The Urban Legend

Alum Hannah Dreier Reflects on Her Experience Reporting from Venezuela

Sophia Vahanvaty, Editor-in-Chief of Newspaper

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You know you have won Urban when your high school research paper is assigned reading for Dan Matz’s History of South Asia class. Hannah Dreier’s (‘04) research paper she wrote as an Urban junior stood its own despite being sandwiched between the founding documents of India and historical analyses by Berkeley professors. After doing a little digging, I found that besides being able to write a killer research paper, Dreier has become an award-winning journalist who most recently spent three years as the Associated Press’s foreign correspondent to Venezuela. I couldn’t help my desire to hear more about what it is like to watch a wealthy oil-rich nation teetering on the edge transform into a country in the throes of a full blown economic and humanitarian crisis.

Though she didn’t know she wanted to be a journalist while attending Urban from 2000 until 2004, Dreier explained that, back then, she appreciated a lot of the things she loves about journalism now. “I loved talking to strangers and trying to find out secrets and observe things that weren’t part of my normal life,” Dreier said.

But her love for journalism, specifically, took off years later when she was working at San Jose Mercury News and  “it was just me and this horrible fire-prone car out in the suburbs of the Bay Area driving around and talking to people and stopping whenever I saw something that looked interesting.”

Journalism addressed her frustration with other jobs of having to “toe a party line” because, in journalism, “you can just follow a story wherever it takes you and you’re just always trying to represent what you see as best you can.”

Dreier’s appreciation for objectivity was key at the Associated Press, where she worked from 2012 to early 2017.

“Objectivity is so crucial to journalism, especially right now, when everybody’s talking about fake news. [So] I try to not get so close to stories that I can’t see beyond my own emotional investment. One of the hardest stories that I did [in Venezuela], in terms of trying to stay neutral, was following a little girl who was hospitalized after she scraped her knee. So I followed this girl through this whole process of her parents trying to find this really basic antibiotic to clear up a totally routine infection that she had gotten because she scraped her knee and because of the medical shortages in Venezuela, they just couldn’t find what they needed, and it was just one thing after another. That was one place where I talked to my editor about how far the idea of journalistic objectivity should really go and we decided that if this girl took a turn for the worse, if it looked like she really might die, we would just can the story and get her the medicine. I think there are limits. I don’t think anyone should be asked to watch a child die but if you intervene, you can’t write the story because you’re not objective anymore and you’re not reporting objective reality, you’re reporting on something that was [affected by] your own actions,” Dreier said.

The pressure to stay objective is heightened for journalists stationed in countries undergoing economic or political strife since Americans’ sole exposure to these countries are often through journalism. Dreier explained that the number of foreign journalists dwindled from the 20 that were there when she arrived in 2014 to only 5 correspondents who were still allowed in the country when she left “so the sense of pressure really grew.” Furthermore, since most of the journalists were concentrated in Caracas, the capital of Venezuela, “there would be some states [in Venezuela] that no journalist had visited for years. And you would go out to those states and write what you saw with the knowledge that that would stand as the account of what’s happening there for who knows how long.” To deal with this, she described relying on “a lot on things I learned from Urban like having confidence in my own perception and my own reading of the situation.”

Dreier also detailed her desire to counterbalance the overwhelmingly saddening and negative news by “communicating that Venezuela is not only a catastrophe. I really liked it there and now I miss it terribly, which is crazy, because it’s so steeped in sadness. But the Venezuelan people are hilarious, and there’s this kind of insane fatalistic party culture that rarely gets written about. The social breakdown there is enough to make anyone go crazy and people find all these ways to get through it. It’s also just a beautiful place. There’s tropical mountains everywhere and wild parrots. That mix of beauty and sadness was hard to convey. Mostly, in the media, you get the sadness. But how are you going to get somebody to care about a country if you’re just saying that it’s a horrible failed state. You kind of have to get some of the lovely things in there or nobody’s going to read the story.”

