when you’re young and you are trying to build confidence and trying to believe that you’re going to be assessed on your skills and experience.”

Grace: “You’ve talked a lot about the challenges and hurdles of being a female reporter especially at a corporate level, but you also have access to all female zones that your male coworkers just simply wouldn’t have access to, particularly in the Middle East. So, do you feel that there are also advantages to being a female war correspondent?”

Jane: “Tons of advantages. Tons. You know, I can build relationships with women in really conservative countries. I’ve had extraordinary experiences, both personal and professional with women in the region, and I’m always overwhelmed with how women kind of enveloped me. You know very often I can get into rooms with powerful men, unfortunately, that's a reality, you know, the military commander, the most senior politicians, they tend to be men, but I get to be in that room too, but I also get to be in rooms filled with women. And, I always say this to younger women: never underestimate what an advantage you're at by being underestimated. You know, I’ve gone through international borders and not been questioned because I'm not seen as threatening to a lot of people.”

Grace: “You’ve had so many interesting encounters throughout your career, is there a civilian encounter that you've had with someone that's really stuck out to you?”

Jane: “Oh, gosh. So many encounters, you know, I just, I think that for me, I've been lucky enough to be able to profile people who I think really embody something about what's happening in a country, and really embody the inner struggle. I always try to remind viewers and readers that war is experienced on a personal level…I've loved doing this, finding someone to profile and then returning to them. A gynaecologist in Afghanistan, a female gynaecologist, one of the most senior doctors in the country: Dr Shefajo. She was a pioneer for improving women’s reproductive health in Afghanistan, and she had this incredible clinic in Kabul that she’d built from scratch. I remember being so struck by the fact that when the Taliban rolled in on August 15, 2021, Dr. Shefajo went to work. You know, she did not try to flee the country because she was like, well, I had women who were due to give birth that day. Her story just really embodied so much of what conflict does to people, but also the sense of sacrifice of that second generation.”

Ella: “Is she still in Afghanistan now?”

Jane: “My understanding is that she is.”

Ella: “You've been to Kabul in Afghanistan in 2014 and 2021 when the US pulled out, and you've been to Yemen quite a few times. I was wondering if you could explain how it feels to visit a country for the second or the third time after it has gone through such drastic changes since you were last there?”

Jane:  “I would say that Yemen and Afghanistan were the two real threads throughout my career. I first went to Yemen in 2008, and I first went to Afghanistan in 2009 as a very young cub print reporter for a regional paper in the Middle East. A place gets under your skin and you come to love it, you come to be fascinated by it, it's very rewarding to know a place. And while it's very, very hard, it's wonderful to go back to a place again and again and again. Because you're staying with the story and by this stage, let's be honest, you're really invested in it personally and professionally. You come to love a place and you come to watch it change, which unfortunately can break your heart. Yemen in particular, it was heartbreaking, because Yemen had a really devastating decade. It was very heartbreaking to be there as people were starving and war had gripped the country. Watching a place decline, you know, I reflect on this a lot at the end of my book that it's been hard, all the places I’ve made home: Yemen, Afghanistan, and Lebanon, I've watched them really, really struggle.”

When reading Jane’s book, something that really struck us was her ability to maintain a professional composure when interviewing some of the most extremist groups and individuals, like the Taliban.

Grace: “You now report on countries with wars often fuelled by extremist religious groups. Obviously, professionally, it’s unbelievable to speak with the Taliban, for example. But do you find it difficult on a personal level?”

Jane: “Well, you know, I think that you have to bring to journalism, fundamentally, a curiosity about the world. I think it's very important that we replace moralism with curiosity to be professional journalists. I just want to understand. I really want to understand because I know, coming from Northern Ireland, that so many of the divisions are only on the surface religious. A lot of it is social. A lot of it is class. You look under the surface in Afghanistan, yes, there is religion, everyone is Muslim, but, there are differences in terms of religious practices, there's also a huge ethnic conflict going on in Afghanistan underneath that. So, trying to understand and having a genuine curiosity, that's how I approach these things. And I try to take emotion and morality out of it and ask questions in good faith. I really want to understand the motivating factors and where the mistrust comes from and the history of it all.”

Having reported on conflicts that consume people’s lunch break conversations, and dinnertime debates, it’s easy to imagine that her journey to this position has been smooth-sailing. Jane’s response - “Once you've reached a certain level of success in your career everyone presumes everything up until that point was a choice. Like I came out of college and I was like, well, which network will I work at?  No one sees you banging on doors and failing and getting rejected again and again and again”.

Grace: “What would be your advice to students or people wanting to pursue journalism and foreign correspondence?”

Jane: “I get asked a lot by young people, you know, will you mentor me? Or, could you help me?  But very often the younger generation are really just asking you to open your Rolodex, and call your editor, and get their piece published. And I totally get it; I was the same. But if you get a veteran reporter in front of you, ask them to help you get better at what you do. Ask them to look at your writing and give you feedback. Ask them to look at your on-camera work and give you feedback on that. Ask them for advice. You know, I think in an era where it's about followers and a social media presence, and contacts, a lot of people get a little distracted by the game of the career. You know, they can lose sight of the fact that your strongest selling points over the years is going to be how good you are at what you do. Always keep in mind that, ultimately, you're going to be successful if you are undeniably brilliant at what you do.”

Thanks so much to Jane Ferguson for taking part in the AlumNouse series. Many thanks also to Shane Tan who managed our correspondence with Jane. If you would like to learn more about Jane’s incredible life, read her memoir No Ordinary Assignment available to purchase online. To follow her war reporting and journalistic endeavours follow her X (formerly Twitter) @JaneFerguson5, Instagram @janieferg, or visit her website

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