Janine di Giovanni: My Life in Media

'I get a lot of mail from young women saying they want to have my life, God knows why. I write back, "Go for it, but remember to have a personal life too"'
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Janine di Giovanni, 45, first reported from Palestine in the late 1980s and has covered almost every major conflict area since, mostly as a correspondent for The Times. In 1993, while based in Sarajevo, she met French journalist Bruno Girodon and they married in 2003. They have one son, Luca, and live in Paris. Di Giovanni grew up in New Jersey, has written four books about her experiences of war and won two Amnesty International awards. Julia Roberts plans to make a film of her life story.

So what inspired you to embark on a career in the media?

I never set out to be a journalist. I wanted to be a humanitarian doctor like Albert Schweitzer, working in Africa. Later, I was an academic and wanted to write fiction. Then one day, in the late 1980s during the first Palestinian intifada, I read an article about an Israeli human rights lawyer defending Palestinians in military court. She inspired me to write about people who did not have the power to write about themselves.

When you were 15, which newspaper did your family get, and did you read it?

I did not read newspapers until I became a reporter. But as a kid, what arrived at our door was The Newark (New Jersey) Star Ledger.

What were you favourite TV and radio programmes?

When I was home sick from school, I would watch old movies or I Love Lucy. When I was in high school, Saturday Night Live.

Describe your job.

I am a reporter specialising in human rights and conflict areas. Though since I had a baby two years ago, I spend less time in war zones. For once in my life, I have responsibility for someone other than myself.

What's the first media you turn to in the mornings?

I have the International Herald Tribune delivered to my doorstep at 5am. It's a great newspaper. If I still lived in England, I would listen to the Today programme, but in France, the news is terrible - journalism is very provincial and sycophantic.

Do you consult any media sources during the working day?

I am old fashioned and rarely read websites except an excellent one called MilitaryWeek.com (to which di Giovanni contributes). It has everything about every conflict and war under one roof, and is easy to navigate. I find websites confusing. For reference, I do it the old-fashioned way - I read books and long articles.

What is the best thing about your job?

The fact that every once in a while you get to make a difference. And that people who are living a privileged life in Britain or America read my stuff and say, 'My God, I am lucky to be born where I was, and not in Baghdad or Mogadishu'.

And the worst?

The fact that you are only as good as your last story.

How do you feel you influence the media?

Probably because I am a woman and when I started as a foreign correspondent working in war zones, there weren't many of us, and the few that were around were tough as nails. I wanted a role model but there was none who seemed to have fulfilled private lives as well as successful careers. I get a lot of mail from young women saying they want to have my life, God knows why. I write back, 'Go for it, but remember to have a personal life too. Don't wait too long to have a baby'.

What's the proudest achievement in your working life?

Getting a family out of Sarajevo during the siege. Helping the fixers who helped me. Winning the Amnesty International Award twice.

And what's your most embarrassing moment?

Too many to count, but most of them have to do with the aftermath of a bombing raid or getting my car shot up - when I was so happy to be alive that far too many glasses of wine were drunk and bad judgement prevailed!

At home, what do you tune in to?

If I am feeling worthy, France Culture, which is a homage to intellectualism. Or FIP, a very cool French radio station. But mainly we have jazz playing from early morning till late at night at home, from a good station called TSF. When I was in the field or living in Africa, it was the BBC World Service. That theme tune of Lili Bolero could be the theme tune of my life.

What are your weekend papers? And do you have a favourite magazine?

If I manage to get five minutes to myself, I read Saturday's International Herald Tribune. Sometimes, if I have time, LeJournal du Dimanche. If I am in Britain, The Observer and The Independent on Sunday. In America, always The New York Times, which takes me all week to read. I love magazines. I always read Time, Newsweek and The Economist. When I get my hair cut, French Vogue, French Elle, Paris Match - I read them all in 10 minutes.

Name the one career ambition you want to realise before you retire.

I'd like to write a novel.

If you didn't work in the media what would you do?

I think I would have been a good actress. During war time, when people were injured, I was really frustrated I did not become a doctor. It's painful not being able to save people, witnessing their pain.

Who in the media do you most admire and why?

Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times, a campaigning journalist who has made Darfur his personal mission, deserves sainthood. Jeremy Paxman is brilliant. I wish France had anchors like him - intelligent, sharp as a razor and sexy. I think Lyse Doucet is an extraordinary woman - a great reporter and a wonderful human.

The CV

1987: Files first reports from Palestine and Nicaragua, to The Times and The Spectator, later writing Against the Stranger, about the Israeli occupation of Palestine

1992: Reports from Bosnia for The Sunday Times, writes The Quick and the Dead and finds herself on the Bosnian Serb Blacklist

1994: Begins campaigning for better coverage of Africa and works in Liberia, Rwanda, Zimbabwe and Sierra Leone

1995: Begins working for The Times

1999: Caught in a bombing raid in Kosovo and writes 'Madness Visible' for Vanity Fair, which wins the US's National Magazine Award

2000: One of three journalists to witness the fall of Grozny, Chechnya; later banned from Russia.

2002: The cameras are turned for two years - becomes the subject of a documentary on women war reporters as she tries to combine motherhood and marriage with her career

2004: Publication of the book of Madness Visible (Bloomsbury, £8.99). Returns to Iraq after the birth of Luca

2005: Reports from the tsunami and publishes The Place at the End of the World: Stories from the Frontline, a collection of longer articles (Bloomsbury, £8.99)

2007: Appointed adjunct professor of International Journalism at Sciences Po, Sorbonne, Paris