How joining The Spectrum led me to become an award-winning reporter

When I was 24 years old, I quit my job as a TV news producer to be a freelance reporter in Lebanon.

My coworkers asked, “Which news outlets will buy your articles?” I didn’t know. My family tried stopping me, saying it was too dangerous. I didn’t care.

I was confident I could succeed as an overseas reporter—largely because of my experience at the University at Buffalo.

Fortunately, I was right.

My eight-month trip resulted in: an investigative piece for Vox, a multimedia news company; two articles for Al Jazeera, an international news outlet; and the biggest story of my career: an exposé on the rise of suicide among Syrian child brides.

I would have never moved overseas or gotten my work published...if it weren’t for a huge mistake I made at UB.

Lisa Khoury reporting in Lebanon.

Becoming an award-winning reporter at UB

Rewind to 2011. I was a 19-year-old sophomore, majoring in English and confused about what I wanted to do with my life. So, I joined The Spectrum, UB’s student-run newspaper, to give journalism a try.

What I didn’t realize was I had just joined—in my opinion—the best journalism program in the country.

You see, The Spectrum is not funded by the student government or university administration, which means there’s zero censorship over the content. That gives students the chance to both expose the truth and learn from their mistakes. And boy, did I do both.

In fact, just a few months after joining the paper, I made the biggest mistake of my career.

I wrote an opinion column on my distaste for tattoos—but, ignorantly, in a condescending way. The piece went viral, triggering thousands of people to send me hate mail.

After days of crying, I had an epiphany: if my words could impact people across the world, what if I could use them for good? That lit a fire under me that has yet to go away: to be an investigative journalist who can make a positive impact.

My junior year, I spent seven months writing an investigative story exposing crime and absentee landlords in Buffalo’s University Heights neighborhood. It won the Society of Professional Journalists’ 2013 national Mark of Excellence Award for in-depth reporting—the first-ever in UB history.

Then, as a senior, I spent nine months working on a story which, for the first time in Buffalo media history, exposed UB’s unrecognized fraternities. It won the 2014 Mark of Excellence award for in-depth reporting for Region 1 and was a finalist for the national award.

Thanks to those stories, I got an internship at ABC World News, a producing job at Spectrum News, a cable news television channel in Buffalo and, eventually, an awakening that I could use my skills to make a career as a reporter overseas.

But that realization didn’t come right away.

Lisa Khoury surrounded by children in Lebanon.

Leaving for Lebanon

I sat in my car in downtown Buffalo crying.

It was a bitter-cold January afternoon, and I felt deeply unfulfilled.

I fell in love with journalism at UB because I was able to expose the truth and evoke change. But nearly two years into being a producer, I was struggling to do the same.

So that April, I made the scariest decision of my life: quit my secure job and move to Lebanon.

I grew up visiting the tiny Middle Eastern country, where my parents were born, and adored the serene landscapes, warmhearted people and spiritual aura. My dream was to live and make a career out of telling stories there.

I showed up with a small savings account, Ziplock bags of American coffee and no idea of what to do next.

I knew there were tons of Syrian, Palestinian and Iraqi refugees in Lebanon. But I had no clue how to find, and eventually publish, their stories.

Lisa Khoury talking to children in Lebanon.

The Spectrum prepared me for the Middle East

Who would’ve thought my time searching for stories at UB, and convincing people to let me interview them, would help me in Lebanon.

As a student reporter, my job was to find stories around campus. Whether I was going to class or out with friends, I was constantly on the lookout.

In Lebanon, I took the same approach.

On my very first day, I went to a cell phone store. The employee helping me was 10 years old. Ding! A story idea: child labor. From that day forward, I sought out and interviewed more child workers—and wrote an in-depth piece on the rise of child labor among Syrian refugees.

At The Spectrum, I was still a student, so interviews with peers often turned into personal, relatable conversations. 

In Lebanon, I realized that’s how I needed to treat refugees.

A couple of months into my trip, I caught wind that Syrian girls were being forced into early marriage. So, I toured camps across the country, asking to meet girls married young. Most turned me away.

Then, I realized I needed to gain these refugees’ trust—and show just how much I empathize with their plight.

I started sharing my own story: how my parents emigrated to America before I was born; how their struggles made me grateful to be American; and how I’m trying to use my position as a journalist to expose important, yet under-reported issues—including child marriage.

Then, girls started opening up—detailing their suicide attempts, rapes and beatings.

In December 2017, I returned home and wrote a groundbreaking story—exposing a severely under-reported issue: how early marriage is causing Syrian girls to attempt suicide.

I could have never done that without the hands-on experience I gained at UB.

Lisa Khoury overlooking a landscape in Lebanon.

Carving out the career of my dreams

Aspiring journalists often take out loans for schools that are more well-known for their journalism programs. But do those students get the same real-world experience as The Spectrum reporters?

Not always. In schools like Syracuse and Mizzou, whose programs are so competitive, most journalism students don’t have the chance to become reporters or editors for their newspaper or TV newscast (and not to mention, are paying triple the price in tuition).

UB may not have a fancy journalism program—but that’s the beauty of it. It’s one of the few universities that gives everyone a chance to report. And if you take advantage of that opportunity, you may just carve the career of your dreams.

Story by Lisa Khoury

Lisa Khoury (BA '14, CERT '14) is a freelance journalist in Buffalo, predominantly working as a producer at Spectrum News. She is heading to Lebanon on July 7, 2019, for another freelance reporting trip. In 2017, she covered the Syrian and Palestinian refugee crises for news outlets like Al Jazeera, Vox and HuffPost. She’s also written for The Buffalo News and ABC World News, and won two national awards for her investigative work at The Spectrum, UB’s student-run newspaper. Visit her website to learn more.


Published July 10, 2019