Making My Voice Heard from D.C. to Africa

voaBY SALEM SOLOMON
JMS Graduate Student

This spring, I attended a semester-long internship and academic program through The Washington Center, an independent, nonprofit organization that partners with universities to deliver a unique internship and classroom experience. As a graduate student in the University of South Florida St. Petersburg’s Journalism and Media Studies Department, I decided to work on my professional practicum to gain hands-on experience and build a network of mentors and collaborators for my future projects in journalism. The center provided over a dozen potential organizations at which to intern, but I was most interested in an opportunity that would allow me to practice journalism and promote freedom of press around the world.

After a long search and months of waiting, I was chosen to work on the Horn of Africa Desk at the Voice of America (VOA). VOA is an international broadcaster, distributing news and information in 45 languages and reaching 164 million people around the world every week on television, radio, the web and mobile platforms.

Far-reaching international stories grabbed headlines throughout the spring semester, with turmoil surrounding the Horn of Africa and its worldwide diaspora. Throughout my internship, I was able to file important stories exposing the misuse of World Bank funds by Ethiopia and interviewed investigative journalists who are experts in the region. I covered a major speech by a former Ethiopian president who shared his research after a fellowship through the National Endowment for Democracy. I was also able to meet newsmakers like former Zimbabwean opposition leader and Vice President Morgan Tsvangirai. My voice has been broadcast in dozens of countries and different languages, and I’ve made new friends and found mentors from across Africa.

I have also learned invaluable journalism lessons including how to interview victims of tragedies. Early in April, I was able to speak to Ethiopian victims of xenophobic attacks in South Africa who were targeted simply because they opened a business. Two Ethiopian brothers were burned as mobs cornered them in a shipping container and doused it with gasoline before setting it ablaze. One of the victims, the brother of an Ethiopian businessman who came to South Africa four months earlier to help his brother, died at the scene. The second victim was in the hospital with third degree burns and spoke with us briefly.

I learned how to speak to victims of tragedies balancing compassion with the need to get the news. Another victim I interviewed was a migrant who survived a shipwreck in the Mediterranean Sea that led to over 900 deaths. An Eritrean mother who survived the wreck off the coast of Greece spoke to me anonymously about the dangerous trip she took from Libya to Europe. These stories have helped me to have empathy for my sources and reinforced my belief that journalism reveals the world’s untold stories.

Throughout the semester, I’ve had to juggle many competing responsibilities. I took Digital Media Ethics and Law, an online graduate-level class at USFSP. I continued my teaching assistantship with Dr. Mark Walters. I conducted background research as part of my internship, and I took classes at TWC. On paper, all of it seemed manageable. In reality, it tested my ability to manage my time, collaborate across diverse teams and solve complex problems on deadline.

I am currently working on getting ready for my comprehensive exam and preparing for the final part of this educational journey at the department. With an anticipated graduation in December, I will be working on my Applied Research Project through a multimedia news and e-learning website I founded, Africa-Talks.com, and studying for comps beginning this fall.