September 20, 2021

Event Coverage Highlight

Murrow Award Winners Discuss Challenges in Reporting ‘Collision’

Clockwise from upper left: Vivienne Walt, Rukmini Callimachi, Geoff O’Brien and Singeli Agnew.

by Chad Bouchard

In July 2018, a group of cyclists were touring the world when, during a leg through Tajikistan, five ISIS attackers ran into them with their car, stabbed four of them to death and injured two others. New York Times correspondent and OPC member Rukmini Callimachi covered the story as breaking news at the time, but soon found herself drawn into the stories of two of the cyclists, Jay Austin and Lauren Geoghegan, and wrote a longer profile about the couple that she “fell in love with.”

Later, she joined forces with the team at a Times video program called “The Weekly,” now renamed The New York Times Presents, to produce a film titled “Collision” that delved deeper into the story and brought them face to face with one of the couple’s killers.

On Sept. 17, the OPC hosted an online discussion with the film’s producers, whose work won this year’s Edward R. Murrow Award for best TV, video or documentary interpretation of international affairs with a run time up to 30 minutes.

Callimachi, who has reported extensively on Islamic terrorism for the Times, said the story resonated with her because the values she found the couple embodied, of openness and belief in the goodness of others, provided a stark contrast to the terrorists’ world view.

“Everything that they believed in was the diametrical opposite of what ISIS stands for,” she said. The clash of those contrasting outlooks is the collision referenced in the film’s title.

The OPC panel also included the film’s producer and director, Singeli Agnew, as well as the video editor, Geoff O’Brien. Vivienne Walt, Paris-based reporter for TIME magazine and head judge for this year’s Edward R. Murrow Award, moderated.

Agnew said the prospect of making the film depended on getting a visa to Tajikistan, a notoriously difficult country to gain access in. The team’s visa application happened to coincide with a large dam project that the government wanted to get media coverage for, and though they were transparent about their intentions that likely improved their chances.

She said the government and many Tajik people were enraged by the Americans’ murders, as the country has been trying to present itself as a tourist destination.

“It was a big year for them to open the country up for tourism and was something they were quite proud of. So it was a huge blow, and I think each Tajik that we met had a personal agenda to make sure that the world knew that they didn’t approve of what had happened and were furious.”

Callimachi talked about some of the thorny issues involved in reporting the piece, including her interview with one of the imprisoned killers serving a life sentence, Hussein Abdusamadov, who is considered to be the mastermind of the attack.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that these primary interviews with members of a terrorist group are pretty much the most valuable tool that you have as far as a window into this entity,” she said. She added that information from those sources was carefully vetted before using, saying that while some convicted terrorists will lie to reporters, “much more often than you would expect, you get real information that you can cross reference with documents and internal paperwork.”

She said that she saw some indications that there might have been some coercion by the Tajik government, which had been pushing a conspiratorial narrative that the attack was orchestrated by the opposition party as a kind of false flag. “His tone of voice would change, his eye movements would change – it felt clear to me that he was saying that because he felt he had to.”

Answering a question from William Holstein about the overall status of Islamic State, Callimachi said she rejects the notion that the terror network is waning in strength.

“I feel like I am getting hoarse by saying this over and over again, that ISIS is not dead,” she said. “Despite what the US government keeps saying, ISIS has not been defeated. It has not even been, in my opinion, meaningfully degraded.”

Walt asked the team to discuss some of the challenges in translating print stories and training reporters to think in terms of video and multimedia as the Times shifts its operations from a traditional newspaper to visual and audio storytelling.

“The way that you do journalism doesn’t change,” Callimachi said. “The way that you have to verify information, the type of ethical relationship that you build with sources, the way that you interact with officials in a way that speaks to the integrity of your newspaper – none of that changes.”

Agnew said the Times crew has started to think of how to tell stories in different ways and maximize the potential of video journalism.

“It’s less about information – that can happen off camera – it’s more about a holistic expression of this scene needs to say. Everything gets so condensed in a film. One the things we really struggled with early on in The Weekly is overwriting, over-narrating.”

“Often times, it’s about listening to the space in between the words,” he said, citing as an example a moment in the film when Callimachi confronts Abdusamadov and shows him photos of the victims, eliciting him to pause and possibly reflect. “That look is just as important as the words.”

O’Brien said given some of the constraints of reporting during the pandemic, the program now called New York Times Presents has shifted its focus from a weekly show to longer form stories with more depth and time to tell them.

Callimachi has recently been reporting from Kentucky on the killing of Breonna Taylor and aftermath. She said recordings of 911 calls as well as video footage of sources has added dimension to her reporting that would not translate to print.

“If you were just to read on the page Tamika Palmer’s quotes, this is the mother of [Taylor], the quotes don’t look like much. It’s when you hear the enormous pain in her voice. There’s information, I’ve learned, that is encoded in different ways, in just the sound of somebody’s voice, or in the visual of somebody speaking, you understand something more about that person’s experience.”