Reporters on the Job

I'll Ask the Questions, Thank You: They are called man-on-the-street interviews, the kind designed to gauge what is called vox populi, the people's voice. But a reporter doing them can sometimes find the tables turned, with the man (or woman) on the street suddenly becoming the one asking the questions.

That's what happened to staff writer Howard LaFranchi as he stopped on a Baghdad street to interview a woman for Tuesday's story on Iraq's new school year (page 1). "With my interpreter next to me I approached a fully veiled young woman walking along with two small boys. I wanted to ask her views on the school that the two boys would be attending, how the security situation is affecting her outlook, and what role she sees education playing in the new Iraq.

"It turned out the two boys, Ali and Aiman, were her brothers, both held back to repeat a year because, she said, of poor grades in English," Howard says. "But the young woman, Hiba Mustapha, quickly realized that if I were an American journalist, then I would speak English - and could judge that the level of English demanded of these two little boys was much too high. Through the interpreter, she insisted on my looking at the boys' English workbook, and asked if the level wasn't closer to what a university student would be required to know."

Ms. Mustapha then proceeded to open the book to small pictures of things like a duck, followed by the sentence, "This is a duck," and a blank line for the student to write, "This is a duck." Howard tried to tell her diplomatically that he didn't think this could be called university level. Unimpressed, she reminded him that Iraqi children write in Arabic and so to learn English must learn a new script. "Clearly dissatisfied with our conversation, she and the boys bade us farewell - leaving me with the realization that I hadn't gotten an answer to even one of my questions."

Amelia Newcomb
Deputy world editor

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