Behind the Page: Why The Atlantic’s Yasmeen Serhan is telling the global stories we need now
Across the United States, voters prepare for a momentous election in the midst of an economy crippled by the pandemic, an electorate so deeply divided that even public health measures are seen through a partisan lens, and a morass of political mudslinging. Journalists like The Atlantic’s Yasmeen Serhan work to sort through the cacophony, isolating each issue to put it in perspective.
Ahead of this election, we spoke to Serhan about why it’s possibly more important than ever before for Americans to put themselves in proper context: as citizens of a global society.
Beyond the headlines
While news was exploding in the United States about rising coronavirus cases, the government’s mismanagement of the crisis, and President Donald Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Serhan was searching for stories beyond the headlines- something which would come to distinguish her reporting as the pandemic progressed.
Some of her recent pieces have exposed the deep divisions created by the virus in developing countries; explored how White House and police attacks on the press affect foreign correspondents based in the U.S.; and examined the lessons gleaned from the U.K.’s successful curb of the virus among unhoused populations. Her topics are challenging, but the lessons we glean from them are piercingly relevant.
Serhan didn’t begin her career as a journalist. She studied international relations at the University of Southern California, initially envisioning graduate studies at Sciences Po in Paris. But a fellowship opportunity with The Atlantic opened a new avenue for her insatiable curiosity. It was at their Washington D.C. bureau that Serhan realized her studies of policy in the Middle East and North Africa gave her a unique advantage and perspective as a journalist.
“It certainly made me appreciate that I don’t know everything,” Serhan says today. “Especially in international relations…there are histories and contexts that aren’t always readily known.”
Like many Londoners, she noticed mid-pandemic that the streets of London were empty of its usual unhoused residents (called “rough sleepers” by the Brits), and reports began circulating of the government’s success in getting them off the streets and preventing the spread of the virus. But that wasn’t enough for The Atlantic and it definitely wasn’t enough for Serhan.
She wanted to know what other countries could learn from Britain’s strategy, and if any trends could be applied more broadly in the world. So, she did what her training in academia had taught her to do: she sought conversations with people who knew more than she did.
“Of course, there were no easy answers,” Serhan reflects. “But I got to speak to a lot of people. And this is a trend throughout my reporting. I get to speak to a lot of people who know their subjects so much better than I do. And I basically get to ask them all the ‘dumb questions’ and learn from them, which is probably the best part of my job.”
A spirit of generosity
Serhan’s process from start to finish usually takes about two weeks, including multiple interviews that range in length from 30 minutes to an hour, transcribing those interviews to ensure quote accuracy, and meticulously recording her notes into a Google doc. Once she submits the piece to her editor for review, that’s only the beginning of the story’s journey. Serhan’s words go to the copyeditors (“Bless them,” she exhales.), fact-checkers, and a prolific art department to create a narrative supported by the best images and unhampered by inconsistencies or inaccuracies.
“The Atlantic is churning out a ton of great journalism all the time,” Serhan says. “I don’t know how they have enough hours in a day to give that kind of treatment to every piece.”
Two of The Atlantic’s key cultural touchpoints are force of intellect and a spirit of generosity. The latter proved instrumental in forming a major component of her philosophy as a journalist, nurturing a sense of responsibility not just to her readers but also to her sources. Transparency in reporting, generosity in the face of criticism, and dedication to fairness are the pillars of Serhan’s ethical practice.
The Atlantic fostered Serhan’s drive to probe the deeper trends and consequences of global events, and it also proved the perfect forum to chase stories frequently left out of the breaking news cycle. One such story emerged when she and some coworkers were discussing the pandemic’s impact on “the parts of the world we’re not really watching.” Further research uncovered high case numbers in Brazil and India, which led Serhan to break with the U.S.-centric coverage. She investigated the reasons behind the countries’ struggles and why the solutions of Europe and North America were not doing the trick.
“Some of those things just don’t work in those countries,” Serhan found. “I hadn’t thought of that. And if I haven’t thought of that, readers probably haven’t thought of that.”
Turning the gaze outside our immediate problems and introducing an element of the interconnectedness of our global society is something Serhan sees as necessary in her reporting, especially regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. Her stories challenge our tendency to look inwards.
“Whether we like it or not, it’s in Americans’ interest to know the situation in Brazil because you can’t just cut Brazil out of the world,” Serhan says. “It’s there! People travel. Their problem is our problem.”
Americans aren’t the only ones preoccupied with the problems of Americans. When Serhan moved from Washington, D.C. to London, she was surprised by the impact of American events on the rest of the world- what she calls the “palace intrigue” of the Trump White House was common knowledge to anyone who picked up a newspaper or scrolled Twitter. At the same time, she saw a need for journalism that pushes our attention beyond the trivial, below the surface, and outside our own doorsteps.
“If this pandemic has taught me anything, it’s that we don’t have the capacity to just look inwards,” Serhan reflects. And her reporting won’t let us. Nor will it cease to challenge us.
Magazines like The Atlantic don’t just give us a picture of the world outside. They also offer us an invitation. Journalism like Yasmeen Serhan’s gives us the perspective to understand these issues, to grapple with a world newly connected by a universal health crisis, and to begin the necessary work of engaging in it. The problems of the world are our problems.
Published on: November 2, 2020