A Foreign Correspondent’s Other War: Job Versus Family

When an editor asked Ilene Prusher, a journalist based in Jerusalem, to cover a protest in East Jerusalem, she thought about her options: turn down the assignment, bring her 4-month-old baby along with her on the street while she reported the story, or hire a babysitter. She opted for the latter.

“Of course, nothing happened,” Prusher later wrote in her blog. “It was perhaps the most boring, quietest protest I’ve ever covered.” She added: “But the issue was before me. What would I or wouldn’t I do?”

In addition to the risks reporters endure to cover the news of the day, many foreign correspondents like Prusher must strike a delicate balance between their careers and personal lives. They routinely make decisions like the one Prusher had to make on the spot, because of the unpredictable nature of their jobs and the dangers associated with them. In recent years many domestic, foreign and international correspondents have died on the job, including New York Times reporter Anthony Shadid, Australian reporter Paul Lockyer and Chilean journalist Sylvia Slier. In fact, the 84 journalists who died in 2012 were the fourth highest number of journalists killed in a single year, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Newseum. These casualties have increased awareness of the sacrifices journalists make as they cover news events around the world.

“You can’t do every story you want to do just because it sounds interesting,” she said. “I pick and choose because I want to spend time with my kids.”

“I try to have my wife accompany me on out-of-town trips, so we’re less likely to be separated,” he said. During the election of Pope Francis, “we were in Rome for two weeks, and Rose Marie was with me the entire time, though she pointed out several times there were a lot of things she could have been doing at home.”Reporter Richard Dujardin, whose work for the Providence Journal has taken him across the globe to cover papal conclaves and meetings of the World Council of Churches, has figured out another way to balance work and family life with this wife, Rose Marie, a day-care provider.

Dujardin regularly travels internationally to cover religion stories for the Providence Journal. In the past he routinely worked between 50 and 60 hours a week. Dujardin and his wife have six adult children in a close-knit family. They missed seeing him at his Rhode Island home. But things have changed since Dujardin shifted to covering both the religion beat and breaking news within a 40-hour workweek.

“Of course there are the occasional times when I need to write something for the blog, or stay a little later to complete a Sunday story,” Dujardin said. “But generally I now have the time devoted to the paper under control. So my family and personal life don’t suffer that much.”

Dujardin’s modified schedule may be a sign of how the culture of international journalism has changed in recent years.

During the 1990s, news organizations invested heavily in international news but news organizations have cut back in recent years, said Joyce Barnathan, president of the International Center for Journalists.

That’s why it’s important to make the distinction between internationally based journalists and what she describes as the “fireman reporter,” someone who is sent around the world on various assignments.

“There is an increasing trend of using freelancers and firemen reporters and not having bureaus there because bureaus are expensive,” said Barnathan who served as a foreign correspondent and editor for 11 years in Russia and Asia for Newsweek and BusinessWeek. During her tenure in Moscow, she navigated parenting and covering stories like the Chernobyl nuclear crisis.

“At the time, we did not trust the Soviet media, which took days to announce the incident in the first place, to give us reliable information,” Barnathan said. “We had no idea whether we were in danger from radiation or not…” Because she had a toddler at the time, and “needless to say, I was quite concerned.”

Her work as a correspondent in Hong Kong for seven years provided her two children with valuable experiences, Barnathan added.

“They learned Chinese and above all gained a deep appreciation and respect for a variety of cultures, religions and traditions,” she said. “I think this experience was formative for them. It opened their eyes and turned them into global citizens who treasure tolerance and diversity.”

Jean Friedman-Rudovsky, a freelance journalist based in La Paz, Bolivia, has reported for Time magazine, The Economist and other publications.  If she has children, she wants to  continue in journalism but be more selective about the types of assignments she accepts.

“I want to be able to be a mother that spends time with her kids, makes it to sports games, can help with homework, and more over the course of their lives, rather than one who is constantly away on business,” said the Philadelphia-born Friedman-Rudovsky. “I could see freelancing being great for this because of the flexibility or it might be a nightmare because of how unsteady it can feel. I don’t know yet.”

When Prusher is confronted with the difficult decisions related to parenting and journalism, she sometimes reflects on the advice her mother gave her years ago. Journalism, her mother warned, was a poorly paid profession that would make it challenging for Prusher to “settle down and have a family,” Prusher remembers.

“The truth is she wasn’t 100 percent wrong,” she added. “Being a writer and a journalist is not just a career. It’s a lifestyle choice.”