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Gaia Pianigiani’s Beauty of Journalism: Freedom Will Always Have a Future

Interview with The New York Times reporter recipient of “Liberty Meets Beauty VNY Award 2019” on April 25th at the Italian Cultural Institute.

She thinks that journalists are “artisans of words,” and that, in order to carry out this profession every day, you need care, precision, and inventiveness, just like a craftsman. And she maintains that she became an “artisan of words” thanks to her stubbornness because despite the recommendations of those who (maybe wisely) had advised her against embarking on such a difficult profession these days, she chose it anyway. She was accepted in the most prestigious school of journalism on the planet: Columbia University. Today, the 36-year-old native of Chianti, Tuscany, Gaia Pianigiani, who will be awarded the second edition of the “Liberty Meets Beauty Award” at the Italian Cultural Institute tomorrow, works for the New York Times as a reporter in Rome. She tells the dark and light stories of our Italy for the Big Apple’s iconic paper, but also of  complex historical and social phenomena– such as migration in the Mediterranean and organized crime. The powerful work of reconstructing the tragedy of the Morandi bridge collapse in Genoa also bears her signature, which in Italy many admired as an example of accurate journalism that survives in times of disinformation and slapdash attitudes. We talked with Gaia about the journalism of today and tomorrow, freedom of the press, her beginnings, and the significance of April 25th.

What are the biggest difficulties you had to face in your career as a journalist? What, on the other hand, excited you the most?

“What excites me the most in my journalism career is contact with people. There isn’t a situation or an article in particular that has struck me—there have been so many moments. Certainly, when we participated in the mission with the Italian Coast Guard in 2013, and we went onto the open Mediterranean to intercept a migrant barge from the Syrian war, it was definitely a great moment for the very strong human interest that I saw. Generally, for me, all the articles that talk about peoples’ lives are the most beautiful; at the same time, they’re also the most difficult. I think that when you absorb the emotions of people that tell you their story, you always bring something home with you.”

Gaia Pianigiani at work

The New York Times is one of the newspapers that managed to  successfully launch their business online, but, whether in Italy or the United States, there are many cases of papers that had to make heavy cuts to their own staffs and that struggle to stay afloat in a continually evolving editorial system. Are you an optimist or a pessimist about the future of journalism, offline and online, in the coming decades?

A NYT front page article on the collapse of the Morandi Bridge in Genoa: Gaia Pianigiani was one of the journalists reporting.

The New York Times is a newspaper that, fortunately, successfully managed to ferry its own business model from paper-based to digital, something that didn’t happen for other newspapers. Although, it’s not completely true that this transition wasn’t costly for us as well: there were lay-offs, and there was a shift in the business model from a more substantial editorial body to an investment in new resources, people with different types of journalistic skills and production techniques. In short, it was also a bit of a bloody passage for us. But I believe that, undoubtedly, the online investment helped the printed paper, too. I don’t believe that we’ll stop printing newspapers one day—I say this also because of a personal bias, I love leafing through the paper—but I do see the potential and impact of the online, which earns more, allows us to reach the greatest number of readers all over the world, and has enabled us to have this great expansion in readership. I believe and I hope that the model will stay like this, more or less; that is, a model in which the online continues to nourish  the printed version, so if the reader consults the NYT right after a given event, he can read a first account, which then deepens until we go to the final print of the paper, and it becomes a more analytical piece with a greater depth of information.”

In the last few years, we got to know the risks of online disinformation. We saw the President of the United States, Donald Trump, launch frontal attacks on the media, describing them as “enemies of the people,” followed closely even by some representatives of the Italian government. In the meantime, according to Reporters Without Borders, in 2018, the United States fell to 45th place in the rankings for freedom of the press, while Italy is in the  46th. As a reporter, what do you think of the state of freedom of the press these days? Do you think that information is responsible for the growing distrust in the media?

“There are undoubtedly various attacks on the freedom of the press, and there is this new tendency, in Italy as well, to label some of the news that’s discovered by some journalists, who naturally can also make mistakes, as ‘fake news.’ I believe that generally, it’s not so much a problem of information itself, but above all one that’s connected to the loss of credibility of so-called ‘experts.’ Moreover, I don’t believe that it’s only about journalists and talking heads; it’s a wider cultural trend that we need to work on”.

The internet—for example with platforms like Julian Assange’s Wikileaks—and social networks, have revolutionized the way we communicate and produce information. Do you think that this is a positive or negative evolution for journalism?

