A Columnist Asking ‘Why’ Around the World – The New York Times

Amanda Taub started a law and policy blog while working as a human rights lawyer. She now explores the forces behind major world events for The Times with The Interpreter.

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Amanda Taub, a human rights lawyer-turned-journalist, comes from a family of engineers. Their knack for detail and analysis, unsurprisingly, rubbed off on her.

“It definitely affected my worldview,” Ms. Taub said. “The idea that there are systems in the way things work, and you want to kind of take it apart and figure out how everything fits together, and then put it back together again and make it work the way you want.”

That study of systems has played a large role in her reporting career. At The New York Times, Ms. Taub, along with her colleague Max Fisher, writes The Interpreter, a column and newsletter that explores the larger forces and the deeper political trends behind major world events, such as the rise of populism, shifting gender roles and social media radicalization. Recently, Ms. Taub wrote about women-led protests in Iran and political extremism in the United States.

But journalism was not Ms. Taub’s first career. She went to Georgetown to study law. While there, she got involved with projects related to human rights, including refugee-resettlement work.

“I was always drawn to the idea that by putting together the right argument, you could shift the world,” Ms. Taub said. “You could make a real difference. You could have a material effect on someone’s life or the way the world worked.”

After graduating from law school in 2007, Ms. Taub accepted a job at a law firm in New York City. The firm performed pro bono work for a juvenile docket in New York’s immigration court that Ms. Taub said was almost entirely asylum cases, specifically those involving unaccompanied children.

“I loved the research,” Ms. Taub said. “I loved the phase of gathering information and really understanding what was going on. And being able to use that to craft a legal strategy.”

But she did not enjoy litigation. Although it occurred to her that her skill set might be better suited for a different career, she did not seriously consider journalism right away. “At the time, it sounded crazy to me,” Ms. Taub said. “It was like somebody saying ‘Why don’t you go be a professional ballerina.’ I just assumed it was not possible.”

Ms. Taub joined the New York City Bar Association’s Business and Human Rights Committee and worked as an adjunct professor at Fordham University for some time, teaching human rights law and international law.

She also started a law and policy blog. She had always had a penchant for writing, she said, and penned a few plays in high school and college. Through working on her blog, she realized that she could take the elements of human rights law that she liked the most — researching, gathering information, crafting the story and explaining it — and become a journalist.

“It just took a long time to make that mental leap of saying, ‘This is what I want to do and I’m going to go for it,’” she said of her eventual career change. She also joked that her procrastination tendencies served as “good practice” for the demanding deadlines of the job.

Her first break in journalism came in 2014, when Vox hired her to cover international news, focusing on refugee crises, wars and riots. She also reported on several big domestic stories with law or human rights angles, including the civil unrest in Ferguson, Mo., after the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown there and the allegations of sexual assault against Bill Cosby. In 2016, she joined The Times and started The Interpreter.

Ms. Taub’s primary reporting focus isn’t so much about asking what happened as it is about dissecting why something occurred.

With every Interpreter assignment, she tries to connect people’s everyday lives to global politics and news. She starts that process by asking a question as simple as “Why is something happening?” Then, she finds political scientists, historians and other experts who can provide insight on the subject.

“I’ll identify a particular pattern playing out in different parts of the world,” Ms. Taub said, “and then look for the right news hooks to write a column or write characters or a series of events to turn into a bigger sort of feature story.”

In that way, explanatory journalism is different from straight news reporting. Usually, a reporter arrives at the site of a news story, finds the person or group that something is happening to and interviews those who are involved, while providing larger context as part of the story. Ms. Taub essentially runs that process in reverse.

She lives in London with her husband and their two young children and travels for work every few months: Her last trip, in May, brought her to India. Before that, she was in Poland, where many Ukrainians fled after Russia’s invasion.

Even though traveling for work means having to spend some time away from family, travel is her favorite part of the job. “Journalism is a job that can be as consuming as you want it to be,” Ms. Taub said of juggling career and family, adding that she has conducted many an interview from playgrounds and made Skype calls to her children from the back seats of cars in rural areas of countries across the globe.

Although many of her stories focus on particular concepts and rely on an unconventional reporting approach, Ms. Taub said, sharing the human stories of the people affected by world events is paramount.

“I’m not somebody who is that interested in reporting on a treaty negotiation or a conference room where a bunch of people are wearing suits,” she said. “I want to go in and talk to the people who are going to be affected by what they are negotiating.”