August Editors’ Roundtable No. 2: National Geographic on the fate of child brides
Our second Roundtable of August examines “Too Young To Wed: The Secret World of Child Brides,” by Cynthia Gorney. Heading to Yemen and the Indian state of Rajasthan, Gorney meets a series of child brides and tackles the complicated calculus of social change. Her story ran in the June issue of National Geographic and was edited by Barbara Paulsen.
For full bios of the Roundtable editors, see our introductory post.
Knight Chair professor, Missouri School of Journalism
On covering “the other”:
Parachuting into foreign territory presents special challenges and obligations for journalists. That’s true whether we’re reporting on the other side of the world, or the other side of town. Anytime we presume to capture the truth of a culture that is not fully our own, we risk falling into the trap of romanticizing or demonizing what we experience in quick drive-bys. We drag our own attitudes and values with us into the field – never pretend we don’t – and inevitably see a situation through the limited prism of what we know and what we believe to be right.
The rheostat on righteousness goes way up when the story has a high shock factor. Children being forced, sold, bartered or beaten into marriage, then treated as disposable property, does and should push our outrage buttons. And yet that is not all there is to the story.
Learning to cover “the other” could take a lifetime or more, and we still won’t get it entirely right. But for a case study of understanding and reporting on a foreign culture, consider the techniques of Dian Fossey, who did two things vital to good journalism:
- Observe acutely, patiently and with open-minded wonder.
- Suspend judgment without abandoning intelligence.
I repeat: This is true whether the story is on the other side of the world or the other side of town. While most reporters won’t cover clandestine midnight marriages in India or Yemen, they will cover the patchwork of micro-worlds that makes up the colorful, baffling and marvelous quilt of modern life. If you were raised Catholic, how do you truly understand Islam? If you grew up poor, can you suspend judgment of the rich? If you’re a passionate reader, can you walk in the shoes of the illiterate?
While Gorney is covering an extreme of otherness (at least by our Western standards), her approach offers tools that can be adapted to many stories, local and foreign. In no particular order:
1. Less is more. Gorney employs understatement to tell an over-the-top story. She doesn’t let her piece succumb to gothic drama. She is selective about narrative details (the child bride too young to take off her butterfly T-shirt by herself, carried, sleeping, by an uncle to her own wedding ceremony; the patriarch who carries a cell phone next to his traditional dagger; wives still in school uniforms), allowing them to show but not overwhelm. She refuses to amplify the drama, instead peppering it through a much more contextual piece.
2. Deep and layered sourcing. Gorney quotes the core story subjects (child brides, their mothers, their fathers) but includes sources who offer a broader perspective – ranging from local activists trying to combat child marriage all the way to social theory. As a result, the reader can see the fuller strata of reality. By letting people have their say, Gorney reveals the complexity of situations it would be easy to dismiss. She is trying not to judge as much as to learn. When confronted with something she can’t abide, she moves not away but closer, asking questions and trying to push past her gut reaction to a more nuanced understanding:
Remember this too: The very idea that young women have a right to select their own partners – that choosing whom to marry and where to live ought to be personal decisions, based on love and individual will – is still regarded in some parts of the world as misguided foolishness.
3. Link the story to the “news.” Gorney pings off of the dramatic story of 10-year-old divorcee Nujood, which made international headlines, to explore the reality behind the headlines. She reminds readers of that connection, then includes Nujood as a way to give her piece context and reach. She doesn’t let those headlines get in the way of her finding her own story, nor does she shy away from challenging the previously published stories:
Everyone Nujood met was bowled over by her unnerving combination of gravity and poise. When I met her in a Sanaa newspaper office …
As people are assaulted with news in the info-age, it helps to provide a tether to some headline or Facebook post they remember, and then to use that tether to take them deeper into the story behind the story. Teachable-moment journalism in the digital age.
4. Personal transparency. This is tricky, and needs to be employed differently in different story situations. But Gorney is wise to insert herself in this story as the narrator/guide, and then have the courage to go one step further: reveal and use her own emotional reactions and actions as part of the story. Other Editors’ Roundtables have discussed the use of the first-person (overt or implied). It can be overused as a magazine convention, and underused as a newspaper convention. My career had me lean to the latter. But I learned that the farther I was from home territory, the more I brought my own baggage with me, and the more I needed to learn to use and reveal that baggage as an honest part of my storytelling. What works about Gorney’s approach is that she states plainly how she felt and, in doing so, acknowledges her readers’ likely reactions, then confronts them to report and understand more deeply.
These were things we learned …
We stared miserably at the 5-year-old Rajani …
The outsider’s impulse toward child bride rescue scenarios can be overwhelming: Snatch up the girl, punch out the nearby adults, and run.
It helps that Gorney lets us know, as part of a reported scene, that she has two children. It gives her credibility to say that Nujood, the 10-year-old divorcee/news star, “snuggled” against her. The story isn’t about Gorney, but it isn’t honest without Gorney’s emotional presence, which extends to her decision to try to save one child bride by paying for college tuition.
Gorney takes us on a journey both journalistic and personal, and is transparent about all of it. If there is one place the personal trumps, it is perhaps in her last paragraph, which whomps us with the juxtaposition between Shobha’s sense of possibility in college and the 13-year-old bride who bled to death. I don’t know that I would have changed the ending, but I might have walked up to it a bit more slowly. That said, because Gorney laid out her (our) cultural perspective at the beginning and throughout, she earned the right to end on her own note. She didn’t hide behind her convictions, but recognized them and used them to inform her reporting.
