It’s Ok to Be a UN Nerd: Q&A with Hayes Brown

The World Editor at Buzzfeed News Hayes Brown discusses UN reform, reporting on the UN, and basically comes out as a UN nerd. Interviewed by Jill Stoddard, Director of Web and Multimedia at the International Peace Institute.

How did Buzzfeed get into world news?

Around 2012, Buzzfeed decided to venture into news, starting off with US politics. In 2013, they hired my boss, Miriam Elder, to run their World Desk. The World Desk is based here in New York, and we have correspondents around the world—Mexico City, Istanbul, to name two. We also have a traveling international LGBT rights correspondent. We have ten correspondents in the field, and four editors.

Is there a common theme in these stories?

We implore our reporters to find stories that people will want to share, and that means the stories can take a lot of different forms. I’ll give you two examples of stories our West Africa correspondent has done. On one end of the spectrum, she did a piece on Nigeria emojis, because they’re blowing up, and they convey very specific things to Nigerian culture, which we wanted to share with a more global audience. On the other end of the spectrum, she talked to people who had escaped from Boko Haram captivity about what life is like inside territory held by that group.

We’re sitting here across from United Nations headquarters in New York, which has its fingers in all sorts of pies around the world, including issues such as countering extremist groups like Boko Haram. But rarely does anyone outside the UN talk about the UN in these contexts. Why do you think that is?

I think part of the problem is that UN is in so many things that it’s hard to find a specific story line about just the UN unless it’s reporting on abuses. We have a reporter based in Nairobi, Jenna Moore, who is our International Women’s Rights Correspondent, and she did a great piece about the inability of the UN to go after contractors who commit sexual abuse or sexual assault on the job when they’re under contract from the UN And that’s the sort of story that is difficult for a lot of different outlets to do, but Jenna did such a great job. She didn’t lay blame at anyone’s feet, but she definitely isn’t afraid to call out the people in power and say, "This is a thing, you guys. Someone should have done something."

So, when it comes to the UN, we try to do the story that we think will most push a conversation forward, whether that’s the story I just described or I just covered when the new sanctions were passed against North Korea. So it all really depends.

In the meeting just now, you identified yourself as a UN nerd.

Definitely. Huge nerd. Definitely I get excited when they’re debating whether or not to invoke Chapter VII in Security Council resolutions, and the ways that they can work around that now to fulfill the whole weight of the Council without drawing the Russian veto from the Chapter VII language.

That’s deep in.

It’s deep nerd.

So do you believe the UN is worth reforming? In a world where there are troubling issues with the state-citizen relationship, is a state-based multilateral institution worth investing in?

Yes, for three reasons. First of all, because while everyone thinks of state-based, member-based things the UN does, the UN’s programs like UNICEF and UNHCR, the ones you don’t necessarily think of when you first think of the UN, are doing such great work in the field. It would be so hard for private NGOs to replicate that work. Second, because, and this is kind of high rhetoric, but it’s the fact that the General Assembly really is one of the few places in the world where every country has an equal voice, where they can all come together and discuss the issues of the day both at the high-level sessions in September and throughout the year. Third, and I think most importantly, the UN Security Council, while people place a lot of blame at their feet for being unable to stop the problems of the world, the thing that people need to remember is that we haven’t had a World War since we’ve had a Security Council because the great powers have all had this place to talk about the major issues of the day, and sort of decompress and let off pressure. There’s a great book by a professor at American University named David Bosco who writes about that sort of depressurization component of the UN I think that’s so important, and that without that, the world would have been in a lot more trouble a lot sooner.

Yes. We know what the world looks like with the UN—there are all of these problems—but who knows what it would look like without it. One thing I wanted to ask you about is this idea of storytelling and villains versus heroes, and how does that play out with these complicated issues? There’s this children’s book I had, which goes something like, "The good news is, the bad news is... The good news is, the bad news is..." So it seems if you end the story in one place, the person is a villain, but if you go a little bit further, their role can shift dramatically.

Right. Nothing is black and white, but heroes and villains I think is good short hand for the idea that there have to be characters. There has to be a plot that you can follow. There has to be a storyline of some sort, and a lot of stories have a hero and a villain, but not all of them do. A better way to be thinking of it is as a protagonist. Most good news stories have some sort of protagonist who is the person who you are following their quest, their adventure of some sort, whether it’s a good one or a terrible one, whether you’re supposed to root for them or be concerned for them.

It seems like the UN itself should be a character.

The UN is such a hard character to do though because there are multiple UN’s as we were discussing. There’s the Secretariat, there’s the member states, there’s the programs, agencies, and even with the member states there’s the P5, the group of 77. It’s just really hard at the UN to be able to break it down into a protagonist unless you are willing to go in depth, and a lot of people aren’t.

I guess I’m seeing a graphic novel that has this schizophrenic character with ten heads, which is sort of how it is.


Finally – Do you have any thoughts about the discussion we just had during the retreat, or anything that stuck out to you?

I felt that the discussion went really well, almost better than I was expecting, to be honest. There were a lot of people in that room who were really dedicated to the idea that the UN needs to be able to talk effectively to the world, and trying to figure out exactly how to do that without forcing journalists to become just stenographers of all the good things the UN does, and hoping that they’ll ignore the bad things that definitely need to be reformed and fixed.