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From the Diary of our first foreign correspondent: How sympathetic objectivity helped me in Indonesia

This kind of trust in my sources gave me the courage to leap into uncharted territories.

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Hiking through tea plantations in Puncak, West Java, Indonesia

Hiking through tea plantations in Puncak, West Java, Indonesia. South of Jakarta. Photo: A Journey through NYC religions

In late September of 2012 over a Mexican lunch in the Bronx with Tony Carnes, my editor, I shared my plans to backpack through my native country, Indonesia, for four months in hopes of meeting long lost family. As a 1.5 generation immigrant who came to the United States at age three, this was a giant leap for me in identifying my native heritage. While saddened, Tony gave me his blessings and sent me off as A Journey’s first foreign correspondent.

Journeying on Staten Island in blizzard

Journeying on Staten Island in blizzard. Photo: A Journey through NYC relgions

Tony and I had worked together for three years, reporting and collecting information on NYC's vibrant religious communities. We navigated the city's streets in slippery snowy blizzards and unbearably hot summer days (treating ourselves to lemon ices as rewards after a long day of work!). It was spontaneous fun and never a dull moment. The synergy of our team often reflected the energy of a think-tank; we were free to express our ideas and come up with courses of action.

It was also during this time together that A Journey refined the process of "sympathetic objectivity," chatting about it in the car, putting it to use in our interviews, and then discussing how we can make our interviews better. In the sympathetic objectivity model, journalists are taught to be compassionate, yet unbiased when interviewing sources. Being both sympathetic and objective became second nature to me. It felt humane to care about my sources and to question their motives not out of suspicion, but out of an earnest desire to understand who they are as people.

During my four-month trip in Indonesia, I was given the opportunity to become a foreign correspondent. Through Tony, I met with a local journalist, Kristanto Hartadi, who had served as editor of one of Jakarta’s largest newspapers, collected story ideas, and started reporting. A Journey also keeps in contact with noted Indonesian journalist Rien Kuntari who was in exile in New York City for a time (see A Journey's article).

Gereja Ebenhaezer, church in Kupang, West Timor, Indonesia

Gereja Ebenhaezer, church in Kupang, West Timor, Indonesia. Photo: A Journey through NYC religions

I happily traveled to obscure parts of Indonesia, like the rural outskirts of Kupang in West Timor and the mountainous regions of Singaraja in northeast Bali, hunting for stories of religious changes and speaking to deeply religious people. I looked at my assignments as a chance for me to see a vast, multi-ethnic and multi-religious country through the lens of a journalist rather than a tourist. I also knew this would be the perfect time to experiment with sympathetic objectivity in a completely new setting. I was no longer in the familiar cemented streets of NYC surrounded by buildings and businesses, but rather in the dirt made, poorly lit roads of Indonesia surrounded by rice fields and chickens.

I started my reporting without a single contact in Bali and only one contact in West Timor. So I did what every sensible reporter would do in the modern technology age-- I went on the Internet. I looked up houses of worship in the area and jotted down names, phone numbers, and addresses. In Bali, I worked the phone for three hours, leaving messages, talking to strangers, and setting up appointments to visit face to face.

Every time Michet saw me, he would run up to hug me. Christian orphanage, Kupang, Indonesia. Photo: A Journey through NYC religions

Every time Michet saw me, he would run up to hug me. Christian orphanage, Kupang, Indonesia. Photo: A Journey through NYC religions

At first, I was unsure if sympathetic objectivity would help me report in Indonesia. I had the challenge of overcoming major cultural differences. I'm a young, Westernized, educated woman and completely new to Indonesia. Most of the religious leaders I spoke to were older, Asian-born men with families of their own. How could I possibly relate to them? Why would they open up their innermost struggles to me? Furthermore, why would they give their colleagues’ contact information to a stranger whom they just met? I needed more people to interview and was banking on the fact that my initial sources will provide me with more sources. On top of these worries, my field reporting in Bali was limited to only five days because of previous travel arrangements. I had to fly into Bali Monday morning, establish my contacts, get my story, and depart Friday afternoon. For a magazine reporter who usually invests ample energy on assignments, five days was hardly enough time to breathe, let alone shower and rest.

My first interview was with the head staff of the largest Pentecostal church in Bali. His mega church was four stories tall and housed over 5,000 members. He took me into a small conference room, a small white-walled office without any windows. The only signs of warmth in the emotionally sterile room were a glass coffee table and two brown leather futons forming an L-shape. His stoic demeanor made it hard for me read him and he barely smiled. He told me to take a seat as he sat down himself, and thus began my first interview in one of my first experiences as a foreign correspondent.

