An unconventional route led Sarah Topol to a career in journalism. The traveling backpacker turned journalist visited campus on Thursday, September 22, to talk about her recent reporting project in Nigeria on terrorist organization Boko Haram.
Topol received funding from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, which allowed her to travel and focus on Boko Haram without the constraints of a traditional news deadline. Topol’s recent article in the New York Times Magazine, “Trained to Kill: How four boys survived Boko Haram,” details the compelling, heartbreaking story of four boys, formerly fishermen, who had been kidnapped by members of Boko Haram and trained to become child soldiers.
Topol acknowledges that her role as a reporter is a difficult one, saying, “You’re putting people under a lot of stress by asking them questions that may re-traumatize them by them telling their story.”
After graduating from Northeastern University with bachelor’s degrees in political science and international studies, Topol backpacked throughout Asia and eventually returned to the U.S. to work at a non-profit organization in Washington, D.C. Later, after growing tired of the typical 9-to-5 work day in the office, she moved to Cairo, Egypt, where she also backpacked. While living in Egypt, Topol connected with some journalists and thus began her career in the field.
Topol started out writing for the Daily News Egypt. She had covered stories on the Arab Spring and other stories throughout the Middle East. Topol wrote as a freelance journalist for Harper’s, The Atlantic, Buzzfeed, and Businessweek. She is currently a contributor to the New York Times Magazine.
This is not the first time that Topol reported a story in Nigeria on Boko Haram. She previously visited the country to cover the kidnapping of 276 girls in Chibok, when the conflict originally broke out in April 2014 and hit mainstream media waves.
Topol discussed her experience reporting on the story. “As a white person, you have to be critically conscious of the race factor involved and why people may or may not be talking to you. Putting this story together was challenging,” Topol admitted.
Tezeta Tamrat ‘18 and Nick Lobo ‘20 were among some of the students that attended the talk and were intrigued by her career and the region and topic she chose to cover.
“I was happy to attend a talk that showed representation of an under-covered part of the world. I was glad that there was going to be a speaker that was going to talk about Nigeria,” said Tamrat.
Tamrat also stated that she has seen generalizations of Africa portrayed in mainstream media. “I paid close attention to that and [Topol] didn’t generalize as much as mainstream media does,” added Tamrat.
Aside from the discussion of the primary subject, there was a lot of conversation centered on the industry of journalism itself.
“I thought it was interesting to hear from someone in the field to quite explicitly say that her field is dying. I didn’t get the impression from talking to her that though parts of journalism is on a decline, that her work is not important,” commented Lobo, an officer in the Dean Rusk Global Corps, which organized the event.
Dr. Ken Menkhaus, professor and chair of the Political Science Department and the moderator of Topol’s talk, explained that in his experience, conflicts that have “simple, streamlined narratives get more attention because its easier to talk about it than a really complicated one.”
“I think one of the many reasons why the crisis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has not been given as much coverage as it should have given the scale of that crisis and the number of people that have died is because it is really hard to explain something so complex in a sound bite,” Menkhaus expounded.
Dr. Chris Alexander, Director of the Dean Rusk International Studies program, organized Topol’s talk in partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, a non-profit organization based in Washington, D.C., that provides funding to journalists to report under-reported stories throughout the world.
“I never had the sense that there are droves of students that are interested in journalism careers, but they’re pretty steadily a handful of students who are interested in thinking about some kind of profession that involves traveling and reporting on other parts of the world,” Alexander stated.
The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting provides an opportunity for undergraduate students from a selection of colleges and universities to spend a summer in any region of the world to bring attention to an under-reported story. The deadline to apply is February 19, 2018. For more information email firstname.lastname@example.org.