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Book Bag: No Ordinary Assignment Share This on LinkedIn   Tweet This   Forward This

6 December 2023

Jan Ferguson has distinguished herself as a war correspondent for her bravery as well as her empathy. You may recognize her as the Irish blonde on the PBS NewsHour who talks Arabic to the people of Afghanistan and the Middle East. But she has also worked for Al Jezeera and CNN.

This memoir of her years growing up in Ireland and studying in the U.S. before launching her career as a journalist in the Middle East was, itself, no ordinary assignment.

As much as it documents the conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan, it also chronicles a young girl's growth through school to establishing a career, learning to use a video camera in the field, the politics of the TV news business, getting a nose job, falling love and getting married, divorcing and changing directions to become a mentor to the next generation.

It's that mentorship that won us over. The book itself mentors not only would-be conflict journalists but those of us who get the news from the television.

We're going to quote at length from the book rather than show images of it but it does include a 12-page photo album. We confess to reformatting the long paragraphs palatable in book form to shorter ones for consumption here.

Ferguson recalls early on her fascinating as a girl with looking at the images in National Geographic. Images of war. But it wasn't the fighting that grabbed her attention. It was an ethical issue:

Photographs showed elderly women in headscarves, weeping. I thought of my grandmother and wondered how anyone could take a picture of an old woman crying and not stop to help her fix whatever problem she has. Who was that old lady? Where were her children? What did she say to the person who took her picture?

Years later she found herself behind a camera pointing at suffering. She tells the story on both sides of the camera:

The little boy was slipping away. His mother sat motionless, a small crease between her brows the only outward sign of her pain. I was suddenly horribly aware that I was witnessing one of the worst moments any human can endure: the loss of a child.... I felt a flash of shame.

To stand in the hospital with a camera and not a stethoscope, to offer no tangible help to the person suffering in front of you, to voyeuristically witness their suffering -- all of this is grotesque. This was my first such experience. I had an overwhelming sense of futility at what I was doing, pointing a camera.

I firmly believe that journalism, TV in particular, plays a crucial role in showing the rest of the world its own reality. I still believe that.

But sometimes the peering at suffering and documenting it, chasing the "powerful nature" of images of others' pain, is guilt-ridden work. War reporters see a lot of pain and ask if it's okay to capture it. It is such a delicate, sensitive balancing act -- especially for a twenty-five-year-old working alone with no other colleagues -- and all we can do is be as compassionate and respectful as possible.

To do that, you must allow yourself to be vulnerable. In those moments where I am witnessing the profound vulnerability of someone else, I also feel laid bare. You can only really get through it be sending as much love to the person you are filming as you can.

People recognize real empathy. It is the only decent behavior in war reporting.

She later had a fight with a younger producer over this same issue. The producer wanted to keep probing a clearly numb subject when Ferguson cut her off, ending the interview.

People who find their homes turned into war zones, who have spent years here watching war devastate their communities, who live in constant fear, may appear well put together. But they are not, I argued. They're merely surviving. We cannot tear that down just to get more emotion on-camera.

My producer was angry and defensive; she felt patronized. She hadn't been to war before, and she didn't understand the emotional toll of ripping away those defenses. These people have no therapists, no escape, no hope. We don't have the right to dig up their deepest anguish for our assignment, I said in the car ride back to the hotel.

"Jane's right," said Aleem, the fixer, looking out the window as we drove back to the hotel. "Everyone here looks normal, but we are all so affected deep down. It's very bad."

To her credit that is the conflict Ferguson brought into our living rooms. Not the bang-bang of front line confrontations but the residue of humanity left behind. She was inspired by a mentor of her own.

Early in her career she had the opportunity to interview the legendary Tim Page about war reporting in Afghanistan.

"Do we get inside the mental asylums?" he asked her. "How many people in this country are completely and utterly gaga? I have no idea how many mental asylums there are in this country stuffed with shocked people."

She recalled the effect of that conversation:

Page was the first person who really talked to me about journalism -- real journalism. Stories about the people, the places, the heart of it all. This war, Page complained, has been photographed only from military vehicles and bomb blast sites.

The face of war is that of the ordinary citizens who suffer the consequences of it. The assignment is to report what their lives have become more than the results of any skirmish.

And ultimately to appreciate what personal battle you are yourself engaged in. An assignment Ferguson completes with the insight of one who speaks the language.

No Ordinary Assignment: A Memoir by Jane Ferguson, published by Mariner Books, 336 pages, $29.99 (or $19.15 at

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