Jackie Spinner, 41, is an assistant professor of Journalism at Columbia College in Chicago since 2011. Last year, Spinner was a U.S. Fulbright Scholar in Muscat, Oman, where she started the first student newspaper at Sulton Qaboos University.
Her career included reporting 14 years for The Washington Post, where she covered the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, surviving car bombs and mortar attacks, as well as a kidnapping attempt outside of Abu Ghraib. When she began at The Washington Post, she started as a financial reporter before becoming Baghdad Bureau Chief in 2005. Spinner also has reported from Jordan, Oman, Ecuador, Hungary, Spain, Morocco, Finland and Iceland.
Spinner’s career includes reporting for the Christian Science Monitor, The Chicago Tribune, Slate, Glamour, Awat al-Iraq, U.S. Catholic News, The American Journalism Review, Defense Quarterly Standard, MSNBC, PBS, CNN and National Public Radio. She is the author of Tell Them I Didn’t Cry: A Young Journalist’s Story of Joy, Loss and Survival in Iraq. Each chapter of the book includes the reflections of Spinner’s twin sister, Jenny, who is an English professor in Philadelphia.
She is the founder of Angel Says: Read, an international literacy project that donates books from tourists and the United States to libraries in Belize. She won the Distinguished International Reporting award from the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild for her reporting in Iraq.
Spinner is a member of The Society of Professional Journalists, College Media Advisers, Military Reporters and Editors and the Journalism and Women Symposium.
She graduated from Southern Illinois University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and University of California Berkeley with a master’s degree in journalism. Her email is: jackiespinner(at)mac.com.
Spinner was interviewed by Margaret Murphy, a Journalism and Political Science major at the University of Iowa.
Margaret Murphy: Why did you become involved in journalism?
Jackie Spinner: The adviser at my high school newspaper recruited me at my brother’s Little League game the summer before I started high school. I was hooked after my first deadline.
MM: How do you define journalism today?
JS: Storytelling, the same as I’ve always defined it.
MM: How has technology influenced or affected your career?
JS: After I left the Washington Post at the end of 2009, I still wanted to report overseas. I knew I had to build my multimedia skills to be competitive. A big newspaper like the Post still hires the best writers, the best photographers, the best designers, the best copy editors. But after I left the Post, I knew I’d need to be defined as more than a writer. I needed to continue to build my photography skills. I first shot professionally for the Oakland Tribune during an internship in 1994. I also was a designer in college. But in 1995, a professor at my grad school (UC Berkeley) gave me great advice at that time, which was to pick one thing and be great at it. Otherwise, she advised, I’d just be good at everything. While I still think that holds mostly true (we can’t all be the Bo Jacksons of journalism), I think you do have to be more flexible. And certainly as a freelance correspondent in the Middle East, I had to shoot video and photos as well as write stories. Publications did expect me to do everything and do it well.
MM: How will technology affect the future of journalism?
JS: We’re in an information cluster, and we have to figure out how to be heard, how to incorporate citizen journalism in our reporting. But the basics aren’t going to change, and I believe that reporters who distinguish themselves with credibility and ethics will ultimately stand out. Technology will require us to be more agile, to use different platforms, to be flexible and open to change.
MM: What one word would you use to describe the status of women in journalism today?
MM: What role(s) will women have in future journalism?
JS: All roles. But I do hope that more women become entrepreneurs leading some of the new technology companies. Most of the CEOS and innovators we know of are men. That has to change.
MM: How has your treatment as a woman differed in the various countries you have reported in? In which country did you receive the worst treatment?
JS: Being a woman in the Middle East can be an advantage because as a Western woman you can cross traditional boundaries and interview both men and women. My male colleagues don’t get the kind of access to women that I do. Other than some manhandling here and there, I’ve been lucky overseas. I’ve received the worst treatment as a woman in America.
MM: Can you expand on that?
