Italian analyst straddles dueling roles in journalism and research across Africa

by Les Neuhaus
Oct 30, 2018 in Journalism Basics

Getting the facts right in journalism can sometimes be tough, often requiring more than just scratching the surface to dig deeper. Having good researching skills helps to make a good article great.

But it's also not uncommon for journalists to turn to research-based work for think tanks or non-governmental organizations to earn a living. It's a great way for freelancers to complement their income and to build their client base, along with their reputation.

Being able to oscillate in and out of both takes focus and experience. One such person who's woven a solid performance in both journalism and investigative research is Italian-born analyst Emilio E. Manfredi. He has been based in countries throughout the African continent for 12 years, spending seven of them in Ethiopia, covering the Horn of Africa, before moving on to stints in Kenya, Côte d'Ivoire and his current home in Dakar, Senegal.

As a journalist, he's been published in l'Espressola RepubblicaLe Monde Magazine and many more. But it's his research and other work for the likes of Human Rights Watch, the European Union and the International Crisis Group (ICG) that has been getting the attention of policy makers and diplomats. 

IJNet caught up with Manfredi via Skype and email while he was traveling in Cape Verde after a hectic year that took him through several countries.

IJNet: You used to be a full-time journalist. Can you go into a little about where you began your career, what took you to Africa in the first place, and where your reporting took you?

Manfredi: I began my career as a freelance documentary maker, when I was still a history student in university. One [film] ended up in the hands of the author of a documentary program at RAI and caught his attention. He asked me to meet and we got along well, thus he offered me a job. I ended up travelling with him for a year, mostly in Africa and Latin America. But I was young and I had two things in mind: breaking news and writing. So, I left the program, packed my stuff and travelled to Darfur, Sudan, where the crisis was just looming then, as a freelancer. ...Then I stayed in Africa.

Where and when did you start doing research and with what organizations?

I started off at Human Rights Watch, where I was hired as a researcher in the Africa Program. The more journalism and research got intertwined, the more I was feeling my journalism was on a wrong path. In fact, my editors were increasingly asking me to write uninteresting stories, where they wanted rather “simplified” versions of the reality to emerge.

So, I thought about it for quite a while. It was a sufferance to leave journalism and dedicate [myself] to research. However, I promised myself I'd be moved by the same values, using the expertise and knowledge...I've gained [as a journalist]. In the end, it was important to stick to my original aim: tell stories from the ground, as far as I could understand them.

So you're based in Dakar now. Can you tell us about your recent research project for the International Crisis Group in the Sahel, how long that took you and what you researched?

Yes, soon it’s going to be one year that I’ve been based out of Senegal, but I still travel extensively from the western coast of Africa right back to the Horn. I worked as a researcher and analyst with the International Crisis Group and then as a political advisor for Somalia at the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, then came back to ICG last year as a consultant for an eight-month-long project in the Central Sahel. With this project, we looked at a large area, from northern Nigeria and the Lake Chad basin, passing through Niger and ending up in southern Libya.

What are the similarities between journalism and research?

I can tell you something, which I think is relevant: when you cover a story as a journalist, you normally have less time. Certainly an article is shorter than a report, but the stress for me had always been having little time to study the issue before travelling, little time on the ground to try and understand the dynamics as they really are and not as I thought they were before travelling, and finally to elaborate a story explaining the normal complexity from the ground, and the different perspectives.

The risk I see with journalism, especially nowadays that digitalization made everything so quick whilst resources diminish, is to reach the ground with an idea (that is normally quite imprecise, if not wrong) and just collect information to confirm what one thought. As a reader and as a professional, I increasingly value journalists based on the ground, whom are confronted with a specific realities everyday and intermingle with the people all time, and often have a profound understanding of the issues at stake.

Finally, what advice do you have for journalists looking to work in any Sahel-region countries? And what would you advise for journalists seeking to make the transition into research?

If they’re new to the region, my main advice is about personal safety. Have good connections with contacts on the ground before and whilst reporting is crucial. In the Sahel today, this is even more vital than before, because it’s getting increasingly odd. People are very suspicious and feelings are polarized because of the increased counter-terrorism activities of Western countries in the region, which locals fear may also be disguised as humanitarianism or journalism. It’s a complex mixture of reality and perception, but we have to keep in mind the latter matters highly.

Whilst there’s absolute need for good journalism from the region to enlighten the complex reasons behind instability and giving voices to the people on the ground, personal security remains the main point, especially once leaving capital cities. I think a good journalist can make a good researcher, as long as he or she follows the basic rules of journalism: look for the facts and evidences, and keep questioning what you believe you have understood.

Image of Sahel landscape CC-licensed on Flickr via CIFOR