Every reporter knows that the initial introduction when interviewing a potential source is a turning point, it can either make or break the story. Much of the rapport with a source is dependent on that key meeting. I introduced myself to him, told him what my article was on, and-- in efforts to sympathize-- I shared my own personal story of why I was in Indonesia. I shared that my visit was beyond a travel or working experience, but that it was most importantly a venture to discover my roots. By telling him that I had an emotional investment to this story because of my history, I was subconsciously asking him if he could help me.

Militant Muslims in Sumatra, Indonesia warn Christians, "Don't be followers of the Jews" & "No Reconstruction Rehabilitation for Islam Ideology!" Photo: A Journey through NYC religions

At first, he gave me cookie-cutter answers to my questions, information you would find in a brochure. But then after about thirty minutes of talking, we started to discuss deeper, more sensitive topics, like the densely populated Hindu community of Bali and how some ethnic Balinese members of Christian churches face death because of their conversion from Hinduism to Christianity. In Indonesia the tension is usually between militants from the Muslim majority against both Christians and Hindus. A recent PEW Research Center study showed that even many Indonesian Muslims (45%) are very or somewhat concerned about violence in the name of their faith. Radical Islamists attack democratic Muslims also.

Our interview lasted a solid two hours. At the end of it, he gave me the telephone numbers and names of other Pentecostal church leaders in the area to speak to. Doors were opened just like that.

So that's the sympathetic part of sympathetic objectivity, but what about the objective part?

Islamic woman tells Christian Indonesians that they should get out of a village in Sumatra. The religious rhetoric arose during a property dispute. Photo: A Journey through NYC religions

The interview revealed an ideal to reach across ethnic and political boundaries. This ideal is rooted both within Christianity and Indonesian culture. The Christian ideal of the brotherhood of the human race is reinforced by a similar value encapsulated into Indonesia’s national slogan of national unity: “Bhinneka tunggal ika,” meaning “from many, one.” At every turn in the conversation the church leader seemed perceptive and eager to bridge the gaps. I also gave the leader an opportunity to describe the objective results as far as his congregation was concerned. After he mentioned the hardships faced by ethnic Balinese Christians, I asked what kind of assistance his church was providing to these members.

He couldn't give me a specific answer. Instead, he referred to the housing and job programs initiated by another large local church. His answer provided me a clue that his church was not heavily involved with ethnic Balinese. In fact, his church was overwhelmingly Chinese Indonesian. The compassionate help that they gave ethnic Balinese Christians was that they would be best helped within their own kind. It makes sense that the knowledge and wisdom to handle a tension within an ethnicity would be greatest among like-ethnics. However, it also means that the ethnic stratification was reinforced. It is a conundrum that Indonesia itself has struggled to solve.

Map of Indonesia. Red lines indicate approximate location of photos.

Map of Indonesia. Red lines indicate areas of photos.

This is just one example of how sympathetic objectivity can lead to better journalism. I understand that not all foreign correspondents can rely on having a shared history with the countries they report on, but I argue that is not needed. If I was a foreign correspondent with no emotional ties to the country, I would have brought up an event or a topic I read in the general news to better relate to my sources, to convey to them that I acknowledge what is going on in the communities they live in. The message I hope to express is that I am not just an outsider, but that I am a human who cares about the same things they care about, and that I can see humanity in them too. Furthermore, sources need to trust journalists before giving them any kind of information. It is this kind of trust that forms the basis of good stories and breaking news.

This kind of trust also gives us the courage to leap into uncharted territories. As I embarked on a trip that I knew would change my life, I remember sitting on the long 15-hour flight to Shanghai (where I had to transit for a five hour flight to Jakarta) with a ball of nerves knotted up in my stomach. Questions plagued my mind-- Would I like Indonesia? How would family that I can't remember meeting receive me? What if I got mugged or kidnapped by strangers?

To quell my fears, I kept referring back to sympathetic objectivity. I didn't have to be a perfect person to connect with local Indonesians, I just had to be open to new experiences and different values, while at the same time satisfying my innate desire for knowledge.

Jakarta, the capitol & largest city of Indonesia, at night. Photo: A Journey through NYC religions

Jakarta, the capitol & largest city of Indonesia, at night. Photo: A Journey through NYC religions

  • Hi Nikko,
    Thank you for your correction! We made changes to our article. Looking forward to seeing you again in Denpasar. 🙂


  • Hmm... the Indonesia’s national slogan of national unity is not “Rhinekka tunggal ika,” but "Bhinneka Tunggal Ika". The phrase is Old Javanese translated as "Unity in Diversity."

    Anyway, please take a good care of yourself and always be safe Melissa... we will be waiting for your next visit to Bali 🙂

    Cheers 🙂

  • Good idea John. Thanks!

  • For those unfamiliar with your strategy of "sympathetic objectivity", here is the link for the first one, which lists the other 3 parts at the bottom.

  • Wow, such a great report, and such a great confirmation of the strategy you folks have worked out through your experience in NY City !!
    May God continue to bless this venture - all over the world !!

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