JS: I only mean that there is this misperception sometimes that in a misogynistic society, a Western woman would be treated worse. That is not my experience. Yes, I get irritated sometimes by the patriarchal nature of the system. But I am generally treated respectfully, as a Western woman. I fight misperceptions often in the Middle East about what it means to be a Western woman, primarily because many of the images generally people have are from Hollywood. Just as we in American have images of the Eastern woman covered in a burka from our limited contact through images on TV and in the movies. Some of the most liberally minded women I’ve met are covered. It is a myth that a woman who chooses to wear a scarf (and I know that it’s not always a choice) is somehow religiously conservative or “backward.” But I’m getting off point. Two instances when I’ve had my guard up overseas: in a surging crowd of people (not because they’re men and I’m a woman but because of the unpredictable nature of a crowd) and with US soldiers or Marines on an American base.
MM: Based on your biography saying you survived car bombs, mortar attacks and a kidnapping attempt, it seems like there was an imminent threat of violence while you reported on the Iraq War. How safe did you feel when you were there? Was there ever a time you felt you needed to leave? If so, how did you prioritize reporting over your safety?
JS: I felt safe enough of I would have gone home. I always prioritized my safety because that’s what the publisher of the Washington Post and my editors told me to do. I did not take unnecessary risks. That said, I knew that bringing the story of Iraq to our readers was dangerous. I accepted the dangers because I knew I had to be there to help record history, to bring accountability to the story. In a military conflict, you don’t want a government, any government, to be in charge of “the truth.” You have to go in as an impartial observer. I left briefly (a few days) after I got a $50,000 price on my head from Al Qaeda. But in the few days I was out of the country, they forgot about me and someone else became Enemy No. 1. So I returned.
MM: How did you find out there was a price on your head?
JS: One of the men who worked for the Washington Post in Baghdad who had connections to insurgents (which is one of the reasons we kept him on the payroll) came to the office one day asking if we had a “Jackie Spinner” who worked there because apparently I had ended up on some list of foreigners who should be killed. It happened after an Iraqi reporter tools some remarks I made off-the-record when I was talking about American journalism. I said a good reporter has “no friends and no enemies.” In Arabic, a similar phrase means that I can’t be trusted. I will feed you in my house one night and then betray you in the morning. I had volunteered to talk to Iraqi reporters for the US State Department. As I said, it was supposed to be off the record but a reporter did not obey those instructions and attributed the comments to me. I didn’t say anything wrong. But I didn’t need my name in an Iraqi newspaper. Most Iraqi newspapers were aligned with a certain political party. This paper was the primes minister’s so it made me seem like a collaborator. I’m not sure whether that particular thing is common or not. But it was common (and remains to some extent) in Iraq for journalists not to be seen as neutral, and I’m sure you can understand why that it is. When you go into a country whose press has been controlled by the government, it’s hard for people to believe that you really are independent of your own government. If you were a Western reporter, people assumed you were an agent of the US government. That is a very, very dangerous position to be in, but I think it’s generally harder for reporters anywhere to claim neutrality, in part, because of the way the media have involved and because groups no longer need us. We used to be the messengers that fringe groups needed to speak to the world. With technology, they don’t need us anymore. Al Qaeda can reach the public directly. There’s no need to go through a journalist.
MM: What do you think is the most common misconception the American people have regarding the Iraq War? How did your time there affect your views?
JS: I still have no opinion on the Iraq war that I will disclose publicly. That’s not what journalists do. That is not my role. I’d say the biggest misconception the American people have is still about the Iraqi people, their feelings about the war, the disappointment about how things turned out, the fact that they are not necessarily grateful for being “freed.” Some Americans (I hate to generalize) probably don’t understand why Iraqis wouldn’t be more grateful to the US government. It’s complicated but after nine years of a violent insurgency, corruption, many Iraqis just want order, which, ironically, is something that Saddam gave them.
