by Heather Khalifa
Being a senior and ready to graduate, I can say with confidence at this point that I understand the role of a news organization and the job of being a journalist. I’ve worked at local papers and the campus paper long enough to understand standard editorial procedures and decisions. But I had never before worked at a think tank, where things are run much differently. It was a new experience, and I’ve learned a lot since first walking through the Council on Foreign Relation’s grand oak doors back in September.
The Council on Foreign Relations is best known for its prestige in international news and affairs. The office and work environment certainly lives up to that expectation. Located on Park Avenue on the Upper East Side, it is a grand and spacious place—and extremely intimidating. Tucked away in the basement is a small, dedicated group of CFR.org staffers who run the website and produce all of its content. I was humbled to be a part of their section and to intern with them for three months. I sat in on their weekly meetings as they discussed and predicted what they believed would happen next in international news, from demonstrations in Hong Kong to the latest rounds of Iranian nuclear talks. As an aspiring international reporter, to be in this environment was a great opportunity, and I’m glad I interned there for four months.
CFR’s editorial process was very different from what I am used to. Projects take months to complete, and deadlines are not short like those a journalist is accustomed to. Think tanks like CFR are also meticulous with their wording and their photo processing. I learned the value of words while at CFR, even from the simpler headlines for the weekly “Must Reads,” which I wrote every week. I was taught how to make a headline punchy and effective, and I learned copy-editing skills that I didn’t possess prior to landing at CFR. “Must Reads” changed every week, and headlines ranged from “The EU’s Destiny in Ukraine, and Tunisia’s Crucial Elections” to “China’s Dangerous Maritime Game, and Averting Genocide in Central Africa.” I was able to take the major headlines of world news and code them into one place.
The best part of my internship was photo editing. I got to browse through the Reuters photo archive every day that I was there. For “Must Reads,” I learned the importance of choosing relevant, timely and effective photos. My only instructions were to make sure the photos accurately told the story they were supposed to tell. During my months there, I gained a better understanding of what makes a photo stand out and tell a story over all the other photos.
Everything I did at CFR.org was a learning experience—even transcribing interviews. While transcribing is typically seen as tedious (my supervisors apologized repeatedly when I had to transcribe in the beginning), I found the process informative. The transcriptions kept me up to date with the latest news, particularly in world health epidemics like Ebola and noncommunicable diseases, but also when they involved news of the past. I picked up some important historical lessons on Iraq and Afghanistan. The wide range of knowledge I accumulated while at CFR.org will stick with me, and I’m lucky to have been exposed to such an experience while still in college.