Alumni & Voices

Adam B. Ellick


A New View of the Fourth Estate

The Fulbright grant brought me to Southeast Asia for the first time. I spent the first few months in Jakarta conducting field interviews on the state of journalism, focusing on how Indonesian journalists cover domestic terrorism. This was just after the Bali bombings, and the coverage was deeply sensationalist.

My stay in Jakarta was fascinating, but after awhile I felt disconnected from the realities spanning across wider Indonesia. My sponsor, the renowned media activist and reporter Andreas Harsono, designed a two-month field trip for me to visit newspapers in more than 20 cities across many islands. During this journey I started to understand the scope of journalism in Indonesia.

There is no better way to grasp an area’s pulse than through the eyes of local reporters and editors. They are the most qualified tour guides of the world’s best museums: real cities. And through that I witnessed how journalists outside Jakarta dealt with a lack of resources, including limited exposure to credible investigative reporting. In Banjarmasin, South Kalimantan, I met a determined reporter who was self-studying English-language investigative journalism online. He hoped to write about deforestation and how international policies had failed to rescue his city from rising water levels.

Andreas deeply impacted my experience. He is one of the most idealistic reporters I’ve ever met, and he taught me a great deal about media criticism, the craft of narrative journalism, and the value of the Fourth Estate. This is something I took for granted growing up in 1990s America. He also introduced me to the spiciest food in the country, Manadonese, which today remains my favorite cuisine in the world.

Because journalism is a trade and not a profession, my Fulbright experience was less academic and more anecdotal. I witnessed how Indonesian reporters operate under entirely different, and often more challenging, circumstances. I came to understand how reporters can succeed, even in a nation where press freedoms are flimsy and media laws not always so protective. Many journalists operate in the face of less than idealistic media owners, who provide serious challenges to credible reporting.

This awareness has since served me well in my work for The New York Times, where I have often had to hire local journalists to assist my reporting in places like Pakistan, Egypt, and Afghanistan. The Fulbright experience gave me a fine appreciation for local reporters operating in difficult conditions in the developing world. It also provided an invaluable entree into reporting in the Muslim world, where I have spent most of my time in recent years.

The connection to Indonesia still runs deep. I returned several years after the Fulbright to help produce a NY Times/ PBS documentary film about Islam in Indonesia, and I still follow the news in Indonesia. My hope is to one day return to once again report in a country that I adore.

Last Updated: May 31, 2019 @ 11:33 am

This article appears from the book of Across the Archipelago, from Sea to Shining Sea Commemorating the 60/20 Anniversary of Fulbright and AMINEF (Page 71 – 73) published in 2012.

Translator: Sagita Adesywi and Piet Hendrardjo.

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