Nancy Youssef is a national security correspondent at the Wall Street Journal. Before joining the Journal, Ms. Youssef served as the Senior National Security Correspondent for Buzzfeed News. Previously, Ms. Youssef spent extensive time in the Middle East reporting on U.S. foreign policy and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Harvard Political Review: Foreign policy coverage right now is turning towards escalating tensions in North Korea. How do you think that’s being covered and how do you think it should be covered? Is there a delicate line journalists need to walk in terms of escalating any of the brinkmanship?
Nancy Youssef: The balance is between covering the rhetoric and covering the reality. The rhetoric would suggest that we are marching close towards war. The reality is you’re not seeing any military maneuvers by the United States or North Korea that would suggest that an attack is imminent.
The balance we need to strike is showing people what has been said and the reactions to the missile test, but also reassuring people that there is nothing here that suggests something is going to happen imminently. There are no more navy carriers in the region. There are no aircrafts. There is not a huge troop deployment, an evacuation of non-essential personnel or families in places like Guam, or Japan, or South Korea. There are metrics that you can use that would show something to balance against the rhetoric that might be suggesting something else. The most important thing we can do journalistically is to create as full a picture as possible that contextualizes what people are seeing and hearing.
HPR: How would you evaluate the balance that journalists are striking right now?
NY: People are leaning towards the rhetoric because it is so shocking, saying things like, “The United States has declared war.” That is very serious language that we are not used to hearing. I understand the inclination to be drawn to the rhetoric, but I do think overall we have a responsibility to bring some of that back. We are reaching a point where we have gone through this routine so many times that it is time we had a break or a balance. I like the Journal’s coverage because they have so many people on the ground, and I have liked some of the Post’s coverage. Those are the places I go to for that kind of balance.
HPR: How has coverage of U.S.-Middle East relations changed over your time covering the region?
NY: I started with the invasion in 2003, and at that time everyone was focused on the Arab Street, as though that was some sort of monolithic measure. In some ways, that carried all the way through the Arab Spring. After that, there was an understanding that there was a nuance to the proverbial Arab Street. I think that has been the biggest evolution in terms of how we understand the Arab people.
It is the nuance, because you have these uprisings and you have the introduction of Jihadi movements and things like that and you have the exportation or some of those threats into Europe. I think it is, “what is the Arab Street?” and the complexities of it, and the U.S. impact, or the foreign policy impact on that Arab Street. When I started, I think there were almost two funnels: there was the Arab Street, and there was U.S. foreign policy or U.S. funding or U.S. intervention, and you start to see a merger of those. That has been the biggest change.
HPR: Which foreign policy assignment have you found to be the most challenging, and why is that?
NY: Afghanistan. It is the only place I have covered where I did not understand the language. I can pick up words but their words are different. The Arabic word for “school” is their word for “office,” and what they call a religious school we just call a school. I could pick up the words, but I did not fully understand that which I had never experienced before.
I realized in Afghanistan that it is like covering a big bowl of spaghetti, and you will never get to the bottom of it. That was such a hard concession to make journalistically, because you have this idea that you can somehow crack the riddle, and between not knowing the language and the complexity of the country, that was probably the hardest assignment I had. But I enjoyed it. It was the first time where I was like, ‘I don’t understand anything in any way, and I have to explain it to a reader.’ That was a challenge.
HPR: How did you end up explaining it? Do you think you were able to put the puzzle together?
NY: You know what you do in those situations? You figure out what you understand and what can you then do with that understanding. Rather than trying to understand the Afghan culture, knowing that I could not, I [focused] on how the U.S. military was adjusting to the warfront. I [followed] the evolution of the U.S. military experience in Afghanistan and [reported] with some accuracy. When you meet with someone, you have a better sense of the context that you can put them in. If you do a profile of someone, you understand where you can assign their place in the Afghan story. Once you make the concession that you do not know, it stops you from making these broad conclusions that are not fair. You adjust to what you can say accurately.
HPR: Do you think that liberal and conservative-leaning outlets are covering foreign policy differently right now?
NY: We saw this with Afghanistan in terms of the decision to send additional troops. Yes, I guess they are covering it differently, but it is not necessarily the policy. It is the politics behind it that you will see a difference in a Breitbart or Fox News or even the Journal editorial page versus MSNBC or the Washington Post or the New York Times. It is the context that they are putting these events in, not necessarily the events themselves, so it fundamentally changes how people might see something.
Some people might see the North Korea rhetoric as Trump escalating tensions or leading to Kim Jong Un doing more tests, whereas other people might cover it as Kim Jong Un being a rational actor and the President is asserting the U.S.’s ability to defend itself. So it might be the same tweets, given the different context. I think the assessment has changed rather than the actual event coverage itself.
HPR: In this time of real and perceived polarization in the press – you’ve worked for Buzzfeed and the Wall Street Journal, which have been accused of this on both sides – how do you think journalists should navigate their personal opinion and their coverage?
NY: What I love about the Journal is there is no room on its news pages for personal opinion. All you can do is report. We have slipped as an industry too much into opinion. It is not my job to speak with my voice. It is my job to be an advocate for the reader, and that is how I see myself. I am trying to come up with new and interesting ways to make these seemingly complex issues tangible and interesting to the reader. I do not think there is a place for my opinion.
I love the Wall Street Journal because it demands that you be a smart reporter and not lean on opinion or snark. All you can do is be the best reporter you can be and be as smart as possible about how you gather information and craft it. I think that’s great. That is probably my favorite thing about the Journal, because I think it is one of the last places where the Wall Street Journal brand is protecting that kind of journalism.
Image Source: Flickr/CSIS | Center for Strategic & International Studies
This interview has been edited and condensed.