Meet the OPC Members: Q&A With Portia Crowe

Portia Crowe poses for a snapshot while stuck in the mud with the Red Cross at the Bidibidi Refugee Settlement in Uganda. Photo courtesy of Portia Crowe.

Portia Crowe is a freelance journalist based in Paris. She covers a range of topics including human rights, climate change, development, and business. Crowe’s work appears in The Independent, The Guardian, Reuters, and Al Jazeera English, among others. She previously served as correspondent for the Dow Jones publication Financial News in London and a senior reporter for Business Insider in New York. Recently she traveled to Uganda to report on LGBT+ activism, climate change, refugees, and the cassava farmers behind a landmark court case against Total. She also produced a BBC radio documentary about the cremation industry in Bulgaria and Greece and interviewed the first female mayor elected in the Arab World for Public Radio International.

Hometown: Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.

Education: McGill University (BA, International Development Studies); Columbia University (MS, Journalism).

Languages: English, French.

First job in journalism: My first staff job was with Business Insider in New York, though I did about five internships before that.

Countries reported from: Ghana, Togo, Kenya, Uganda, Tunisia, Bulgaria, Greece, UK, France, US, Canada. In February I’ll be reporting from Niger.

When and why did you join the OPC: I won the OPC Foundation’s Reuters scholarship in 2014, which funded an internship with Reuters’ East Africa Bureau in Nairobi, Kenya. I’ve remained a member of the OPC ever since.

What first drew you to international reporting? I am not someone who came to journalism because of a love of writing or storytelling and then later found international reporting. My passions have always been international development and foreign affairs, and I chose journalism as a way to build a career in those fields.

Major challenge as a journalist: As a freelancer, my biggest challenges are getting paid fairly and getting paid on time. These are frustrating, but pale in comparison to what I faced as a staff reporter covering investment banking in New York and London, where my pay was higher, but I faced sexism in the workplace and sexual harassment from sources.

Best journalism advice received: Take notes. It’s easy to get overwhelmed on assignment and sometimes even lose sight of the story. Write down every detail – even things that don’t seem significant at the time. You never know what will be useful later, and if nothing else it will add texture and colour to your work. (Paraphrased from Steve Coll.)

Worst experience as a journalist: As an intern at Newsday on Long Island, I had to literally stop the presses one night because of a factual error I’d made in the lede of a cover story (Newsday still prints its paper in-house, or at least it did then). I felt sick about it for days but have been an extra vigilant fact-checker ever since. Today, as reporters increasingly bear sole responsibility for fact-checking, I’m grateful to have learned my lesson early on.

When traveling, you like to…: Go for a run. It’s a good way to clear your head after a busy day, and also to get to know a new place (though you might get strange looks, depending on where you are). I also like to stay with locals whenever possible.

Hardest story: I recently reported on unaccompanied South Sudanese child refugees in northern Uganda. It was difficult for obvious emotional reasons, but also because it raised ethical questions about interviewing children without parents, and knowing how or if to intervene on safeguarding issues. Some children told me in private that they felt abused or unhappy with their foster parents. One specifically said he did not want to tell NGO staff about it, and I had to make a judgment call – as both a journalist and a human – on whether or not to say something.

Journalism heroes: Certainly Rukmini Callimachi and Nahlah Ayed. Marie Colvin genuinely influenced my decision to go into journalism. Her story always stuck with me and I had chills when, years later, I attended the launch of Lindsey Hilsum’s biography of her at the Frontline Club in London and was able to meet Paul Conroy and Colvin’s best friend Jane Wellesley and hear stories about her standing in that same room. One thing that really stood out from Hilsum’s book was how Colvin’s circle of friends carried her through the difficult periods; I think when you travel frequently for work and are sent on emotionally challenging assignments, those strong, supportive relationships are indispensable.

Advice for journalists who want to work overseas: Likely a major challenge will be sorting out visas, especially if you’re freelance. Every time I’ve moved countries it has taken months of advance planning — sometimes years. So be organized. (Also, obviously, learn as much as you can about the culture, history, geography, and customs of the country you want to work in. This should be a given but educate yourself before going.)

Dream job: I love what I do now – working all over the world on whichever stories feel most important. That said, as a freelancer, I do think I’ll eventually miss having benefits and sick leave. If I could find a staff job that allowed me to do essentially the same thing I do now, with the same degree of independence, that would be the dream.

Favorite quote: “The world is like a Mask dancing. If you want to see it well, you do not stand in one place.” – Chinua Achebe

Place you’re most eager to visit: I would love to spend time in Beirut.

Most over-the-top assignment: A nine-hour road trip from Sofia to Athens with an Albanian man who spoke no English – and four urns full of recently-cremated ashes in the backseat. The immigration officials were already suspicious when we pulled up to the Bulgaria-Greece border and handed over our foreign passports. Then they asked what we had in the back…

Most common mistake you’ve seen: Unnecessary reverence. There’s no need to be starry-eyed or overly grateful for access, regardless of how important an interviewee might be in politics, business, or culture. Our job is to speak the truth to power.

Country you most want to return to: Tunisia. Or Egypt, where I’ve been twice as a visitor but would love to find a way back as a reporter.

Twitter handle: @PortiaCrowe