North­eastern jour­nalism stu­dents enrolled in the Dia­logue of Civ­i­liza­tions pro­gram, “Pol­i­tics, Reli­gion, Cul­ture and Media in the Arab World” expected to learn how to cul­ti­vate sources, inter­view con­tro­ver­sial sub­jects and post their arti­cles on per­sonal blogs.

But the pro­gram went well beyond expec­ta­tions last spring, when three North­eastern stu­dents scored an exclu­sive inter­view and broke an inter­na­tional news story picked up by the New York Times and other major news outlets.

The exclu­sive with Egyptian polit­ical dis­si­dent Ayman Nour, jailed in 2005 for allegedly tam­pering with the demo­c­ratic elec­tion process, cap­tured the atten­tion of Michael Slackman, the Cairo bureau chief for the New York Times, and’s “Worldly Boston” blog.

Speaking last May from his apart­ment in Zamalek, a dis­trict just out­side the cap­ital, Nour used the inter­view to announce that he would vol­un­tarily com­plete a four-​​year prison sen­tence to protest his treat­ment after the Egyptian gov­ern­ment released him four months early.

Senior jour­nalism major Dani Capalbo inter­viewed Nour, and said her expe­ri­ence could serve as a launching pad for a future career in the profession.

If I can do it as a senior at North­eastern within the con­structs of this pro­gram,” she said, “if I were let loose in Cairo, maybe I could uncover other things.”

More than two-​​dozen jour­nalism and inter­na­tional affairs majors made the trip to Egypt, Syria and Qatar. The jour­nalism stu­dents faced a variety of hur­dles in the Middle East, not the least of which was finding expert sources.

North­eastern polit­ical sci­ence pro­fessor Denis Sul­livan, a Middle East expert on sab­bat­ical in the cap­ital city, helped stu­dents gain access to think tanks and pro­fes­sors at Syrian uni­ver­si­ties. If stu­dents were still short­handed, they scoured English-​​speaking news­pa­pers for experts.

Some­times in life we’re picked up and thrown into things,” said North­eastern jour­nalism grad­uate stu­dent Clarice Con­nors, who wrote a story on a bombing that took place at an Egyptian market place. “But we have to work with what we are given. We made great con­tacts with insiders and we walked away feeling encouraged.”

And, she added, “I love that ‘last minute’ adren­a­line; I love the chaos. It’s exhil­a­rating in a way.”

An Amer­ican jour­nalist would be hard pressed to find a more dif­fi­cult beat than cov­ering the Middle East, added jour­nalism lec­turer Car­lene Hempel, who accom­pa­nied the stu­dents on the trip.

Stu­dents arrived without sources, without lan­guage skills and without bear­ings,” she explained. “They had to think and learn quickly and turn around and write on dead­line in a way that others can understand.

This is mag­ni­fied 100 times by being in such an unfa­miliar country,” she added. “It would be one thing if the stu­dents were in Europe—some might know Spanish or French—but no one knew Arabic and no one had func­tioned in that envi­ron­ment before.”

While the Nour inter­view was exciting, another expe­ri­ence turned out to be just as chal­lenging in a very dif­ferent way. Midway through the pro­gram, a trio of North­eastern jour­nal­ists inter­viewed stu­dents from the Amer­ican Uni­ver­sity of Cairo for a story about their deci­sion to join a rad­ical group. Soon, the stu­dents, fearing the wrath of the gov­ern­ment, begged the young reporters not to use their names.

Should the for­eign cor­re­spon­dents in-​​training uphold the wishes of the Egyptian university’s stu­dents, even though the inter­views were on the record?

Those of us trained as tra­di­tional jour­nal­ists were upholding the same stan­dards we have in the United States,” Hempel explained. “In America, if someone gives us his name and says we can quote him, it’s his respon­si­bility” to deal with the repercussions.

On the other hand, “the inter­na­tional affairs stu­dents argued our point of view was pre­sump­tuous and even arro­gant,” Hempel said. “They said that we don’t under­stand what life can be like for these people, that we can’t pos­sibly under­stand the stakes.”

In the end, the stu­dent jour­nal­ists decided they weren’t com­fort­able making a poten­tially life-​​altering deci­sion by pub­lishing their peers’ names on a blog. Nev­er­the­less, the exer­cise proved an eye-​​opening lesson on jour­nalism ethics in the Arab world.