Helena Humphrey, BBC News

Helena Humphrey, BBC News

Media dialogues: Helena Humphrey
An anchor and correspondent based in the BBC’s Washington D.C. bureau, with a background in aid work
19 Jan 2024

This article is part of a series of interviews with people who work in the media to provide the news and views that shape our perceptions of world affairs. Helena Humphrey, from BBC NEWS, spoke to UN Today about her life and career in media.

How did you get into journalism?

My mum was a midwife. She always used to say, “there’s no such thing as VIPs. Everyone is very important.” I think that’s a solid approach to reporting. I don’t think I’d ever met anyone in the media until I entered the work place.

I graduated from university in 2009 with a degree in languages, slap bang in the middle of the global financial crisis. Graduate job schemes were frozen, but Brexit hadn’t happened yet…, so I ran away to Paris!

I started teaching at a university and I freelanced writing articles on the side. That led to a stint at Radio France International and, somehow, I ended up presenting a breakfast radio show at World Radio Switzerland in Geneva.

It was a little quiet for a twenty-something year old, but that serene city by the lake left its mark – introducing me to the world of humanitarian affairs, which struck a chord. I transitioned to the aid sector and worked with the UN and Red Cross across Africa and Asia.

Being in the field, especially during the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Guinea, left me with lessons that continue to shape my approach to journalism today; countries and people are much more than the worst thing that happens to them.

Journalism kept pulling me back, though. These days, I’m an anchor and reporter with BBC News in Washington D.C. Before that I wore various hats – from Washington Correspondent at Deutsche Welle to Lead Anchor at Euronews and Global Correspondent at NBC News.

I’ve covered international politics, natural disasters, and way too many manmade ones. But I feel most in my element when I can use any of my knowledge picked up while working in the humanitarian sector. Of course, you don’t need to be a linguist to work in this business, but I’ve always found languages an important tool in getting closer to a story and unlocking genuine conversations. Getting to speak to people living through history is a privilege I’ll never get over.

Helena Humphrey reporting from Hawaii wildfires, August 2023. Credits: BBC News.

What’s your most memorable interview?

It’s rarely the politicians, or those with power. Those aren’t the interviews that truly stick with you. The faces you never forget are those who’ve endured profound loss yet still manage to summon the strength to give a little more, to open up to you. That, to me, is the essence of bravery.

Recently, I spoke to an Israeli man, whose parents had been killed in the October 7th attacks. Despite the rawness of his grief, he somehow found the words to advocate for peace. Tears were streaming down his face, but he told me wasn’t crying for his parents – he was crying for the civilians he feared would lose their lives in a war – regardless of the side they found themselves on.

I can still see the pain on his face once we’d wrapped up the interview. But his call resonated with so many people around the world, and spoke of the remarkable resilience of the human spirit. That conversation is one I’ll never forget.

Name the person you haven’t been able to interview yet, but would like to?

I wouldn’t turn down a conversation with President Putin or President Obama – but the person I’ve wanted to sit down with for a while now is Yulia Navalnaya. I’m fascinated by Russian politics and what lies ahead for the country, especially with a younger generation that didn’t grow up in the Soviet Union and has different ideas of what it wants from society.

The world watched as Alexei Navalny and Yulia Navalnaya made that nerve-wracking return to Russia, knowing that he’d likely face arrest after only just surviving a poisoning attempt. Every time I watch that footage, I can’t help but wonder about the conversations they had as a couple and the thoughts that must have been racing through Yulia’s mind at passport control as the police waited for them.

I’ve interviewed Marina Litvinenko, whose husband Alexander was assassinated in London – and Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who took on her husband’s mantel as a Belarusian opposition figure, after his imprisonment.

I’m drawn to the stories of these partners, often wives, of dissidents. What is it like to love someone whose decided they are ready to die for their beliefs? And where does it leave their own dreams and aspirations as women? I’m convinced there are a lot of untold stories there.

Helena Humphrey reporting on the ground in Cedar Key, a town hit hard by Hurricane Idalia. August 2023. Credits: BBC News.

What is the role of the media?

The same things it has done for hundreds of years: Listen, probe, verify, hold power to account. The good news is we have new ways of doing that. The bad news is, so do the people who want to twist or even conceal the truth. And sometimes, dare I say, even entertain a little?

It can be a dark world. While it’s our duty to shine a light on the world’s ills, I think we also have a responsibility to show the lighter side where it exists, too.

Where do you see the media in ten years from now?

We’re all suffering from having screens in our pockets and reduced attention spans. But there is no getting away from it, the genie is out of the bottle. That means traditional TV has got a lot of work to do!

Political instability around the world has shown us the perils of a post-truth world. It’s a wake-up call – a reminder that the work of journalists is more important than ever. Some might sniff at it, but personally, I’m intrigued by the potential of virtual reality and the ‘metaverse’. Can it bring us closer together and cultivate even a fraction more empathy, in a world that is in desperate need of it?

Then of course, there’s artificial intelligence. I hold out hope that human news anchors won’t be replaced, but I’m a realist; the winds of capitalism seem to demand ever greater profit margins. So, I think most of us journalists are going to have to hold on for dear life, and innovate like our democracies depend on it. Because, quite frankly, they do.

Helena Humphrey interviewing Elijah Cummings, late US Representative. Credits: The Washington Post.

Tell us an interesting work-related anecdote?

Recently, I was in Hawaii covering the devastating wildfires that had swept through the island of Maui. Despite the destruction, it was beautiful by the water. My producer, camera operator, and I were waiting by the harbour, hoping to meet some volunteers boating over supplies to those in need on the other side of the island.

As we waited, a group of young guys caught our attention, casually hanging out on the back of a pickup truck. They fit the stereotypical surfer image, gazing at the waves, seemingly hoping for a good swell. One of them was holding a cowboy hat in his hand – you can picture the scene. But as we struck up a conversation, it turned out that the young man with the hat had only narrowly escaped the flames himself. All he had left were the clothes on his back, and upon returning to his house, his straw hat which he’d found among the ruins – now his sole possession. His friends had flown in from across the U.S. to help him piece together what was left. It turned out, he wasn’t there for a carefree day on the waves; he was there, contemplating life.

I try never to take someone at face value, but it was a poignant reminder that people’s stories always run deeper than what meets the eye.

* Julián Ginzo is a member of the Editorial Board of UN Today.
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