Nations & States Contributing Writer Casey Mendoza discussed global journalism with Kiannah Sepeda-Miller, who studied journalism in Morocco at the School for International Training during the winter and spring of 2015. As a result of her work abroad, Sepeda-Miller’s piece on education in rural Morocco has been published in Al Jazeera. Beyond Morocco, Sepeda-Miller has interned for New York Magazine, and is currently attending the University of Illinois at Springfield’s graduate program for public affairs reporting.
Casey Mendoza: What made you choose to go to Morocco to study journalism?
Kiannah Sepada-Miller: I knew I wanted to go outside the Western world to get out of this paradigm and my comfort zone. I was still an English major at the time, so I was looking at what English majors look at if they’re not looking at England or France or Scotland—which are general arts and culture programs.
I was looking at Nepal, India, etc., but none of them really fit with what I wanted to do with journalism, and then I happened to find the School for International Training’s (SIT) Studies in Journalism and Media Program. It seemed like a perfect fit. I knew someone else who had gone through an SIT program, so I had heard good things.
I had never really thought about Morocco much in my life. It just wasn’t really on my radar. But the more I learned about it, as I was going through the application process and reading the materials, the more I thought I was going to truly love it. And I did.
CM: Could you tell me more about the program? What did it entail?
KS: I spent four months there. For the first two-thirds of the program, we were based in the capital city of Rabat, staying at homes inside the Medina. We spent most of our time with host families and also had excursions all over the country. Morocco is a very diverse place—something I didn’t realize going in—both geographically and in terms of the people there.
After that, for about a month, we were given stipends to live anywhere we wanted in the country relevant to our reporting, and we reported on something we had been building up to the entire semester. We each worked on a feature story. Mine was on education in Morocco, specifically rural education, and was actually published in Al Jazeera.
Note: Visiting American students were paired with Moroccan journalism students to work on a final feature story together.
CM: What was it like writing a story for Al Jazeera?
KS: I didn’t know I was writing a story for Al Jazeera going into it. We were only told there was a chance of our stories getting published. The program is directed by a woman named Mary Stucky, who runs Round Earth Media. She was the teacher for most of the course and had a lot of connections; her program places journalists in underreported areas of the world. Her co-teacher is a woman named Aida Alami, a Moroccan journalist who works as a freelance reporter for the New York Times.
Using their connections, they were willing to pitch our stories to various publications. Al Jazeera was my ideal publication, but I didn’t think that was likely to happen, and I just decided to do the best I could on the story. It was my first time doing a story like that, so getting a unique experience out of it was enough for me.
One of the wonderful things about the program was that Aida and Mary would work with me afterwards, edit drafts, and get them up to the standard for publication. But that didn’t happen until the summer.
CS: What was it like hearing or finding out that your story was going to get published?
KS: I think I found out on the last day of my internship at New York Magazine. I was about to head out to Washington, D.C. for a quick vacation right before coming back to Knox [College], but I couldn’t believe my eyes. I blinked narrowly at my phone screen. I checked it before waking up, and I think I had to re-read it once I was out of bed.
It came with a freelance check too! I don’t have a very clear idea of how freelancers are paid in general, but I appreciated professional compensation—not that I was expecting it. That was a nice surprise.
CM: What differences did you find between reporting in Western society and somewhere like Morocco?
KS: The obvious answer is the language barrier. Most Moroccans speak at least three languages, [including] French, which I spoke while I was there at the level of an eight-year-old. So, I actually did a couple interviews in French myself, but for the most part, my partner translated my questions, and then I interviewed the English speaking members of the university.
Beyond the language barrier, we take our first amendment rights for granted to some extent here. It seems to me that it’s so ingrained, not just to U.S. journalists but as U.S. citizens, that we have the right to say what we believe. That’s not necessarily the case in Morocco. As a foreigner, and particularly as an American, I didn’t feel like I was butting heads against the system, but we got lucky. My partner and I got lucky multiple times when it came to the government.
We were briefly detained by the local government while reporting on rural education, probably because we were located in a small town and news travels fast in small towns. When you have multiple journalism students—I actually had a photographer from my program and a videographer accompanying me as well, so it was four of us—young women, walking around the village and talking to people to visit a school, the government heard pretty quickly.
Our presence was requested, and they checked our passports and the letters that our program had submitted for us. The letters explained in Arabic who we were, what we were doing, and beseeched through the letter to help us out as best as they could. They still weren’t sure.
My partner was cool as a cucumber, though. She told us afterward that they had asked her at one point whether in our final report we would write about “encounters” along the way. She said something to the extent of, “Yes, and we will also mention the people who helped us along the way—like you guys.” So, in the end, not only did they end up letting us go, they gave us tea, which is a kind Moroccan gesture.
Morocco has somewhat of an authoritarian regime when it comes to free speech and press rights.