MM: You have done a lot of work developing a charity and helping to start college newspapers in other countries. What led you to do this kind of work? Is this something you think all journalists should do?
JS: My decision to start a literacy project and develop student newspapers in the Middle East was personal. I don’t think journalists should do this or have to do this. We choose our own paths or they choose us. For me, it was a little of both. I started Angel Says: Read because of an intense need at that time to heal and to give back. Journalists are the ultimate consumers. We take, take, take. We take people’s worst days and their best days, and we write about them. War affects each of us differently. Like soldiers, journalists have varying degrees of PTSD. They work through it in different ways. The literacy project was my way of giving back to a country where I spent three months healing from the effects of covering the wars. The opportunity to start Iraq’s first independent student newspapers really fell into my lap. It made sense at the time, and I did that. I am very proud of that project, probably more so than anything I’ve done in in my career. But I still consume stories. It’s what I do as a journalist, which is why I’m going back to the Middle East in December. I love being a journalist. I’m teaching because I love to share my passion with the next generation. But I need to do both, teach and report, to be fulfilled. One of the things starting the newspapers in Iraq and Oman taught me is that I am a carpenter. I like to build things. I’m also starting a program to teach digital storytelling using open source software. I’m also co-directing a multimedia combat journalism show. (www.conflictzone.org). I couldn’t do these things if I still worked at the Washington Post. I wouldn’t have time. Although it was a wrenching decision for me to the leave the Post when I did, it was the best decision I could have made because I’ve had this “second life” in which I’ve been able to do all of these things while still reporting.
MM: What is the biggest obstacle you had to overcome to be a successful international reporter? How did gender play a role in this obstacle?
JS: Gender doesn’t really play a role. The biggest obstacle is always my own inexperience. There are language issues that make it difficult. It’s hard going to a country where you don’t speak the language. I’m going to Palestine in December and am trying to find a translator and fixer to help me. That’s very costly to do. The freelance pay I will get on that trip won’t begin to cover it. But I want to go because it’s just what I do. I am restless back in the United States. That’s a reality for many foreign correspondents who come home.
MM: Why is international reporting so important? What can international reporters like yourself help America, and the international community, achieve?
JS: We live in a big world, and it’s important to know about that world and not just our corner of it. We spend billions of dollars as a national on foreign aid. We elect leaders who take us to war. We have to be engaged in the issues that affect us as Americans and the decisions that our leaders make that affect the rest of the world’s population. Journalists continue to have an important watchdog role overseas. I think it’s sad that Americans, for the most part, know very little about the rest of the world, particularly as we are a nation founded by immigrants. How can we suddenly not care about the world?
MM: Do you view women and minorities as being equal in journalism today? If not, what challenges still remain?
JS: I think women and minorities are equals. But I do think that people of color face challenges in journalism as they do in another other field. Newsrooms do not necessarily reflect the demographics of the communities that they cover, and that is to a determent of the community and the coverage.
MM: You have accomplished so much at such a young age. What advice can you give to aspiring journalists who feel discouraged by job prospects or gender and age bias?
JS: The only way to get between two points is to start walking. If you want to do something, you have to do it. If you don’t, you’ve stopped yourself. I think we are often our own biggest barriers. And you have to be patient about getting experience and moving up within an organization to get the credentials you need to report safely from an overseas assignment. I get nervous about younger reporters who want to go cover a war to make their careers. That’s the surest way to get hurt or killed. And nobody will remember you when you’re gone. It just isn’t worth it. It’s best to link up with an experienced reporter who can teach you the ropes.
MM: How has your private life been affected by your traveling? Did that factor in to your decision to teach?
JS: It’s hard to sustain a relationship overseas because you are always leaving. I think many foreign correspondents make a decision at some point what they want beyond the story. I knew I couldn’t raise a family as a war correspondent. I came home because I want to be a mother.
This is part of a series of profiles of JAWS members by University of Iowa students. For a complete listing, see this page.