One step at a time

While we have to be on guard against fake news, we also must be careful to distinguish it from solid fact-based reporting that’s cynically labelled ‘fake’ by authoritarian governments.

Written by Ektaa Malik | Updated: May 22, 2018 12:05:59 am

One step at a time Paul Salopek at the 900-year-old Altit Fort in Hunza, Pakistan

I am not loved enough. I love the wrong person. I hate the boss and I love my children. These four statements have been most frequently encountered by journalist Paul Salopek — two-time Pulitzer prize winner and name behind the Out of Eden Walk project — ever since he embarked on his 21,000-mile journey on foot to chart the path of human migration since ancient times. Salopek, a National Geographic fellow, was in the Capital recently where he gave a talk on slow journalism and his work, at the American Centre. He has crossed into Asia, through countries such as Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Salopek began walking in 2013 to trace everything from the place where it all began — Ethiopia, Africa. “I’m educated as a biologist and I use the term ‘Eden’ anthropologically, as in the genetic homeland of our species — Africa. We’re all African if you go far back enough in our family trees, and we ‘left Eden’ — a familiar place, a comfort zone, home — to explore the world on foot about 100,000 years ago. If people of faith wish to ascribe spiritual meanings to the project name, that’s fine with me,” says Salopek, 56.

“I was born in California and raised in Mexico, and I crossed my first border when I was six. That’s the tone, I think of my life, a bit of a nomad,” says Salopek, who was educated as an environment biologist. “For about 11 years — late ’90s to early 2000’s, I was a foreign correspondent with the Chicago Tribune, covering Africa. I lived with a go -to- bag ready replete with a ballistic vest in my closet.”

“A Press pass is like having an official license to be curious. But this life of a news cycle, with not just micro headlines, but nano headlines and a shelf life of not even a day, made me wonder. Did I want to spend my life spinning faster and faster, or did I want it to slow down?” says Salopek. Over the last few years, he has spent time with camel herders in Ethiopia, taken showers from a water-ferrying train and attended the Epiphany feast in Jordan. Talked and said hello to everyone who smiled at him. In the process, he perfected his Arabic and polished his Russian. “The idea was to slow down the process of absorbing the headlines of the day. Go beyond the headlines and into the lives of the people, who make the story, but never get quoted,” says Salopek, who sports an inch-thick tan line on his wrist, a telltale sign of his watch and the many hours spent in the sun.

Salopek pairs up with a walking partner, usually a native of the region. His first partner was Hasan Ulama, a fossil hunter and a camel herder in Ethiopia. “He would tie the national flag of Ethiopia around his neck, which would warn the other camel herders, with whom he had a conflict over the shared natural resources for the animals. The flag served as a ballistic vest for him telling the others to not shoot at him,” explains Salopek.

Salopek and his partner cover about 25 km a day, depending on the terrain. He usually stays in people’s houses and crosses the border on foot, a route taken mostly by cargo trucks. He also takes geographical markers of the places he camps at, and uploads photos replete with longitude and latitudes, essentially “geo-locating” them. He marked the first one in India, on the Grand Trunk Road, near Amritsar.

“In the current media environment, what I call ‘slow journalism’ becomes more relevant than ever. We’re up to our eyeballs in information — so much so that its sheer volume actually blinds and misinforms us. So, among the growing tsunamis of ‘fast news’ out there, there have to be islands of deeper meaning, deeper thinking and analysis, the kinds of long-form storytelling that rescue our readers and allows them to make better decisions,” says Salopek, who won his first Pulitzer in 1998 for explanatory reporting, and the second in 2001 for international reporting.

And what about fake news and alternate facts, and given their propensity to influence public opinion? “While we have to be on guard against fake news, we also must be careful to distinguish it from solid fact-based reporting that’s cynically labelled ‘fake’ by authoritarian governments,” he says.

Next, Salopek is heading to Bangladesh, and then, maybe, to China. “One conversation, one hello, and one cup of tea at a time. Though, if I accept every invitation for tea that I have in South Asia, I would never leave the region,” he says.

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