“Nothing in my sphere of education on risk assessment and probable fatal scenarios prepared me for the hazards of the beautiful doe-eyed and secretive nature of a wondering donkey,” said Neheda (or Ned) Barakat. That’s because this particular beautiful doe-eyed wondering donkey that was also pulling a cart with two passengers, had somehow crossed three lanes of oncoming traffic and was charging straight at Ned’s moving car.
Swiftly, she managed to swerve out of the way of danger, narrowly avoiding what could have indeed been death by donkey.
“My focus was entirely on holding on as tightly as possible to the steering wheel of the car and gaining control. As soon as the car stopped I made sure that my passenger was ok and then realized what an inglorious way to go.” Put it simply: Ned’s job is dangerous. The capricious donkey brazenly meandering towards a car with two passengers is but one example of potential near-death scenarios that Ned has faced in her lifetime, but all with good reason: Ned Barakat is a journalist.
“To be a journalist is to have courage,” she points out. It is to be fearless and a little ruthless, but always for the admirable pursuit of uncovering stories for the public interest while remaining objective. Journalists are story hunters usually working in environments that require them to cross great extremities. An example of crossing extremities was in 1992 when Ned led coverage on the LA Riots.
“Apart from the physical exhaustion of a rolling coverage, as an observer you struggle to make sense of what is unfolding before your eyes,” she said. “ It started off as a perceived injustice that quickly brought to surface racial and social issues that have been largely swept under the carpet.” For Ned, the story began after the riots when she was following up on leads. She had made contact with two people in South Central Los Angeles, one a pastor of a Baptist Church, Lovely Haines (later on he presided over Ned’s wedding!). The other was a writer, Rutledge McCall, who for a year was undercover working on a book on the South Central Los Angeles gangs. With these two leads, Ned was escorted deep into the complex web of these hoods to assist her research on the cause of the riots.
South Central Los Angeles, explained Ned, is far from the seeming grandeur and purported opulence of Hollywood. In 1992, demographic data showed us that South Central Los Angeles was one of the poorest areas where the majority of residents were black with Latinos and Asians on the outskirts. Unemployment was high and street crime was run by gangs known as the Crips and Bloods – their main trade and money making was from crack-cocaine, explained Ned.
She then met the gang in their home. “Their home was sparsely furnished,” she remembered. “There were lots of mattresses in the rooms, one couch, possibly a couple of chairs, walls riddled with bullet holes from drive-by shootings.” The descriptions are nothing if not ominous, but yet behind this exterior depleted of basic notions of humanity, exists a powerful bond between brothers. “I came to learn that despite the appearance of hard criminals they deeply cared for each other so much so they had a familial bond like no other I had ever seen.”
“They told me that as small children – I specifically use the term ‘small’ – because they had big dreams of going to university, getting a good job and building a future for their families,” she said. She later added: “But as they grew up they noticed the disparity, the poverty and lack of opportunity – all the elements to make them feel like outliers.”
“As they grew up, the dream diminished and the realization grew that they weren’t going to make any money working at McDonald’s. So all of a sudden, moneymaking gang activity was a far more attractive option even if it meant they will die young or end up in jail.”
Strangely, she says, she keeps coming back to this story and realizes the parallels with Australian youths going to Syria and Iraq to join Daesh. The problems within the Middle East are another area that Ned is well versed in, having led coverage during the Gulf War and more recently in the West Bank. “At the time of the war, my journalism career had only just begun, and I was lacking the experience to deal with such complex issues including the Israeli angle. I was simply terrified. But one day after landing in Saudi Arabia, the scuds also began landing and with that courage and professionalism kicked in – I realised I had a job to do and better get to it.”
Ned was born in Lebanon and by the age of 10 she had already lived in Libya and Australia. In a recent speech she was invited to give to a Jewish Community group, B’nai B’rith in Melbourne, she described her move to Australia, when she was a little girl looking like a rabbit in front of headlights. New people, friends, sights, smells and foods:
My first day at Armadale primary school the class captain appointed to look after me, the perfect Patricia McDonald, took me to the canteen to collect our lunch: a four and twenty meat pie. One bite and the smell nearly made me faint – not even the tomato sauce made it palatable. I decided to starve rather than continue. Patricia just didn’t and couldn’t understand. Patricia aside, that upbringing taught me that sometimes there is no need to understand but just to accept.
The relevancy of that now is that with globalization and technology the world has shrunk. Boundaries no longer give us the space or protection that we once had and with that comes a whole lot of room to make judgments that are limited in merit because it is based on one reference point – our own, explained Ned. “We need to remind ourselves that the world is made up of different civilizations, different ethnic groups and each group consists of multi-cultures.
It is in this context that sometimes we just need to understand to accept without having answers for things we find hard to comprehend,” she said. In the current socio-political environment this logic has its merit. While media (mis)representation partly contributes to our perceptions of religion, culture and conflict within the Middle East, and the groups that we have come to know which represent it, e.g. the Daesh, militant and extremist groups ‘Islam’ and ‘terrorism’ have become mutually exclusive terms. This is problematic. “Rather than megaphone hysteria about Islam why not just accept that this is an inexplicable barbaric element of a very small part of a faith group that spans across continents,” she said. Such is the agathokakological nature of humanity, she explained, but it is important not to demonise or condemn groups or individuals without sufficient factual knowledge, or with information that is tainted with prejudice or bias.
“Whilst going after public identities whether politics, business and so on and holding them accountable or covering wars and riots are very rewarding, it is always the citizenship of the very rare and few who galvanize the community into doing something good.” She tells me of the story of an elderly man diagnosed with cancer who had no resources or support. Rather, it was the assistance of his neighbours, a husband and wife team who came to his aid and went beyond providing the care that is part of what makes as human. “Whilst he was undergoing treatment they publicly appealed and managed to renovate his apartment with donations of material and labour to make it livable for his return home,” she recalled. The story almost did not go ahead because of one reporter’s refusal on the basis that it would give free advertising to the traders. Ned, nevertheless, proceeded. The response from those that mattered, the audience, was phenomenal, she said. Many factors make a good story, but the ones that truly stand out are the stories that display courage – the facts that take you beyond the headlines. It’s because these kinds of stories are a reflection of the tenacity, integrity and initiative of the journalist. The other, Ned says, are tales of the human spirit, when people come together to do good.
As far back as her high school day Ned knew she wanted to be a broadcast journalist. After starting a media studies degree, she got her big break at Channel Nine News and Current Affairs where she credits the senior journalists and bosses for everything that she learned about broadcast journalism. Since her beginnings at Channel Nine, she went on to be a senior journalist and producer for programs including Four Corners and 7:30 Report, executive producer at Al-Jazeera, a reporter at the United Nations Secretariat, and she was a volunteer during Hillary Clinton’s election campaign and later on Barack Obama’s.
In the past a typical newsroom would have been home to more than forty journalists, today we see that landscape changing. You had filters such as researchers, producers, editors before any story went to air or got published. But now it has moved to that individual effort and self publishing at all levels of society making it hard to pin down the facts – a very basic tenet of journalism – and has given rise to “echo chambers.” But Ned remains optimistic about the erosion of a craft she is passionate about. “The pendulum always has to swing from one extreme to the other before it arrives at the middle. And the same goes for journalism. We are seeing the sinister side of technology and I believe we will eventually see the return of well crafted, well considered journalism across the board. The public will realise the value and will demand it.”
featured image: Yan Arief Purwanto, Journalists on duty / FlickrCC