Stephanie Busari is a journalist and editor at CNN Worldwide. She heads CNN’s Nigeria bureau where she pioneered CNN’s first digital and multiplatform bureau. In this interview with IFEOMA OKEKE, she speaks about her experience working with CNN for almost 13 years now and how she is helping tell African stories. Excerpts:
Can you give a brief background on yourself and your journey working in CNN, one of the most powerful media platforms worldwide?
I am now in my 13th year at CNN and I have held a variety of roles during that time. The one thing that has remained constant is my passion for telling African stories. It’s one of the reasons I was sent by CNN to come to Nigeria to lead their multi-platform coverage of the continent from here and to find new, exciting ways of doing so. I remain as ever passionate and committed to telling those stories.
As CNN’s Nigeria bureau head, how does the experience covering events and situations in Nigeria differ from covering similar events in other climes?
One of the biggest differences is the pace compared to say the UK, people don’t always get back to you immediately, even for routine inquiries, or they say something like the person you need to speak to is not around. Often that is the only person that can give a comment because they are the most senior and no one else has been authorised to speak in their absence. It can be frustrating, but I have learned to be patient. You need a lot of patience to work as a journalist here. There’s a clip on my Instagram page where I was interrupted by some loud horns in the middle of filming. The energy in Lagos is off the charts but it can be so full on!
I came to Nigeria determined to make the most of an amazing career opportunity in a place that is home in my heart. You have to roll with the punches. Everything is about the mindset, I find. I choose to remain positive, even in the face of challenges.
What are some of the new narratives for African storytelling and telling stories about Africa’s change-makers and innovators you have crafted during your course of duty?
Since my arrival at the bureau, we have grown our audience significantly and we have done that by telling stories of impact. Our bureau is truly multi-platform and we are writing digital news stories and features, filming packages, and reporting live from there. The team works hard to ensure that the stories of everyday talented, dynamic and resourceful Africans are represented in our coverage.
From Nollywood to tech, we have spotlighted those at the top of their game such as Kemi Adetiba and Mo Abudu. And in the tech sector, we featured a 9-year-old Nigerian boy who has built more than 30 mobile apps. Another change maker was Barrister Mustapha Zannah who is teaching Boko Haram orphans and children of Boko Haram fighters in Maiduguri. The list is numerous.
I am also very proud that my team secured the only interview with Monica Osagie, the whistleblower student who recorded her professor demanding sex in exchange for better grades. Following CNN’s reporting, the professor was sacked by his university, Nigeria’s senate launched an investigation. Professor Akindele was also prosecuted leading to a rare conviction of a lecturer harassing his student for sex.
In April 2016, you exclusively obtained the ‘proof of life’ video that showed that the missing Chibok schoolgirls were still alive. This video helped to kick-start negotiations with Boko Haram and secured the release of more than 100 of the kidnapped schoolgirls. Could you share your experience on how you were able to achieve this milestone?
The Chibok girls’ story is really a story that has stayed with me and is about persistence and the importance of staying on top of a story. It is one that I have covered since 2014 and I got to know family members and key players over the years and was able to obtain the exclusive video through a contact. I always put important anniversary dates in my diary so I can go back periodically to a story. It is essential for original journalism and to set your content apart.
The abduction of the Chibok girls was one of the biggest stories of the last decade and I am proud of what I was able to achieve for the Chibok girls and their families.
CNN celebrated its 40th anniversary on June 1. Would you say the media outfit has achieved a lot at 40?
CNN has achieved an astonishing amount in 40 years. It is a pioneering cable news network. There is a reason it has stayed at the top as the number one news broadcaster in the world. The company has created a lot of impact in its reporting, there are numerous examples and prestigious industry awards to show for that. Some examples include of course the Chibok Girls coverage, for which the network won a Peabody Award among others. There is also the Libya slave auction story which reverberated around the world if we are looking at Africa stories. The motto of ‘Go There’ really typifies CNN. I am happy to be part of a team of an extraordinary and talented group of journalists.
What would you say distinguishes CNN from other global broadcast platforms?
CNN is committed to telling the world’s stories, the company is innovative and has managed to grow and pivot successfully several times in its 40-year history, with new storytelling platforms, but the ethos of fair, balanced and accurate reporting never changes. There is still a strong thread of the original, entrepreneurial spirit of Ted Turner in this company’s DNA – we have always innovated, and we continue to do so. A lot of people who work here say that CNN is like a family, and that’s also true – you get a lot of support and encouragement from colleagues and that inspires you to keep going, even when things are at their toughest.
As CNN marks 40, what are some of the innovations and ideas you are thinking of bringing on board for the betterment of the organisation?
I am focused on growing our digital footprint to really go where the audience is. There is a new generation of audiences who are not necessarily watching content on TV but on mobile, like my daughter, who is nine.
Recently, we pivoted our Instagram account to create a live series called Covid Heroes and Newsmakers to give voice to the people on the frontline of the pandemic across Africa. Some of the guests include the doctor who detected Nigeria’s first Covid case. A Nigerian doctor working in one of the isolation centers, a Covid survivor, and people who have set up food banks to help their communities and many other everyday heroes. We also interviewed newsmakers who are in charge of strategy and policy decisions such as the Lagos State governor.
We have received fantastic feedback on connecting with a younger and more mobile audience and taking our programming to where they are. It’s a truly multi-platform and multi-faceted approach, which was my remit when I started this bureau. We are looking forward to building on this success.
How are you able to translate the cultures, practices and values of CNN worldwide to Nigeria, considering Nigeria’s totally different environment?
The culture, practices and values of CNN are the same as mine. I embody in my team a strong work ethic, and a facts-first-approach. There is rigorous sourcing and attribution to every story we write. We simply do not run a story if we have not verified and spoken to the people involved firsthand.
Having been listed among 25 of the most powerful female journalists in Africa by Women in Journalism Africa, what is your advice for young girls who are aspiring to reach similar heights in Nigeria?
It was a real honour to be listed as one of the 25 most powerful female journalists in Africa! It came as a shock, but I loved what they wrote about why I was selected, they said I didn’t throw my weight around because of the CNN name and that I built influence through soft power and collaborated with people on stories and projects. I thrive on connecting and collaborating with people, so it is very true.
You really don’t know who is watching your work! My advice is that you should hone your craft. This is the information age; there is a wealth of free courses, information at your fingertips. Use it wisely. Show enthusiasm by building up a portfolio of what you are passionate about. Even your Instagram page can showcase your talents if you use it in the right way. Keep at it and the consistency definitely pays off.
Being a recipient of the Outstanding Woman in the Media Awards, how are you able to do so well in a profession arguably dominated by men in Nigeria?
I believe that you really have to embody excellence to succeed in places where the odds are stacked against you. Does it mean you have to work twice or three times as hard? Yes. Is it fair? No! But I learned very early on that life is not fair!
I am teaching my daughter the same. It may take me longer to achieve because of the obstacles of race and gender, but I am always determined to come out on top. I never compromise my values and I always put my best foot forward.