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Freelance Journalist Speaks on Career Path, Reporting in Africa

Jacey Fortin wanted to “bring [her] career to the next level,” so she left her staff writing job at the International Business Times and moved to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to become a freelance journalist covering war and politics in Africa.

Introduced by Professor of Film and Africana Studies Claire Andrade-Watkins, Fortin explained her move to a crowd of about 100 Emerson College students, professors, and some of her relatives in a presentation called “An Evening with Journalist Jacey Fortin,” moderated by Emerson College’s distinguished journalist-in-residence, Carole Simpson, at the Bill Bordy Theater on November 14.

She began her talk by praising the work of the International Women’s Media Foundation, which awarded Fortin a 2016–2017 Elizabeth Neuffer Fellowship, and highlighted the fellow female reporters she encountered in a region of the world struggling with years of violent warfare. She said the other women journalists she’s encountered in her time in Africa are some of “the most dedicated” in their field. “They dig the hardest,” she said.

Emerson’s Radio, Television, Digital News Association (RTDNA) chapter president Angelina Salcedo ’17 and co-treasurer Shaynah Ferreira ’17 presented the 30-year-old freelancer with a special citation and trophy. Salcedo said the citation honored her “overarching journalistic expertise” in reporting on human rights and politics across the globe, published in the New York Times, the Africa Report, and Al Jazeera, among others.

Although she has no formal training in journalism, Fortin has embraced her role as a reporter and endured some of the difficult truths of the changing industry.

In her presentation, Fortin was up front about the difficulties of freelancing, including the pressure to provide her own equipment, insurance, and travel arrangements. She said her income often fluctuates, adding a level of uncertainty to her career as a freelance journalist.

“Sometimes I’m doing O.K.; sometimes it’s hard to get by,” she said. “Staffers are losing jobs, in part, because freelancers like me are cheaper.”

Fortin told stories of illegally crossing the border of South Sudan to meet with South Sudanese rebel leaders in their hideouts. She said the rebels had no uniforms, and only stolen weapons and vehicles. Some only fought for revenge because so many families had been killed in the civil war.

She described her coverage of peace talks and seeing another side of military and government leaders amid the conflicts in Ethiopia and South Sudan that was largely hidden from the public.

“They’re basically warlords in fancy suits,” she said. “As long as they keep the war going, they get to live this lavish lifestyle.”

Fortin received questions from students about African media outlets, her impromptu photojournalism, navigating the country as a non-native speaker of the language, and Western mainstream media’s reluctance to cover these conflicts in as much depth as she has.

“We need to somehow foster a culture of people wanting to learn,” she said, “I wouldn’t say it’s any media organization that is to blame for us not covering these really important issues of suffering, because the organization will always follow the consumer. If the consumer wants to know about these places, the organization will cover it.”

At the reception following Fortin’s talk, Salcedo said she hopes Fortin inspired the young journalists at Emerson to pursue the reporting they are passionate about.

“It’s important to have her come in and say for people who want to do this in the future, ‘Your work, no matter what area of journalism you decide to work in, will be rewarded in the future. Work as hard as you can and pursue your dreams,’ because this is something she wanted to do, even though she wasn’t trained in journalism specifically,” Salcedo said.

Editor's note: This story has been edited from the original to change the name of the publication Fortin left to become a freelancer. 

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