Crisis journalism: WCHS grad’s research places him in middle of Africa’s longest running war

Holly Richrath
Ryan Piers, on right, poses for a photograph with his friend Ronnie during his time in Uganda.

Crisis journalism in Uganda was the topic a Washington native recently presented at what he called the “biggest undergraduate research conference in the country.”

Ryan Piers, a 2007 Washington Community High School graduate, now attends North Central College in Naperville. The 22-year-old broadcast communications major was one of 38 NCC students selected to present at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research in Ithaca, N.Y., March 30–April 2.

“We had one of the biggest representations of any college, which was really cool,” Piers said. “It was definitely an honor to represent my college.”

Last year, Piers used funds he received from a Richter Grant to travel to Kampala, Uganda, for two weeks. While in Uganda, he interviewed about 15 journalists and gained information on practices they used while reporting on a crisis that took place in Uganda from 1986 to 2006.

He asked local and international journalists in Uganda questions based on a book by renowned journalist Susan D. Moeller called “Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War and Death.”

“In it she outlines her best practices to crisis journalism,” Piers said. “Basically I asked the journalists questions based on hese practices to determine whether or not they used the practices in their reporting. This past fall and winter I took my findings from the Ugandan journalists and compared it to about 30 other journalists around the world and how they reported on crisis and determined what were the practices that are most used by all these journalists.”

Piers spoke with local Ugandan journalists as well as international journalists from CNN, BBC and from East African news sources who were in Kampala while he was there.

From his study, Piers found there are two strategies that journalists in Uganda must abide by.

“The first one being a complete in-depth research on each side of an issue,” he said.

He said that a journalist cannot just interview a government official, but must also “be very in tune to what a rebel group is doing or somebody who might be perceived as the ‘bad person.’ They have to have all sides of the issue.”

Second, “was all Kampala journalists stress the fact to international journalists reporting on this issue that you have to humanize an issue — and by that, I think they mean you have to focus on the actual people who are suffering from the problem,” Piers said. “That’s what I determined from talking with the journalists there.”

He said the presentation was well received in Ithaca.

“I felt like I did get my message across in the timeframe that they gave me to the best that I could, so I thought it went really well.”

Piers said he has been interested in sports broadcasting since he was a child, but shifted his focus a bit after a couple of years at NCC.

“During my sophomore year I became really interested in Uganda through a program called the Invisible Children program,” he said. “From there I studied a little more of the issues in Uganda and really wanted to go there. In order to get this grant, I had to come up with some more studies and I really got into more journalism ... I got more into crisis reporting and I read a bunch of books about Uganda and reporting in general and I took it from there. That led me to Kampala, Uganda, and into my thesis.”

Piers currently does freelance work for a local community television station in Naperville and a sports section for a newspaper.

“I’d really love to move up in sports broadcasting or go in to some sort of overseas reporting in Africa with some program,” he said, adding that he would “love to” end up in Uganda again.

Piers said he feels like he has lived “two different lives in terms of his high school and college careers.

“I think living in a small town and moving to a bigger area where I am now has definitely helped me see two sides and different ideology which kind of helped me to prepare for going overseas and seeing different parts of the world,” he said. 

“I would encourage people to go out on a limb and experience a different culture. I think you can really learn a lot, not just about the people there and how you can help them, but about how they can help you. I think that really goes into journalism as well.”