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Writing Ethiopia

Thursday, Oct. 04, 2012

USU JCOM student Mackinzie Hamilton in Ethiopia with children

Mackinzie Hamilton shows curious Ethiopian children photos from her reporting trip. (All photos are courtesy of Matthew LaPlante, assistant professor of journalism.)

USU JCOM student Dale Nicholas interviewing veterans in Ethiopia

Senior Dale Nicholas interviews veterans for his story on support services for Ethiopian soldiers.

USU JCOM student Danielle Manley interviewing in Ethiopia

Danielle Manley listens to a source describe the running scene in Ethiopia.

USU JCOM students taking photos in Ethiopia

Three Utah State University students snap photos in Ethiopia. They traveled to the impoverished nation this summer to learn global reporting skills from journalism professor Matthew LaPlante.

Armed with pills to combat malaria and dozens of reporter’s notebooks, three Utah State University students boarded a flight to Ethiopia this summer with one goal in mind: to bring home a story worth publishing.

“I would love to at least pitch National Public Radio,” said sophomore Mackinzie Hamilton. “I don’t know if they’ll even be interested, but if I might as well try my hardest and see what happens.”

The group spent two weeks exploring Ethiopia as part of a travel study trip led by Matthew LaPlante, a veteran national security reporter and assistant professor of journalism at USU. He pitched the three credit course to students spring semester hoping a few might sign on for an experience impossible to replicate in the classroom.

“It was a great opportunity for them to do journalism in a place where people are afraid to talk to you — not because you might misquote them, but because they could get arrested,” he said. “It’s learning to report when you are exhausted, when you’re scared, when you’re in danger. We were there in a tumultuous time. It was very brave of them.”

The students knew the risks. They understood that reporting in Ethiopia carries the potential consequence of getting arrested if stories displease the Ethiopian government, but signed on for a chance to try their hands at global reporting.

“We’re getting the full experience,” said Hamilton, a reporter for Utah Public Radio. “We’re doing freelance journalism. You’re taking your own pictures, finding your own sources, finding your own stories, editing your own stuff. You can kind of go anywhere you want with your stories; the freedom is awesome.”

Her classmates will admit the trip was no vacation. Their days started early — about 6 a. m. — and after breakfast the group would pile into their truck and scour the region in search of sources. One interview often led to another and another. At night they wrote. Then they did it all over again. For Danielle Manley, traveling to Ethiopia was her first time out of the country and she knew it would not be an ordinary travel experience.

“I think I set my expectations high, and rightfully so, as how different and sad it was going to be,” she said. “It was hard to see a lot of little kids running around asking for money … I don’t think many students get to go experience a different country like that. We didn’t just go see the sights of Ethiopia. We were there interviewing people. We were experiencing Ethiopia — the real Ethiopia.”

Manley came to Ethiopia with one story in mind, one source. She wanted to write about Kababa Alemu, a long distance runner aiming to race his way out of poverty. Manley had to work quickly due to its timely nature during the Olympics. After interviews, Manley would review her notes and write, then send copy to LaPlante who passed it back with edits. Together they worked it into a piece that got picked up by Yahoo’s sports site

“It would be really, really cool is someone reads the story and decides they want to sponsor Kababa,” she said. “Even if he doesn’t make it to the Olympics and it just pulled him out of the impoverished situation. He could go to a university, move his family to an urban area where his brothers and sisters could get an education.”

The trip required financial, personal and academic commitment from students. Students received a series of shots beforehand and took anti-malaria pills while overseas. They conference called each other once a week over the summer to discuss stories, and spent late nights Skyping with sources due to the time difference. Senior Dale Nicholas took out a loan to participate.

“I just looked at it as an investment,” he said. “A lot of people don’t get the opportunity to do something like this until later in their careers.”

Nicholas, a former Marine, enlisted after high school and served a deployment to Iraq. He returned as a private security officer to Afghanistan and now works in the Veteran’s Office on campus. He wanted to report on the services Ethiopian veterans receive. Nicholas reached out to government agencies and never received responses.  His best source ended up being the group’s driver and translator, a war veteran who introduced him to other former soldiers to interview.

“There’s really no boundaries when it comes to the brotherhood,” Nicholas said. “They have no support set up by the government. They rely solely on the support of each other.”

He decided to study journalism to change the way the military is covered by American media outlets, and aims to be a war correspondent embedded with troops. He would like to report from the middle of a conflict zone.

“I’d like to find myself in a place liked Syria is right now,” he said.

The global reporting experience may help him get there. Nicholas’ stories are under consideration by several media outlets.

“If you want to write stories that are meaningful; if you’re serious about having a career in this type of journalism — do it,” Nicholas said.

LaPlante also managed to grab a byline from the trip. Just before they left it came to light that Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Manawi’s had disappeared from public view. LaPlante spoke to Ethiopians about how they felt about facing the future without him and wrote about the possible transition of power and his story was picked up by The Washington Post.  

The students’ work in Ethiopia was highlighted in the first Morris Media & Society Lecture of the year at USU. A panel discussion with photos of their experiences was included.

The JCOM Department’s Morris Media & Society Lecture Series is a regular series of public presentations by media professionals addressing a range of issues concerning the intersection of the mass media and society.

Relates links:

USU Department of Journalism and Communication

USU College of Humanities and Social Sciences

Writer: Kristen Munson, (435) 797-0267,

Contact: Matthew LaPlante (435) 797-1353,

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