[SOPA Series -Thomas Fuller]An eye-opening assassination
A double award winning journalist speaks of lessons learned from witnessing death occur right before his eyes.
Native New Yorker and recipient of two SOPA awards, Mr Thomas Fuller, shared how his experience in a first-world battlefield broadened and sharpened his sense of reporting.
Speaking in front of a throng of students, professors and visitors at Hong Kong Baptist University, Mr Fuller, an international reporter based in Southeast Asia for the New York Times, held a session called "Facts are tricky things: how the assassination of a Thai general chanted my understanding of reporting."
As the last few remaining seats in the hall were filled, Mr Fuller began to introduce himself to the audience. Several minutes later, a female student abruptly burst into the room, uttered a nonsensical sentence and then left as quickly as she came.
Seemingly undeterred by this strange interruption, Mr Fuller carried on speaking for a few more minutes until, out of the blue, he asked the audience if they remembered what that female student had said.
Only one brave student attempted to recall what she had heard, but failed to provide an accurate account.
Mr Fuller proceeded to tell his audience why paying attention to detail and your senses are important. The fact that no one could recall what the female student was saying, where she was standing, what she was wearing or how long she was there for demonstrates how easy it is to forget simple details, he said.
He admitted that he had planned for the student to interrupt his session to help him explain his point.
In 2011, Mr Fuller was posted in Bangkok, where he wrote "Crisis in Bangkok" which won the SOPA Award for Excellence in Reporting Breaking News. He won another award for Excellence in Investigative Reporting for "Behind Myanmar Inc."
It was in the capital of Thailand, during the height of political unrest on May 13, 2012, that Mr Fuller grabbed the opportunity to ask a Thai Renegade General some questions. Just minutes into the interview, the general was assassinated. Mr Fuller watched in horror as the General fell backwards onto the ground, dead at his feet.
Mr Fuller said at that point of time he was dazed, shocked and completely unprepared. He links this to the interruption of the female student, saying many things are either easy to remember or forget, depending on whether you are paying attention to your senses.
He believes journalists need to observe and see what they are looking at. "You want to develop instincts because we're not born with reporter instincts," he said. "I know it sounds very basic, but our eyes take in so much more than we realize, they see things that don't even get computed until we work that muscle."
Actively using a camera is also a good way to observe what is around you to help you remember things, he said. "Photos can record things exactly as they were, but our minds cannot." The use of digital recordings and listening devices are equally important. "Don't trust yourself. If you can record it, report it," he said.
Working for the International Herald Tribune and NYT in Bangkok, Brussels, Kuala Lumpur and Paris, Mr Fuller discussed how his experience has taught him that to be a journalist requires a certain kind of person with several important characteristics.
Firstly, what he learned from his experience in Thailand is that being short is good to prevent getting shot in the head by a sniper, he said, as he half-joked with the audience.
Having covered the Iraq war and the Arab Springs, to name a few, Mr Fuller said identifying who is lying to you is the second most important thing which he came to find when working abroad. "I think journalists must have a sixth sense to tell who is telling the truth," he said.
Mr Fuller also encouraged journalists to never hesitate when asking a question you do not know the answer to. "Lawyers do not ask questions they do not know the answers to, but journalists are only asking questions to which they do not know the answers to," he said.
After nearly two hours of talking and answering questions, Mr Fuller surveyed the audience with a satisfied smile. As a queue to leave, he ended his session saying, "You have suffered enough!"
Report by Caleb Norton
Edited by Natasha Chan
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