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A radical vision for a new approach to journalism

Cristi Hegranes shares the vision and values behind the outlet that’s telling new stories, honoring the dignity of communities, and taking care of its global team of women journalists.

Anyone plugged into the modern news cycle knows how fraught and confusing our media landscape can be. The way stories are told — and who’s telling them — can color our understanding of the world and its issues, and often the stories we’re presented with fail to capture the full spectrum of perspectives. Emerson Collective Dial Fellow Cristi Hegranes, the CEO of Global Press, has spent much of her career trying to change this. Global Press, which she’s built from the ground up over the last 17 years, creates newsrooms across the world that are led by local women journalists who report directly from where they live and work. By focusing on representation in the newsroom, the outlet inherently widens its lens, centering voices and stories that often get overlooked. That, in turn, has proven time and again to make real change in the communities covered — for both the residents and the reporters. 

Hegranes recently joined EC director of portfolio communications Marcy Stech to talk about the history and philosophy behind Global Press and her vision for a more equitable, inclusive way to gather and share stories.

What is the origin story of Global Press?

When I was getting my master's at NYU, I managed to turn a classroom assignment into the opportunity to go to Nepal to report on the Nepali Civil War. I was interested in the health and human rights consequences of a war that people in the U.S. knew little-to-nothing about. I’d been in the country for about nine days when I realized that I was absolutely the wrong person to be telling those stories. I lacked the social, historical, cultural, political context to tell real, true stories in that moment of war. I ended up in a rural village, and I met a woman there named Patima who spoke a little bit of English and tried to give me the lay of the land. In a moment of frustration, I quite literally handed her my pen and said, "Can you do it? Can you write the story? Go and speak to the people who won't speak to me and let's offer the world a more comprehensive understanding of what's going on here." 

What Patima produced was a piece of journalism. She was a natural reporter. In that moment I began to realize that the way we have historically collected the world's stories was really broken. It is actually the people with the context and the access and proximity to the story that we need to hear from.

I went back to San Francisco and took a job as a feature writer, but I couldn't get Patima out of my head—or the idea that there was a better way to tell the world’s stories. When I was 25, I quit my job and walked across the street to a bookstore, where I bought a Nolo guide on how to start a nonprofit. 17 years later, we are Global Press.

What makes the Global Press approach to international reporting different than that of the legacy news organizations?

While most foreign correspondents are well-intentioned, exceptional storytellers, we would be remiss not to acknowledge that foreign correspondence is a colonial discipline. More than 90% of news that Americans receive from the rest of the world tends to center on stories of war, poverty, disaster, or disease, and that paints a really inaccurate and dangerously inauthentic portrait of the world. The notion at the heart of Global Press is that who tells the story matters. When we have an ethical, accurate, proximate journalist helping us understand the events of faraway places, it helps us have a much fuller understanding of the world.

We also think a lot about the sources in our stories. We very rarely use international NGOs or the UN, the World Bank or IMF; we really rely on local experts. We don't need to talk to Americans and Canadians in a story about Haiti. Haiti is full of brilliant, authentic, important people and leaders whose voices local journalists can elevate. We begin to understand these communities as communities of agency, and we can highlight them in a more comprehensive way: not just war, poverty, disaster, or disease, but climate adaptations and gender and reproductive health and labor.

You only employ women reporters at Global Press. Tell us about this choice.

We know that there is an evidence-based correlation between who works in a newsroom and who is featured in stories. Women are underrepresented in every single newsroom market in the world, and consequently they make up 23% of sources in stories. So in order to paint a more comprehensive picture of the world, we have to build more representative newsrooms.

Who tells the story matters. When we have an ethical, accurate, proximate journalist helping us understand the events of faraway places, it helps us have a much fuller understanding of the world.

I wanted to ask a little more about the journalists themselves, as your consideration for them is such an important part of the mission behind Global Press. In your book, you use the term “duty of care” — can you share a little bit more about what that means and how you've incorporated the philosophy into working with your journalists?

What it means is that as news organizations we have not only a responsibility but an obligation to care for the people bringing us these stories. At Global Press, duty of care is a robust approach to physical, emotional, digital, and legal security, and a holistic approach to understanding that digital and physical emergencies have long-term emotional consequences. We are intentionally employing women journalists in some of the most challenging media environments in the world. That requires us to have duty of care at the center of our ethos and our operations. We find security through solidarity. We will leave some stories untold; our reporters have always the right to back away from a story when it gets too hot or when it just becomes a risk that they are unwilling to take. Every single member of the Global Press staff has access to mental healthcare and long-term wellness resources—and that needs to become part of the status quo for all newsrooms.

A similar kind of consideration and intentionality is given to the language and terminology your journalists employ in their storytelling. Can you share a little bit more about the working document your team has created to track this — the Global Press Style Guide?

Our style guide is an incredible living document that we produce within Global Press. It is free and accessible; dozens of other newsrooms around the world have adopted it. So the fundamental premise here is to avoid words that force people to make assumptions. We don't use terms like” victim” or “survivor,” really common words in international journalism. We always allow sources to self-identify. The style guide helps to ensure that international storytelling is done with a dignified and precise vocabulary. Ultimately, it is about trust, because when people don't recognize themselves in the stories that are told about their communities, it fractures trust among audiences.

The Global Press serves the dual purpose of illuminating untold stories for American readers and making real impact in the communities in which it is embedded. Can you highlight a story for us that demonstrates the impact a Global Press story has had on a specific community?

In 2021, all lenses were trained on the Democratic Republic of Congo, when Mount Nira Congo, the volcano there, erupted. It was a story here for 48 hours. You got the dramatic images of the volcano exploding and the narrative of hundreds of thousands of people displaced. Then it was done. But the Global Press model is not a breaking news model. Our story about the volcano was published three months later. It was an investigation into why the volcanic warning system didn't go off. Why didn't it work? Because the volcanic warning center hadn't had an internet connection in seven months because they weren't getting payments because of corruption. So they weren't able to track the vibrations from the volcano; they didn't know it was going to erupt. When local journalists insert information like that into the public domain, we are holding layers and layers of local authorities accountable so that it won't happen again. Does the volcanic warning center in Congo have an internet connection today? Yes, it does. And that is the power of local journalism.