Her next major breaking news coverage may be anywhere around the world but one thing’s for sure: Hala Gorani won’t be leaving without her professional neutrality. The respected London-based journalist has reported from a number of countries like Haiti, Jordan, Egypt and her ancestral homeland, Syria, helping CNN International win prestigious awards. Gorani also anchors for the global news channel. Programmes like “International Desk”, “Inside the Middle East” and her current spot on “The World Right Now” have led her to interview leaders and shakers like Tony Blair, Rafik Hariri and the Dalai Lama. The France-raised American, who studied at George Mason University and Sciences Po, talks about how social media has changed the face of journalism, her most difficult Middle Eastern assignments and that dedicated impartiality.
Share with us how you got to where you are now.
I was always interested in journalism, I started off writing for my high school paper and again in college. It was always a passion of mine to be a story teller. I interned with AFP and then worked for a regional newspaper in the north of France, after which I spent several years freelancing. I spent two years as an anchor with Bloomberg, and joined CNN in 1998. So for the majority of my professional life I’ve been with CNN, and it’s where I’ve grown professionally.
How has journalism and reporting changed and evolved since the time you started?
There has been a revolution in my profession. There used to be just a handful of ways to get the news, now there are hundreds. It used to be that news channels were the primary source of information, but now with the explosion of social media and platforms such as Twitter and Facebook younger people especially are getting their news in different ways, particularly online, but also increasingly via mobile devices, and the profession is having to adapt to a new ways of working. Sadly, as we’ve seen again just recently with the murder of Steven Sotloff, it has also become more dangerous to be a journalist.
Social media has dramatically reduced the influence of traditional media sources. Do you foresee a time when traditional sources will become obsolete, or even if they do exist, would not be taken seriously and become a sort of tabloid-ish organisation?
I think many media professionals are still working out how to deal with the phenomenon of social media, TV, newspapers and other traditional media are all changing the way they work as a result. I don’t think traditional and social media are mutually exclusive, but people’s habits have changed for good. The days of people all huddling around a TV at a certain time for their only opportunity to get the day’s news are gone; but people still use television as part of a portfolio of news consumption. The key for news networks is to move with the audience, and I think that’s still possible. Not only that, I’d argue that in an age when you can get so much information from so many sources, a lot of it very misleading or one-sided, the role of a professional journalist is more important now than it’s ever been.
Is there really freedom of speech in media or is it freedom of speech only when it agrees with certain values of opinions to the people at the top?
There absolutely is freedom of speech. I can only speak for myself, but in 15 years at CNN I have never been asked to take a particular angle on a story.
Do you have a specific set or principles and guidelines whenever you engage in journalistic work?
Impartiality, and making sure we take all sides into account is at the heart of everything we do on our show, and that applies to all aspects of our work on any story or assignment.
Have you ever declined a reporting assignment, one which you feel you could not do justice to or simply because it goes against your beliefs?
I always gravitate towards hard news stories, and I’m less interested in covering softer news; part of the job of being a professional journalist is to put your own beliefs to one side, whatever they may be and focus on the truth. As I said before, I’ve never been asked to take a particular angle, so my beliefs on any subject don’t come into it.
What is your affiliation to the Middle East?
Both of my parents are Syrian, from Aleppo, but I was born in the United States and raised in France.
Do people judge you on your views of the Middle East simply by your name?
Not in my work, or if they do they don’t share it. People can be very judgmental on social media, but you have to develop an ability to ignore that, which I’m happy to say I’ve done.
Of all your stints in the Middle East, which proved to be the most difficult? Does gender make some reporting tasks even more difficult?
I think the first time I witnessed the aftermath of a powerful bomb, in Jordan in 2005, was one of the most difficult, and certainly the most shocking. We arrived after a suicide bomber had blown himself up and the scene of devastation was truly horrifying. That was certainly difficult. As for being a woman, most often being a woman works in your favour. When you are in segregated societies you can get the female perspective, which men are unable to do. Even when you’re embedded with the military, you can still do everything the guys would do, but you’re also able to go and sit and talk to the women, while very often they can’t.
What are some of the worst scenes you’ve witnessed, be it conflict zone or disaster areas?
I mentioned the suicide bomb in Jordan, which was my first experience and therefore more difficult as a result. But without a doubt the worst was the Haiti earthquake. Seeing tens of thousands of people dead, and the sheer scale of that disaster was hard to fathom, and I still think about it pretty regularly, even to this day.
It’s often been said that because of the media in the US, Americans typically live in a bubble because they simply soak in what the local media dishes out. And most often than not, the local media have been accused of giving one-sided information. What are your thoughts on this?
It’s true that certain media outlets in the US have chosen to take a particular side to appeal to a certain demographic, but that is by no means all there is. I know that, speaking for myself, and in my experience of people I’ve worked with here at CNN, the job revolves around getting all sides to a story. I also have enormous admiration for shows like “Frontline” on PBS in the US, which really is some of the best journalism you’ll see anywhere in the world. What the US has is choice, and there is plenty of good journalism there if you want to find it.
Do all media outlets have a responsibility to help change perceptions of ‘the others’, educating the masses without any self-interest because this can ultimately help in bringing the world together through more understanding, could it not?
From my perspective I think the desire to get the truth out there, and make sure people see all sides of an important story, is what gets me out of bed in the morning. If seeing the truth changes someone’s perception of a story and makes them better informed then that can only be a good thing.
What are the skills, traits and personalities needed for someone to succeed in your field?
Perseverance and resilience, it can certainly be hard work. You need to keep an open mind, and a sense of curiosity. You also need a lot of energy as the days can be long. A sense of humour helps, because you need that to get through difficult times.
What did you want to be as a child?
I’m lucky in that I realised I wanted to be a journalist from quite a young age, so from being a teenager I’ve always had that drive to do this job.
How Syrian do you feel?
I have two Syrian parents, and I’ve visited Syria regularly since I was a child, so I have a strong connection. But I was born in the United States and raised in France, so that’s also part of my identity.