“Certainly, the Internet has transformed journalism. Social media and platforms such as Wikileaks have provided a new impetus and offered a new model for gathering information. I don’t believe, however, that they are consistent with journalism; I believe that from social media and platforms like Wikileaks, you can gather and elaborate a lot of useful information, but that is not truth and it is not journalism. Journalism does something else: we do it with telephone calls, by meeting with people, by having a list of physical sources. Whether we do this by verifying that which we find written on various means of information on the Internet, does not change much from the point of view of the journalist, as long as the work of elaboration, analysis, verification and reasoning is always done based on those things that are stated and written, using various means of communication”.

An article by Gaia Pianigiani on The New York Times dedicated to Castellina in Chianti, the small town in Tuscany where she grew up.

There is a widespread idea that journalists can improvise. As a journalist, how important is it, in your experience, to have a broad and rigorous cultural preparation?

“I don’t believe that we can improvise as journalists, because I have an idea about the profession that is diametrically opposed to that. I believe, in reality, that it is a job comprised of word artisans, therefore a broad cultural preparation, of whatever nature – whether that be an economical-financial one, or an artistic or a  legal one – is the foundation that builds a good journalist, one who is a critical thinker, who is capable of gathering the most reliable sources possible, and then analyze that which he or she has encountered and found. I feel that this profession is not dead at all; I believe it to be a profession that has undergone great changes and that will probably continue to do so”.

Coming back to you, when did you understand that you wanted to become a journalist? Did your family encourage you, or was this choice problematic for you?

“I understood that I wanted to become a journalist during my Erasmus program in Berlin, when I was starting on a path to obtain my doctorate in German literature. Mine wasn’t exactly a vocation that I wanted to pursue from childhood. It was a relatively short path, for me, fortunately, in which my family has always encouraged me, even though I didn’t have any contact with the world of Italian journalism, and least of all with the international one.  Nevertheless, they always thought that my stubborn head was not easily persuaded. So, they’ve always helped me economically when I needed a hand, and they encouraged me to follow my dreams. Certainly, I was trained from when I was little to believe in the great value of working, of professional ethics, of working very hard to get results. Therefore, independently of that which was a pragmatic help, I believe that this has been the greatest contribution that my family has made to my development and to the profession that I am in today”. 

Gaia working for The New York Times in Langhe, near Alba, in the Piedmont region.

Today in Italy thousands of young journalists are living in precarious conditions; they are greatly underpaid and many of them are forced each day to give up their professional dream for lack of opportunity. What would you recommend to the young people that choose, despite everything, to try and make a living at this career?   

“Italian journalism has fallen on hard times, and this, I feel, has been noticed by everyone. I receive many emails and I speak with Italian journalists that are at the beginning of their career, that are asking themselves what the future will bring. Certainly, it’s not an industry that is witnessing growth, however, when I was told that it was an impossible mission, that it was the most stupid idea of my life, I didn’t listen to anyone, because I believed that at that moment, that was my mission, and the work came natural to me. What I would tell these aspiring journalists is that they should listen to the people around them that are rightly concerned about that choice, and to also consider real data, and to factor all of that into what they believe could become their life”.

Gaia Pianigiani (Photo by Nadia Shira Cohen)

Where do you see yourself, professionally, in 20 years? Do you want to continue working for an Anglo-Saxon newspaper, or do you see yourself also at a major Italian one?

“That’s a difficult question to answer, where I see myself in 20 years, but I think that I’d like to write longer pieces. I’d like to dedicate more time and more attention to a single project: therefore, perhaps a magazine, a periodical, something that would allow me to use more words and more time to recount people’s lives, would be my dream today”.

Liberation Day, April 25th, should be a holiday that unites people, instead, in Italy, it is considered divisive. What are your thoughts, and how do you celebrate it?

“How to celebrate April 25th is a huge political issue these days, and I believe that political ideologies are naturally divisive; it’s what politicians want to communicate to their present voters and future ones, not about the holiday in and of itself. For me personally, it’s a historic holiday. I’ve always celebrated it with my family and I’ve always believed in the importance of remembering history; all the more because I’ve had the good fortune of having grandparents that lived long enough to tell me what they had lived through. I believe that if all the people that will be at the Italian Cultural Institute in New York tomorrow have decided to attend the celebration, it’s because they also believe that there is merit in stopping, for one day, to remember the sacrifice of all those people that gave their life, or have changed it, so that we could live today as we do — freely”.

Translated by Emma Bass and Emmelina De Feo

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