A panoramic view of Comuna 8, one of Medellín’s slums. Credit: Cosas de Alma Blog
MEDELLÍN, January, 2013 – Back when I started, well… let’s just say I wasn’t so sure and certain I wanted to do this.
I wasn’t convinced that Colombia Reports was the best first step. There was just no way to know. I had read Colombia Reports for awhile. It was my main source of English news for what was going on in Colombia. Sometimes the reports were strong. But sometimes they were just plain painful to read. I knew that Adriaan Alsema was the man behind the publication, but I didn’t know much more than that.
And then I met Adriaan.
I met Adriaan through Amy. Amy used to be a freelance reporter in Bogotá. Now she reports out of New York City. I sat down with her and asked her: so what do I have to do?
You’ve got to get pieces. You’ve got to establish yourself, she said. Right now you’re no one, she told me.
Amy told me I should write for Colombia Reports. She said that was a good place to start. Ok, I said. Amy introduced me to Adriaan in November. I wrote a story with him and liked the way he coached me. He was straightforward, honest, and swore a lot. A lot. Rough. I could tell by his voice. My kind of guy.
But I still wasn’t entirely convinced. To know someone face to face tells the truth. Not the whole truth, but a good part of it.
So in January when I opened the door to Adriaan’s apartment in the center of Medellín, and when I saw a man with a cigarette drooping out of his mouth, and when I saw his bare feet, and heard his gruff voice welcome me in to the world of Colombia Reports, I couldn’t help but think that I was shaking hands with a pirate. I couldn’t help but be skeptical.
Now, of course, I know that Adriaan is not a pirate. But I could have sworn he was.
It’s good to be skeptical though. Now, looking back, I think Adriaan would have been disappointed if I hadn’t been.
One of the first things I did with Adriaan was go to the ghetto with him.
“Let’s go to the barrios,” he said. It was my first weekend in Medellín. It was a Sunday morning.
“You mean the ghetto?” I confirmed.
“Yeah,” he said.
Damn! I thought to myself. This guy is going to drag me into a snake pit before my first story even hits the screen. I’ll be dead before I even know whether or not I even want to be a journalist.
And then I realized that I had to go. Otherwise neither of us would ever know who the hell the other one was. So we hopped into a cab. Adriaan climbed into the front seat. I didn’t mind. I mean, he’s bigger than me.
Two men in Comuna 8. Credit: Matías Espinosa
Adriaan loves the barrios. And now I know why. Let me be straight with you: Comuna 8 is not a safe place, but it is alive with a kind of life that is intoxicating. Yes there are alleys with cold faces and quick trades of white-powder-filled baggies. But there is also the noise of soccer games and the laughter of children, and the smiles of old men with gold teeth who sit down next to you and join you sipping cinnamon-scented coffees. Yes there are police riding around on motorcycles with fingers on their triggers. Like I told you, Comuna 8 is not a safe place, but I felt safe there. And here is why:
One of the first things I asked Adriaan about was about sourcing stories. How do you treat sources? How do you talk to sources? When do you say a source’s name? When don’t you say a source’s name? What loyalties do you have to a source? How close do you get to a source? How far do you stay away? All of those questions about the ethics behind what a journalist does to source a story were jetting through my mind. I wanted to know.
Adriaan told me to look around at the barrio. He told me how there are paramilitaries in barrios like Comuna 8. He told me how he’s spoken with them. He told me how he’s spoken with members of the guerrilla. He told me how he’s spoken with military officers and politicians and prostitutes and, well, Adriaan talks with a lot of people.
Adriaan told me that you have to build trust. And then you have to keep it. I learned that often people really do want to talk. They want to share their voices with you. You are a gatekeeper, though. And in your interest and your questions there is opportunity for a person to express themselves in a way that will reach the rest of the world. You are the means and the way. But you have to be careful.
You have to protect your sources.
A woman from Comuna 8. Credit: Matías Espinosa
Adriaan told me about how there was a case where someone asked him for names of members of another organization. They knew he had them. Adriaan asked them one simple killer question: “Do you want me to start sharing the names of your people? You don’t ask me for names, and I don’t share yours. Ok? That’s how it works with me. Ok!?”
The way he said was like a knife cutting through the fat of an old wily hog. His voice was so sharp. He was certain of his decision not to gossip about the identities of his sources.
“This is all about keeping trust,” said Adriaan.
We hopped in a cab again and sped off to another barrio where Pablo Escobar and his cartel used to recruit assassins. It’s more peaceful now.
What I learned in the barrios that first day with Adriaan is that if people trust in you, they’re not going to hurt you. If you treat them fairly, and say what you’re going to do, and then do it, they’re not going to hurt you. If a paramilitary with a gun trusts that you’ll tell the world why he has his gun, and why he believes he should use it, then he’s going to do everything possible to be sure that you stay alive. He’s not going to turn it on you if he trusts you. And if someone does threaten you, you ideally have the rest of society to call on for protection.
Now that it’s been over 2 months in, I’ve seen what Adriaan’s ethical rigidity toward how he treats his sources has done for him and for Colombia Reports. Just since January he’s uncovered some really controversial stories. And he’s won friends, not enemies, in the process.
Going to the barrios wasn’t just about getting a spectacular view of Medellín from the mountains. Let me tell you, it’s spectacular. But that’s not what Comuna 8 was all about. Going to Comuna 8 was also a test – test for both of us. We’d either have a foundation for trust afterward, or no foundation. Going to Comuna 8 was about building trust.
So am I convinced now?
Well, it’s always good to keep your doubt ready and sharpened at your side, right? That doubt is the only thing that lets you cut into the world and source the truth. From doubt follows the good questions. The ones that go deep. The ones that dig up the story. I’ll always try to remain doubtful toward the world around me.
I’ll tell you this, though: I’ve got a world of respect for the hard, gravel-voice, 37-year-old Dutchman who brought me to Comuna 8 that first day. We trust each other now. And now the value of a source is clear to me.
A journalist must be loyal to his readers. But a journalist must also know how to build trust with his sources, his editor, and his peers. As a journalist, how to treat a person is what gives a journalist his value. It’s a high moral standard. Towering and lofty. But if Adriaan hadn’t taken me to the barrios, I wouldn’t have ever understood the value behind what we do.
That is something I am convinced of.