Event Coverage Highlight
Nadja Drost Discusses Reporting on Migrants Crossing the Darien Gap with Editor Kit Rachlis
by Chad Bouchard
While living in Colombia for about a decade, award-winning journalist and documentary filmmaker Nadja Drost heard many accounts of a treacherous route that migrants from all around the world used to cross over the mountains into Panama en route to the U.S. For about two years she heard that traffic on this route was increasing. Drost started to gather string for a story. Unbeknownst to her, thousands of miles away California Sunday Magazine editor Kit Rachlis had been looking for someone to cover the same story. Drost pitched a longform story to Rachlis, who quickly accepted, and the two began to plan and shape a piece that would go on to win many awards.
For an OPC program on Feb. 3, Drost and Rachlis discussed the process of reporting, strategy, ethics, and building trust with sources to cover the journey of migrants from around the world who traverse the Darien Gap, a swathe of mountainous jungle straddling the Colombia-Panama border. The story, titled “When Can We Really Rest?” went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing, as well as first place for Magazine Feature Writing from the National Headliner Awards, the One World Media Refugee Reporting Award, and Honorable Mention from the James Foley Medill Medal for Courage in Journalism.
The program marked the launch of the OPC’s new series “How I Did It,” which pairs freelance journalists with their editors or producers.
Drost said she wanted to know why the route was increasingly used and who was traveling across it. She joined forces with a videographer who had previously documented part of the route, Bruno Federico, and Chilean photographer Carlos Villalón, who had made the crossing before.
Drost approached the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting for funding and pitched a series to PBS Newshour. Then she reached out to Rachlis.
“Kit and I had already worked together on a story a few years earlier. It was a shorter and different type of story, so he was my go-to person at California Sunday,” Drost said.
Rachlis, who is currently a senior editor at ProPublica, said he had already been interested in assigning a piece about the Darien Gap, and had seen the journey covered before but noted that the previous pieces did not focus on the experience of migrants. He had approached two other journalists who turned down his assignment before receiving Drost’s proposal.
“It was the equivalent of six pages,” he said. “And it was so smart, clearly [she] knew what the story was, it agreed with my perspective. She’d really begun to think about the logistics. And there was the financial support from the Pulitzer Center, which was big.”
After a quick phone conversation, he felt confident that “this was an extraordinary piece and she was exactly the right person to do it.”
The moderator of the discussion, Marina Walker Guevara, an OPC governor and executive editor at the Pulitzer Center, asked Drost and Rachlis about their conversations about how Drost’s presence during the journey might influence the story and the experience of migrants.
“If she helped a migrant who had hurt themselves, or provided them with a tent, or gave them food, that would actually change their experience,” Rachlis said. “And yet not to do that raises all sorts of horrific ethical issues.”
He proposed that Drost interview migrants in Panama after they had completed their journey, and then make the crossing herself afterward and reconstruct the migrants’ story. Drost disagreed.
“I wanted to be able to observe migrants who were going to become protagonists in the story, I wanted to be able to observe them on the journey, and I felt concerned that maybe I wouldn’t be able to do a great job and a really detailed job if I was only basing my story on reconstruction.”
She also thought that it would be better to travel the Darien Gap at the beginning of her reporting when her energy reserves were highest, rather than to reconstruct the migrants’ story and then embark on the difficult crossing. Rachlis said Drost’s instinct about this approach turned out to be completely correct.
Walker Guevara asked Rachlis about advice that he gave Drost that could be helpful to other reporters.
He told her to make sure to keep detailed notes about her observations during the journey, including random ideas, thoughts and sensory details, to ensure they would not be forgotten weeks later when finishing the piece from a home office.
“Those go beyond simply detailing what you’re seeing, but your thoughts about what you’re seeing,” he said. “I encouraged Nadja very much to trust those ideas, and that they would prove really useful and rich later on.”
“Kit reminded me before I left to keep focused on what this experience is like for [the migrants]. Even though we were walking in the same places, we were walking in very different positions, from very different backgrounds, from very different resources, and my experience was obviously going to be very so different from their experience,” Drost said. “And that really became a kind of North Star for a lot of my reporting, just to always keep in mind that I want to understand what this journey is like for them.”
A television series about the Darien Gap, ‘Desperate Journey,’ which she reported with videographer Federico for the PBS NewsHour, was recognized with an Emmy and Peabody award, and received the Best in Show for television from the National Headliners Award in 2021.
Before serving as editor for ProPublica, Rachlis spent seven years as a senior editor at California Sunday Magazine. Before that, he was a senior editor at The Atlantic. He also served as editor in chief of LA Weekly, Los Angeles magazine and the American Prospect and as a senior projects editor at the Los Angeles Times. Stories he edited have won a Livingston Award, a George Polk Award, a John Bartlow Martin Award, a James Beard Award, a PEN USA Award and a Front Page Award.
Click the window below to watch a playlist of video clips from the program.