3 Questions with… Fred de Sam Lazaro of the Under-Told Stories Project

Fred de Sam LazaroEditor’s note: Students in ThreeSixty Journalism’s Rookie Journalist Camp in June spent time writing a Q-and-A story about guest speakers who visited camp. Check Threesixty.stthomas.edu for more of these profiles, as well as student blogs.

“Our purpose is to make other people care about stories far away, and make them less foreign.”

Fred de Sam Lazaro follows the slogan, “making the foreign less foreign.”

As the director for the Under-Told Stories Project, de Sam Lazaro uses his role as a journalist to spread important global news that has been overlooked and forgotten. He believes that it is essential to look for sympathetic stories with characters whom people will relate to and listen to, he said.

“Our purpose is to make other people care about stories far away, and make them less foreign,” de Sam Lazaro said.

To do this successfully, de Sam Lazaro has reported from 62 countries. He travels with his producer/editor, Nikki See, around the world to learn first-hand about the under-reported stories in U.S. media.

When they travel to another country, he and See hire local journalists to help them navigate the area. It can be expensive, he said, but the benefits of their help in telling important stories is worth the cost.

Q: What is your philosophy on journalism?

de Sam Lazaro: To tell the whole truth in the best way you can, to the best of your ability. Present clear information. Journalism is supposed to reflect who we are and what we’re doing.

Q: What inspired you to get into journalism and report under-reported stories?

de Sam Lazaro: I was a child in India, which is a thriving, chaotic democracy, when there was a turn for the worst and a crackdown by the then-prime minister of the country on media. For the first time I saw the power of media to affect the quality of one’s life and the freedom with which one lives. And you had to go back to the time in the ‘70s when newspapers were king. In fact, there was no television where I grew up.

The morning after, press censorship was instituted by the government, a major indian newspaper broadcast only the masthead and just a white sheet of paper. It was one of the most powerful statements that you could make about what had happened in the country, and that made an impression on me. I said, ‘Wow, this is amazing.’

Journalism brings you access to people who have a lot of power over the quality of your life. And as journalists … you can hold power to account. So I was very enamored with the idea of becoming a journalist. Nobody in my family did anything remotely like it.

… (The Under-Told Stories Project) is a classic example of how you use your own background to bring something to the table. I’m a firm believer in diversity in journalism, because that’s the only way you’ll get the diversity of the world, or of America, reflected. Journalism is supposed to reflect who we are, what we’re thinking and what we’re doing. And if parts of (us) are not covered, it’s incomplete. And there’s nothing by design, but when you think about it looking in the rearview mirror, what I had that was most useful, to an editorial organization, a journalism organization, is I had an immigrant background, I was from a country that was very difficult for a lot of journalists to understand but I could do it slightly more easily because I came from there and learned to navigate it better, and developed a niche in working in the developing parts of the world. And an understanding about it, and an expertise, and the organization starts to depend on you.

Under-Told Stories is just a nice label to describe what we do. It’s nothing more than that.

Q: What were the barriers you faced to how effectively you could tell a story?

de Sam Lazaro: There are tons of barriers in journalism. We are often times in countries that don’t want you there or often times we don’t want to go to a country because it’s not the story we want, or it’s not a story but they think it is. There’s a constant tug of war between people whose job is to extricate information and people who think their job is to hide it. So there are lots of challenges, and it varies from country to country.

This transcript has been edited for length and content.