Sources and Methods #2: Erin Cunningham


Alex and Matt are joined by Erin Cunningham, the Egypt-based correspondent for the Washington Post. Erin has previously worked for Global Post and the Christian Science Monitor in Afghanistan and across the Middle East and North Africa. We discuss how she goes about telling the stories of the people who live in places like Egypt, and why she thinks it's important work. We delve into the practicalities of her job and how she keeps track of things going on in the region.

Erin Cunningham on the Web

Erin on Twitter

Erin at the Washington Post

Erin at The National (UAE)

Erin at The Christian Science Monitor

Erin at Global Post

Erin's Tumblr

Erin's Instagram

Erin Cunningham 101: What to Read

In Gaza, how to recycle an economy

The National (July 2009) - Shortages of materials, spare parts and imported goods in Gaza mean residents and businessmen repurpose everything they can get their hands on.

"Despite the death of Gaza's formal industry, here it feels like at least someone - or something - is at work. "Necessity is the mother of invention" seems a fitting motto for this tiny bazaar of scraps."

Long the glue of Gaza, clans say Hamas is undermining tribal justice

Christian Science Monitor (January 2010) - Hamas disarms Gaza's clans, but leaders of prominent families there say that the Islamist group is stepping onto territory outside its jurisdiction.

"Any overt politicization of the chiefs, historically seen as societal mediators in Gaza, may end up threatening the independence of a system experts say has regulated Gazan society at the grass-roots for centuries."

Gaza Strip moves to preserve its abundant ancient treasure

Christian Science Monitor (April 2010) - Erin looks at Gaza's illicit trade in archaeological artefacts. Gaza's location and history - many empires have passed through - means that the area is disproportionately seeded with old items of historical interest.

""An ancient piece the size of a cellphone from the Pharaonic or Canaanite eras easily sells for $1 million on the black market," says Abu Ahmed, a dealer involved in the underground antiquity trade. "And I used to make a major deal every month.""

Rural Egypt breaks from its Islamist past

Global Post (May 2012) - Ahead of the May 2012 presidential election in Egypt, Erin visits a small town in rural Egypt showing how things have changed. Historically supportive of Islamist politicians, the area now has more day-to-day concerns:

"At the forefront of most people’s concerns here is not Islamic law — in fact, few even mention it — but the need to resuscitate an ailing national economy that has left them even more impoverished, and to halt growing insecurity and drug use."

A Friday in Cairo

Twitter/Storify (November 2012) - Erin spends a Friday tweeting from and about Cairo, taking a walk through the city's famous Khan al-Khalili market to give a sense of what it's like around her. It's a mix of pithy social observation, sightings of cats and unique photos as found on her Instagram account.

"braved the Cairo traffic & Friday morning crowds, so now plopped down at the market's most famous cafe for a Turkish coffee #AFriAFridayInC"

Growing up in Gaza

Global Post (November 2012) - Life is tough for children in Gaza. The dangers of war (as witnesses and victims) are ever present and psychological symptoms are widespread.

""They listen to the radio, they watch TV, they see the dead bodies, they hear the bombs, they feel the shattering of the glass from the windows in their homes, and they listen to stories" of war, said Eyad Sarraj, a mental health expert and founder of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program. "So they are terrified.""

In Egypt, happiness is hard to find

Global Post (December 2012) - Something a little more lighthearted: Erin tries to find people with a positive take on developments. It turns out to be far harder than expected.

"We would have settled for just content people. They were nowhere to be found. It seems there is no life that is not deeply affected by the sputtering economy and the political chaos. Interviews with Cairo residents revealed, perhaps unsurprisingly, a city weighed down by the burden of uncertainty."

Inside the sleepy Egyptian district where 682 residents were sentenced to death

Washington Post (April 2014) - Erin travels to the rural south of Egypt to interview those sentenced following a harsh state crackdown following pro-Islamist demonstrations. It was the country's largest ever mass death sentence.

"Far from Egypt’s centers of power, al-Edwa district is a remote cluster of rural hamlets in the southern province of Minya — an otherwise sleepy agricultural patch accessed only by winding, gravel roads through a maze of villages and a vast expanse of desert."

This is what Eid is like in one of Afghanistan’s most dangerous provinces

Washington Post (July 2014) - A visit to a hospital in southern Afghanistan brings home the price civilian victims must pay in the ongoing conflict.

"A baby — naked, with red-hennaed feet and round eyes lined with kohl — screamed in anguish as emergency doctors in this area’s hospital for war victims stitched up a finger-size gash on the side of her tiny head. In a ward down the hall, a young woman had just been brought to the intensive care unit from the district of Sangin. A stray bullet from fighting between Taliban gunmen and Afghan forces struck her while she was sleeping; she bled for eight hours before it was safe to leave for the hospital." 

