Beth Duff-Brown is an internationally accomplished journalist who has covered news in 25 countries. In 2010-2011, she completed a Stanford Knight Fellowship and developed a digital prototype for storytelling, called a “Women’s World,” for women’s perspectives about news.
The former deputy Asia editor of The Associated Press, she was based at AP’s Asia-Pacific Desk in Bangkok, Thailand. This meant she was in charge of the daily news report from Afghanistan to Australia. Duff-Brown was the Associated Press Bureau Chief of South Asia (India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, the Maldives, and Bhutan) from 2000 to 2005. Later she and her family moved to Toronto where she was AP Bureau Chief of Canada. She joined AP at the Miami Bureau in 1990 after leaving the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel. She also interned at The New York Times, in its Washington bureau, for a year. Some of Duff-Brown’s international work includes being a West Africa Correspondent from 1995-1997 where she covered civil wars in Sierra Leone, the Congo, and Liberia.
She also studied Mandarin in Beijing while freelancing for dailies. She became AP Bureau Chief in Malaysia where she and her husband, photojournalist Christopher Brown, welcomed their daughter Caitlin who is now 14. She won a third place SAJA Daniel Pearl Award for Outstanding Reporting on South Asia 2003. She was nominated in 1997 for a Pulitzer Prize for her story about returning to her Peace Corps village in the Democratic Republic of Congo. She was born in Portland, Ore., and gained a Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy and Communications from Hawaii Loa College and Master’s in Journalism from Northwestern University. Her email is beth(at)bethduffbrown.com.
Duff-Brown was interviewed by Abbey Edwards, 20, who is currently working towards a B.F.A in Studio Arts with a focus in photography as well as a minor in Journalism
Abbey Edwards: Why did you become involved in journalism?
Beth Duff-Brown: I wanted to travel and write. When I met some foreign correspondents when I was in the Peace Corps in the Congo, I knew that they had the job that I had longed for. It would allow me to travel, communicate and tell the world about important events and interesting people — all in the framework of writing. Who wouldn’t want that job?
AE: How do you define journalism today?
BDB: It’s still one of the most important pillars of our democracy: checks and balances; investigation into government actions; transparency and right-to-speech demands.
AE: How has technology influenced or affected your career?
BDB: It’s made it a hell of a lot easier and I’m grateful for that. Getting in touch with sources, finding new sources, communicating across the globe — it’s so much easier today. It’s ruined the newspaper industry, but that has forced the papers to evolve and I’m actually quite excited about what’s next.
AE: How will technology affect the future of journalism?
BDB: It’s forcing newspapers and traditional journalists like me to think outside the box, learn to do our jobs with new media formats. I actually think it’s a really exciting time to be a journalist and am glad that I am able to bridge both the traditional and new formats. I can’t wait to see how it plays out — and am as eager as the next person to see how print media finally figures out how to monetize the Web.
AE: What role(s) will women have in the future of journalism?
BDB: They already run the show as reporters and editors. Now they just need to keep chipping away at the glass ceiling in terms of publishing and senior management positions. I would like to think that we’re approaching the day when we don’t think about the different “roles” for gender: may the best person win.
AE: What one word would you use to describe the status of women in journalism today?
AE: How do you feel about words such as equality, justice or unbiased as they relate to the status of women in journalism?
Again, I’m not sure what you mean in terms of how I feel about those words.
AE: How do you feel about objectivity or the status of women in journalism being objective; what do you think objectivity means in journalism?
BDB: Objectivity simply means taking yourself out of the story and making sure both sides are equally represented to the best of your knowledge and ability. If, for example, I’m writing about an anti-abortion rally (and I happen to be pro-choice) then I want to make sure that I’m giving full expression to those who are opposed to abortion and not in any way trying to put them in a bad light. Likewise for those who are pro-choice. I don’t think being a woman plays a role here: you’re either objective or you’re not and gender should not make a difference.
AE: Do you think that throughout your career you’ve made sacrifices or choices? Do you think that because you are a woman in a career with skepticism on gender that those words become synonyms?
BDB: I’ve made both. I gave up a potentially successful career at The New York Times, where I had a one-year clerkship. I was sexually harassed to the point that I was afraid and humiliated and that pushed me to make a decision that I sometimes regret: Instead of reporting the harassment, I left the paper. The person who harassed me went on to have a huge career at the paper and I’ve never quite forgiven him, or myself for not standing up and reporting him. (This was in the late 1980s and I’m afraid I would have been laughed out of the editor’s office at that time.) As for sacrifices, I’ve made many. When I became a mother, I determined I would have to leave my correspondent job in West Africa, where I had been covering civil wars. I was just making a name for myself, but realized I could not continue that type of coverage while I was pregnant. The AP was very good to me, however, and gave me great postings after that and I slowly worked my way up. In the end I would have done it ten times over for my little girl. I’m afraid those are decisions that most men don’t have to make; I can’t tell you how many male foreign correspondents I knew who didn’t even think twice about going into danger or war dozens, knowing they had wives at home to take care of the kids. But like I said — it was well worth the sacrifice. And in the end, it probably made me a better mother and journalist.
AE: How did your time in the Peace Corps affect your writing? Did it impact how you picked what to write about?
BDB: My time in the Peace Corps was the most seminal moment of my life. It was in the Congo in my village where I realized that I did want to become a journalist and be a voice for those “forgotten forgotten.” I have always, throughout my career, focused on the voiceless, particularly in the developing world. It all goes back to that village and everything they did for me. Also, I really started to find my voice in the Congo in the hours of letters and journal entries that I wrote; playing with words and understanding how much details and flavor and smells could add to a piece of writing. In fact, I used some of those very personal journal entries in my application for the Times job — and got it when the editor said he admired my colorful writing style.
AE: Has your journalism changed since integrating family and your career? Do you think the idea that women change after becoming mothers involves a bias in their career?
BDB: My reporting and writing didn’t change at all after I became a mother. I’m still as hard-nosed and soft-hearted as I was before becoming a mother and I would ask you to turn that question around and ask the same of men and fatherhood. As for integrating parenthood into my career, I was fortunate to have been a bureau chief for the AP for much of my daughter’s early childhood (birth through 11 years old) in that I could bring her to work, pick her up from school if need be, attend her school events and often take her on assignments with me. I could also delegate. This is rare for full-time working women in this country and for that I’m grateful.
AE: You’ve spent long periods of time in multiple countries, how does that affect your views on the journalism back in the U.S? What levels of discrimination towards women have you witnessed?
BDB: Actually, I find that discrimination against women is across the board, in all countries. Yes, in developing countries it’s played out in much more destructive ways (dowries, sexual abuse of girls by teachers, acid burnings, the shameless treatment of the Taliban against women in Afghanistan) but it’s just as rampant and widespread in the West.
This is part of a series of profiles of JAWS members by University of Iowa students. For a complete listing, see this page.