People ask me what I think of the state of journalism today in a concerned tone when I tell them I’m going into journalism. I can only imagine what it’s like in Morocco, because you have so few options. You can write for Morocco World News, which is essentially fluff (it tows the line of the regime) or you can risk a lot of your rights and your safety trying to get to the bottom of something and tell the truth.
Kiannah Sepeda-Miller in Morocco, 2015
CM: What was it like interviewing Moroccan citizens? How did they work with the press?
KS: At one point, I was reporting on an NGO created by a man who had grown up in the slums he was now giving back to. It was essentially an English and French language learning after school program.
For those interviews, I didn’t have a translator. I used my own French. I interviewed the director of the program, who was in his twenties, some of the kids, and some of the other teachers—one from France and one from Texas. The process actually felt surprisingly similar to back home.
In my head, I remember it like an interview I had done in the United States. You go by the same sort of principles: establish connections, establish trust, get to know the here and there—you know, get the truth from the person you are interviewing. It didn’t feel that different.
I interviewed an eight-year old girl who was incredibly precocious for her age. She wanted to be a journalist, and her mom would put out newspapers for her and her siblings every morning so they could practice their French and read about the world. She told me about corruption and how she wanted to be a reporter someday, because if somebody stabbed the woman on the street, she said, and the police covered it up, the people should know. She wanted to become a journalist not because it looks cool, but because she thought her country needs it.
That was a difference I felt, but beyond that, it really felt like interviewing the people here who care about the same things as people in the United States: their children’s education, how they’re going to put food on the table, and having fun and hanging out with friends.
Although things like crossing the street and eating food are different and sometimes challenging when you’re in a foreign country, people really aren’t that different wherever you go. I think that’s why the interview process didn’t change all that much when I was talking to regular people.
I did a story on cats for the online student publication. It was about a 17-year-old kid who feeds cats in his father’s construction shop, and even though it had a bit of a religious focus, because the Prophet Muhammed said to treat cats with respect, it felt so much like a little public interest piece. You know, how many times do you read about cats on the internet?
CM: You referred to Morocco and the region as an underreported area. What did you learn about the state of international correspondence while you were there?
KS: It was my first introduction to just how underreported it was. I’ve learned more since. I didn’t really understand it back then. We had speakers who would come in and share with the class, and one of the first speakers who came was the foreign correspondent for the AP Wire Service.
He didn’t just cover all of Morocco, he covered the entire Maghreb region, which includes Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya. One man. And that doesn’t leave a lot of time to help flesh out who these people are, what their culture is like, why we should care. It means that he covers what is most immediate and he does the best job he can. He’s a phenomenal reporter, but he can’t possibly do it all.
Being there really highlighted for me how important those stories are, because it’s a lot harder to mischaracterize a group of people—whether specific to a country or religion—once you as a reader or listener put a face to them. It provides so much more context, whether you’ve been there or not.
We miss out on that local context when resources and staff are cut in the United States. Foreign bureaus are often the first to go. As resources dwindle and the size of foreign correspondence staffs shrink, we lose out on more and more of those stories. Luckily, technology can help with that to some extent, but there’s not a clear answer on how we can get back all the voices we’re not hearing from.
CM: In regard to news about the Middle East, what else do you think people in the United States—or any Western country—are missing out on?
KS: I had a moment in Morocco when I realized that the Western world, at least the United States, doesn’t take into account that the vast majority of victims of Islamist extremist violence are other Muslims. What the general population thinks is what they’re shown on TV a lot of the time, which is war, which is Iraq, which is Afghanistan, etc.
It’s something that gets me whenever I hear people stereotype or express some form of Islamophobia. The first thing my mind does is go to my host family, or the little girls who lived downstairs, my friends and neighbors, and all these wonderful people who made me feel so safe and welcome in the country. And then I have to step back and remind myself that we’re not exposed to that; we’re exposed to so little of the Middle East.
I think traveling abroad is one of the best opportunities anyone can seize if they haven’t already, because the rest of the world pays attention to us, because they have to, whether or not we pay attention to them. The least we can do is pay attention back. And I know we can’t all learn about every single country. There’s so much I don’t know about the world, but I pay a lot more attention to Morocco now because I have a personal connection to it.
Editor’s note: Minor edits were made to this article on September 15, 2016 for clarity and accuracy.
Image: Souq – Zoco, Marrakech (Morocco), (Marc, Flickr/Creative Commons)
Casey Mendoza is a multimedia journalist with a specialization in video production and editing. She is a recent graduate of Knox College, where she majored in political science with a double minor in journalism and Chinese language. Mendoza has worked in various newsrooms and production companies as a photographer, videographer, writer, graphic designer, and production assistant. Most notably, she worked as editor-in-chief of The Knox Student, the oldest known college newspaper in Illinois. During her time with The Knox Student, Mendoza was awarded First Place in Multimedia Reporting by the Illinois Collegiate Press Association.