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Learning Curves: Christiane Amanpour

From her sister's mistake in choosing a path, the journalist found hers.
By Christiane Amanpour
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Christiane Amanpour is CNN's chief international correspondent. She has covered the breakup of the former Soviet Union, the Balkan wars, and recent crises including the Darfur genocide and the terrorist bombings in London, where she lives. Among her achievements are nine Emmy Awards.

Christiane Amanpour outside the war zone:

I came into journalism by way of an accident.

As a girl growing up in Iran and attending boarding school in England, I wanted to be a doctor. To get into medical school in England, however, you have to earn grades of a certain level, and I didn't. After graduating from secondary school, I sank into the limbo of young-adult angst, working at a bar and taking the morning cleanup shift to avoid dealing with drunken customers.

Then, as I was wondering what to do with my life, the revolution happened in Iran. This was 1979; I was fairly young and politically unaware, having lived a sheltered childhood, and suddenly my country rocketed to the center of world attention. My parents still lived there. Month after month, images of protests, the hostage crisis, and other tempestuous events came pouring out of my homeland.

At the same time, my younger sister enrolled in journalism college in London, and quickly decided to withdraw. The college refused to refund her tuition. Money was tight for my family, with our assets locked up in Iran, so I took my sister's place rather than waste the investment. I figured I'd just mark time. Yet at that college on Fleet Street, I got my first taste of what this whole new world of journalism could be.

What I remember most is being given a tape recorder and a microphone and sent out into the street to get "vox pops," or man-on-the-street interviews, asking people to describe their experience of various events. Though none of it was big news, I felt intimidated at first. I didn't know how people would react to me. I lived in fear of asking a dumb question. But I soon came to find these interviews deeply interesting, because I struck up relationships, however brief, with people. This is the bedrock of what we do as journalists -- we have to know how to talk to people, draw people out and draw their humanity out. I have always tried to focus on human stories, to get behind the headlines.

While I learned these basics of journalism, the first Islamic revolution in the world raged in Iran, and I was intimately involved. World events, if you're caught in the middle of them, can either flatten you or lift you up. This lifted me up.

Within a single semester, I decided to be a journalist. I thought the most serious thing you could do if you wanted to start a new life and be successful was to follow the playbook of all those people who go to the United States, so I enrolled at the University of Rhode Island and earned a journalism degree in three years. I worked summers at BBC Radio and conducted man-on-the-street interviews during the race riots in the Brixton area of London, building on what I had learned in school. After a brief assignment at the NBC affiliate in Providence, I took my first job at CNN in 1983 as an assistant on the international assignment desk.

My "vox pops" training in London didn't prepare me for the job of journalism, though it did give me a sense of what to say to those "men on the street" in Brixton. The moment of going to that journalism college, for me, was more significant than college itself. From that little mistake that my sister made in choosing her career path, I found mine. I suppose the lesson is that you can never tell what will come up in your world that will change and shape your whole life's journey.

People often ask me what gives me the courage to venture into war zones and disaster areas to get a story. I believe many experiences shape a person. One of mine was riding horses competitively from age five. My teacher, a colonel in the Iranian army, was very tough -- there was no mollycoddling. If I fell off or got kicked in the stomach, he put me right back on the horse. That teaches you fortitude. I also had several teachers -- a biology teacher in secondary school, for example, and a Shakespeare professor in college -- who infected me with their love of learning these difficult, complex subjects.

As a mother, sometimes I'm alarmed, really alarmed, at how much our children learn from us -- everything from the way we talk to how we act and think. Our influence, however subliminal, forms the basic scaffolding of who they will become. Teachers, too, hold that subtle, powerful sway, though many don't get to see the full result of their contributions.

Everywhere I go in the underdeveloped world, when I ask people what they want to be, they say "a teacher" or "a doctor" -- the two most respected professions. When I go into classrooms, whether they're ramshackle, makeshift classes in some slum in a city or a nice rural location, the kids are just wide eyed. All they want is knowledge and information. I really regret that in our first world, where we have the money and ability, we treat teachers like third-class citizens and pay them like fifth-class citizens.