Photos: What life looks like in Helmand province

Washington Post (August 2014) - Erin's Instagram photos make their way into the Washington Post, this time from her trip to Helmand province in Afghanistan.

These and many more are available at the link above or at on her dedicated Instagram page.

For middle-class Kabul district, the insurgency comes home

Washington Post (August 2014) - Erin visits a neighbourhood of Afghanistan's capital that has seen a larger than usual rise in violence. She talks to the families who live there.

"At sunset on this summer day, a commercial airliner took off with a roar, making a sharp ascent over the rugged peaks. Microbuses trundled up the steep mountainsides to ferry laborers home from work, the men bringing home pink plastic bags brimming with cucumbers, carrots and okra for their evening meal.

“I grew up with war, but the children,” Qassim said, trailing off. “We wish the bases would move.”"

Show Notes:

1:00 - National Book Award


1:22 - US Ambassador / Boston University Chat


4:32 Regarding Western Media Shrinking Overseas Bureaus:

Formal analysis from the American Journalism Review on the issue from 2011

A look back on the same issue from as far back as 1998, also by the American Journalism Review


7:02 - Operation Cast Lead

A three-week armed conflict between Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and Israel that began on 27 December 2008 and ended on 18 January 2009 in a unilateral ceasefire.


9:01 - Inter Press Service (official link)

Inter Press Service (Wikipedia Page)


10:49 - Watching Peter Arnett describe the First Gulf War


13:00 - Studying Arabic in Cairo:

The American University of Cairo

Cairo Ain Shams University in Cairo

AMIDEAST Arabic Study in Cairo

16:30 - Idea. Erin: It’s important to portray the Middle East as a region full of ordinary people, important to speak to ordinary people and speak to the issues of their lives.


18:45 - Why I Decided War Reporting Was No Longer Worth The Risk by Tom A. Peter, in The New Republic

Quoted paragraphs:


“Never before have Americans disliked journalists as much as they do now. Political coverage, which tends to be most contentious—and also to most influence perceptions of the press in general, thanks to its prominence—remains relentlessly even-handed, as a meta analysis of decades of presidential campaign reporting by University of Connecticut professor David D'Alessio has shown. Yet readers believe the opposite. In a 2011 Pew Research Center survey, two-thirds of respondents said that news stories are often inaccurate. About a third said the news media is “not professional.” Forty-two percent described the news media as immoral, with only 38 percent judging the profession as moral.

Working overseas, I rarely thought about how people process the news. To be certain, I never imagined people clamoring for foreign reporting. I assumed most people were indifferent but I took comfort in knowing that my profession provided a public record readily available if or when a person decided to devote time to an issue. More than anything, I worked as a journalist because I loved the day-to-day hustle. A possible higher purpose was what convinced me it was worth it when bad things happened, like getting caught up in an air strike or having a roadside bomb explode under the truck just in front of me.”


22:43 - Idea. Erin: It’s such an important time in the region, and to be a part of that, to speak to the people participating or affecting or being affected, it’s really amazing.


26:50 - Idea. Erin: What does foreign reporting accomplish? Maybe nothing. Can’t say for certain that it accomplishes anything.


35:50 - Erin’s Twitter account


36:07 - The Arabist Blog was launched in Cairo in November 2003, by Issandr El Amrani, partly as response to the the lack of interest in the domestic politics of Arab countries in much Western media. It focuses on Egypt but tries to follow broader issues in the Arab world, US policy in the Middle East and cultural developments throughout the region.


36:48 - Omar Ashour

Omar Ashour is a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Doha Center. His research focuses on jihadism, democratization, security sector reform and civil-military relations, armed conflict, and Islamist movements and ideologies in North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia. He is a lecturer in politics and director of the Middle East Politics Graduate Studies Program at the University of Exeter. He is the author of The De-Radicalization of Jihadists: Transforming Armed Islamist Movements.


37:38 - Kareem Shaheen, journalist with The Daily Star, a Lebanese newspaper


41:45 - ISIS


44:40 - Erin’s information is organized mainly by folders by country, then subject. Adds in color, interviews, tweets, etc to flesh out this information. It’s all backed up on Google Drive.


46:40 - Instapaper


48:45 - Goodreads


49:30 - Erin’s Instagram Account


53:20 - Erin’s Book Recommendation:

Drinking the Sea at Gaza: Days and Nights in a Land Under Siege, by Amira Hass


55:03 - Matt’s reads this week:

Dark Continent, Europe’s Twentieth Century by Mark Mazower

Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life by William Deresiewicz

Recommendations taken from Farnam Street Blog by Shane Parrish


56:40 - Erin’s Film: Iraq in Fragments by James Longley

Film trailer:

Interview with James Longley about the film:


59:30 - Alex's pick: for exercises for keeping flexible and healthy outside of just going to the gym or running.


1:00:00 - Erin’s Song: Soulshine by DJ Cam