But at the same time, she felt conflicted about providing a hopeful outlook. She said, “I try to find stories where there’s some glimmer of hope but I wrestled with that because I don’t think it’s a hopeful story, and I’m not hopeful at all that things are going to improve in Venezuela. But in the interest of trying to find ways to engage readers, I try to go for stories with, if not a happy ending, at least some glimmers of happiness.”

Dreier had no issue finding interesting things to engage readers; everyday after her breaking news assignments, she was able to pursue other stories that interested her. She explained that “The great thing about covering the place you live or the place you go to school is that you’re constantly getting story ideas just by walking around. When I first moved to Venezuela, I was really struck by all the plastic surgery. It’s so weird, it’s this militantly socialist country but then 1/2 the women have breast implants or butt implants or some kind of fake lip [or] nose job situation. And that led me to doing a story on how the shortages and the economic crisis were affecting breast implants. I just went and sat in a plastic surgeon’s office for a day and all these women were coming in with these breast implants that they had bought on the Venezuelan equivalent of Craigslist in plastic bags to have the doctor put them in and you couldn’t find government approved breast implants anywhere. When an economy is collapsing in the way that Venezuela’s has, there are signs of it everywhere you look.”

A byproduct of this economic collapse is the pervasive sense of danger that was constant throughout her time there. She recounted, “I think somebody flashed a gun in front of me a month after I moved to Venezuela and then I was robbed on the street a few months after that and my friends got mugged, a friend got kidnapped, a friend got beaten up several times. When you live there, it starts to seem so normal so when I got mugged in broad daylight – these guys on a motorcycle took everything – and I went and told my friends and they were like, ‘Oh, that was nothing. Congratulations, now you’re like one of us.’ There was no sense of ‘Oh! That’s horrible!’ Leaving your house everyday in Venezuela, as a foreigner and especially as a reporter, is just a process of getting told that you’re in danger. The person you were going to interview would greet you at the door like ‘You should never have come here.’ So it was very very hard to forget the sense of danger. When I got mugged, by that time I’d already thought in my head a million times what I would do the day that they mugged me because it seemed inevitable.”

This aura of fear became a reality for Dreier when she was kidnapped and detained by state security forces. She explained, “it was scary because they took me and they didn’t say they were the secret police so I assumed they were kidnappers who were maybe going to take me into the slums for a couple weeks or who knows what. But then when they took me to the secret police headquarters, it was a huge relief. They told me they might keep me in jail for months and months but I knew that eventually, probably the United States embassy would get involved. I was so protected as an American. That whole detention, I was grinning–I was so so extremely relieved because everybody has stories in Venezuela of a person they know who was killed [by kidnappers] or a person they know who was terribly beaten and left on the side of the road by kidnappers. But state security forces, for now, have some limits about what they’ll do to a foreigner.”

However, this experience did not diminish her love for living and working in Venezuela. “It’s strange because in journalism, the worst places to live are always the best places to cover and so Venezuela basically became unlivable but the stories became more and more interesting and urgent… I think it’s still fascinating, but it’s just too emotionally wrenching and I am too emotionally invested at this point to cover it well,” she said.

Through it all, she expressed her desire to see increased American engagement with international news. She said, “It’s so disheartening to see how public attention [turns] away from international crises after a couple weeks. People in Venezuela would always ask me ‘Why isn’t the international media paying attention to the crisis here?’ And I would feel like apologizing. In Venezuela, it kept getting worse and worse and it kept feeling like it can’t possibly get worse, somebody’s going to intervene or somebody’s going to force this government to make changes or somebody’s going to come in and solve it or demand changes but the truth was people weren’t paying attention, and I still think they’re not really. After Trump won, it felt like nobody would ever pay attention to international news again. One thing I tried to do was tell stories that were just human stories, not necessarily Venezuela stories because I think there isn’t a lot of appetite for international news. It’s disheartening but I think what people mostly want is stories about people they can relate to fighting hard for something they care about. So I tried to tell stories that somebody who had no desire to read about Venezuela that day might invest in just because they wanted to read a good story.”

Though Dreier now reports for ProPublica as an immigration reporter based in New York City, she continues to bring awareness about challenging but important issues to readers across the United States and the world.

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Alum Hannah Dreier Reflects on Her Experience Reporting from Venezuela