For me, the combination of my early experiences equipped me with determination and a capacity to see the humanity in people from far-flung places, even in the worst of circumstances. So, when my professors sent me out with that microphone, and when the Iranian revolution drew me to observe critical events around the globe, I was ready to seize the opportunity.

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Comments (14) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

abas's picture
Anonymous (not verified) name is abas.i would like speak and relation to ms.Christiane Amanpour.i llike chat white she and i love speak whit u.i live in iran.if this message recive to Christiane Amanpour and she read it please send mail to read persIAN FOLLOWING MESSAGE.salam.esme man abas hast
man mikham ba khanoom
Christiane Amanpour sohbat konam va behesh begam ke be on vane 1 irooni behesh eftekhar sar gozashte ouno too ketabe kalemate monaseb dar zamane onaseb khoondam va behesh eftekhar zendegish dars gereftam ve yad gereftam
man arezoo daram ba khanom aman pour sohbat konam va chat koam ya mail bezanam
age khanoome Christiane Amanpour in matn ro mikhoonan lotfan behem mail bezanan.khahesh man eftekhar beden lotfan va mail bezanin

Dj's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

hello Peace, Brothers!

Philip Gray's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My friend Carlie (16years old)is an aspiring photojournalist and is looking for Christiane Amanpour's autobiography or any other book written by her. Anyone have any info?

Cal Joy's picture
Cal Joy
Former High School Art and Science Teacher in Queensland, Australia.

Staff comment:

Hi, Philip,

Thanks for your comment. I'm not aware of an autobiography, but you can find out more in the Wikipedia entry for her.

Cal Joy

brittany's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

hi my name is brittany and i would like to have a career in journalism and i just wanted to tell you how big of an inspiration to me you are, you have always been i love your work so much and i hope that someday after college i can be as great as you are because you truly are my biggest inspiration to persue journalism as a career.

Bo Sørensen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hope you read this Christiane...

In the book "Key concepts of journalism"(SAGE 2005) you are placed under "journalism of attachment"with a very solid quote....

DID make me think a lot.....but....I will take you to a better school:

The world find ,that the doctor that only focus on "fixing the broken leg" is the person who ARE attachment.If the leg gets fixed,the doc had a hart,so simpel is it.

Journalist should focus on fixing communication,not anything ells....then you ARE attachment,just like the focused doc...

go girl go

All the best&regards from Bo

mahdi's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

dear christiane

i hope you are fine, i am a student at university in iran and also a reporter there. i really appreciate if you can help me to find any video from mohammad khatami's visitaion to france. ahmadinejad has declared that Chirac was so rude to khatami and actually he looked at khatami at the top of stairs and it was humiliating!
i watched that video some years ago and even i can remember when khatami was leaving there chirac came to him again to say something to him. it is vital for me (maybe reformists) to find these videos and i am trying to find anybody to help me. i am sure you can help me to do this project, i know it is difficult to do that but it is not impossible. we are gonna to make it!

i am looking forward to hearing from you asap.
best regards


Mirella Abanto's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hello Cristine:
I was journalist in Peru, South America as a radio Producer in National Public Radio. I am immigrant from Peru and my first lenguage is Spanish. I do no have a good English to be a journalist in United States. I love your report in Gaza because I learned two different ways people wants war and people wants peace eventhough after horroble events in their lifes. They are resilients people. I like when you mention GOD IN your interview, you did a humanitarian report. Thanks Mirella.

Nermin Amin's picture

This was sent to me by a former student, now studying Journalism because she said it resonated with her. Thank you Ms. Amanpour, and thank you Sarah. Every once in a while we get a glimpse of the continuum in its entirety.
Nermin Amin

Nermin Amin's picture

This link was sent to me by a former student, now studying journalism. Thank you Ms. Amanpour, and thank you Sarah. Every once in a while we get to see an extension of the continuum. We smile or cry or both.
Nermin Amin

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