Conclusion: This story could have been more dramatic and more outrageous. But it wouldn’t have taught me as much. Gorney takes me on a geographic, cultural, intellectual and emotional journey, shows me life beyond my circumstances and biases, and makes me see “the other” through a broader lens. In these days of strife and faction, that’s never been more important.
Senior editor for books and special projects, Star Tribune
On negotiating subjectivity:
Normally, reporters are expected to write about the world in an objective way. Against abortion? You can’t let that show. A fervent Democrat? Keep that under wraps.
But objectivity is not always possible, and not always appropriate. Some stories are too big, too horrifying, or too unjust for a writer to walk a careful middle line; it would be odd and false to present the facts as equally valid on either side of, say, genocide.
Cynthia Gorney was faced with this when she wrote about child brides. How could she write in a neutral manner about 5-year-old girls being married off to adult men? About 13-year-old brides who ruptured and bled to death on their wedding night? And yet, at the same time, she had to be sensitive; she was an outsider writing about a tradition deeply woven into another culture.
“Too Young to Wed,” is neither screed nor polemic; nor is it advocacy journalism. It is a carefully reported piece that shows the history, traditions and reasons behind this practice, as well as the ramifications of the practice itself and how it plays out in women’s lives. But it also contains the writer’s point of view.
Gorney did not make herself a full character, but she is in the story as an observer, an observer with opinions. It seems the fairest, most honest way to tell this story. It lets the reader know, right away, that the writer has a bias. And her emotional response to the scenes she witnesses becomes a stand-in for the reader’s emotional response.
“We stared miserably at the 5-year-old Rajani …” she writes. “The outsider’s impulse toward child bride rescue scenarios can be overwhelming: Snatch up the girl, punch out the nearby adults, and run. Just make it stop.”
That confession leads nicely to the next paragraph:
The people who work full-time trying to prevent child marriage, and to improve women’s lives in societies of rigid tradition, are the first to smack down the impertinent notion that anything about this endeavor is simple.
This is Gorney letting the reader know that she is not going to be simplistic in her approach; she is going to report, and explore, and learn.
She struggles to understand the culture, and she shows the reader that struggle:
The very idea that young women have a right to select their own partners … is still regarded in some parts of the world as misguided foolishness. Throughout much of India, for example, a majority of marriages are still arranged by parents. Strong marriage is regarded as the union of two families, not two individuals.
Late in the piece, Gorney writes about a 17-year-old named Shobha Choudhary, who was married at age 8 but who has not yet been with her husband. Shobha wants an education; she is delaying joining her husband as long as she possibly can. Later, she asks Gorney for money to help her get to college.
“My husband and I made the donation,” Gorney writes, and that is all she says. In most pieces of reportage, reporters do not – should not – get involved. But Gorney has already been clear about her feelings. Acting on them feels natural in this context becomes an organic part of the story, and the transparency is crucial.
Sunday and enterprise editor, The Dallas Morning News
On choosing characters:
Cynthia Gorney could have told her story about child brides by quoting a lot of experts and presenting a multitude of anecdotes about the girls and their families. Instead, she humanizes her story by carefully selecting her characters – and expertly focusing on just a few young brides.
Gorney met the first child bride in her story by gaining access to a secret, illegal wedding of a 15-year-old and 13-year-old in Rajasthan, a wedding at which Rajani, the teenagers’ 5-year-old niece, was also going to be married.
By introducing us to Rajani early in the story, Gorney propels us into the shock and outrage of child marriages. How is it possible for a family to marry off a 5-year-old? At the same time, we get a glimpse of the patriarch’s mindset – he loves Rajani and apparently believes he is protecting his granddaughter by publicly marking her as married.
Another child bride Gorney introduces us to is Nujood Ali, the 10-year-old Yemeni girl who made global headlines by finding her way to a courthouse and asking for a divorce from a man in his 30s. Nujood represents one of the positive deviants, “the single actors within a community who through some personal combination of circumstance and moxie are able to defy tradition and instead try something new, perhaps radically so,” Gorney explains.
And yet she’s also just a girl: “At lunch she snuggled in beside me as we sat on prayer mats and showed me how to dip my flat bread into the shared pot of stew,” Gorney writes.
Gorney ends her story with a third child bride, 17-year-old Shobha Choudhary, who was married at 8 and with whom Gorney forged a personal bond. Shobha represents the middle ground between total submission and total rebellion. She is trying to maintain her independence while being “respectful within a culture of early marriage,” Gorney writes.
We get a sense of Shobha’s desperation, but also a bit of optimism. She wants to believe that she can get her education and hold off her husband’s growing demands that she transition to married life. We’re left to wonder what might become of Shobha.
The lessons that Gorney provides us:
- Limit the number of characters in your story.
- Give careful thought to what each of them contributes to the story.
- And then go deep with each of them.
None of this should encourage you to skimp on your reporting. Gorney most likely interviewed dozens of child brides. Even if these interviews don’t appear in the story, the research helped Gorney develop her authoritative stance. She didn’t feel compelled to pack her story with characters. Instead, she focuses on a few, and we come to care about them deeply.
Is there a story you’d like the Roundtable to tackle? If so, you can send a link to us at email@example.com.