From hunter-gatherer to farmer: evolution of the foreign correspondent

[I’m at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia. This post is cross-posted from the Citizenside blog]

The task of foreign reporting is changing profoundly. Thanks to social media channels, readers from Ohio to Osaka can get information straight from the source in other countries. So do we still need foreign correspondents?

This dinosaur just evolved.

Richard Sambrook, formerly head of Global News at the BBC, knows his foreign reporters. He was on a panel at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy, along with Mimosa Martini and Mort Rosenblum. He described a vivid image of foreign correspondents as they were in the past:

You could call the old model the hunter-gatherer correspondent. Twenty years ago the average foreign correspondent was white, male, middle-class, didn’t speak the local language, relied on perhaps a dozen sources in the country he was posted, and only had to make one or maybe two deadlines a day. This model doesn’t exist any more.

When a reader in New York can simply follow the twitter feed of a protestor in Tahrir  square, it’s clear that that style of working and living is no longer possible. Those old correspondents often benefited from the limited information available to readers and viewers back home. “One of the dirty secrets of foreign reporting,” said  Sambrook, “Is that you could in the past say what you wanted and the people back home would just have to trust you. They’d never know. Now they will know.” So is foreign reporting dead? It’s more important than ever to know what’s happening around the world and how it could affect all of us. But do we need foreign reporters for this? After all, foreign reporting has several big drawbacks, as enumerated by panel moderator Charlie Beckett:

  1. It costs a lot of money. Sending highly-paid reporters (especially TV reporters, with their expensive kit and teams of assisitants) abroad is expensive.
  2. Often foreign trips are just ego trips. Many foreign correspondents have become celebrities. They’re part of the story, and often the correspondents want to be seen ducking the bullets. They’re easily accused of being vultures. “Photojournalists are even worse,” said Beckett. “They pretend their work is some sort of art form. Do we really need them?”
  3. Colonialism of the mind. If you have to send someone out, then the news has to be reported from a home perspective. We hear correspondents talking about ‘Our troops’ etc. What about seeing things from the perspective of the locals? Isn’t that interesting?
  4. New technology means you don’t need to send anyone. In early days of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, we learned more through social media than anything else. Why not just hire local professionals? Why not train up locals instead of sending your people? Why not partner up with local news agencies? “Don’t get on a plane, get networked,” said Beckett.

Goodbye information scarcity, hello managing abundance

In many cases, technology has made eyewitness reports of events in far-away countries widely available. Our members’ reports from the Ivory Coast to Algeriashow how much is possible. So is there still a role for professionals to play? Sambrook says yes, but it’s vastly changed from the old hunter-gatherer model. Sambrook described the new way of working as the “Farmer correspondent”:

Now a foreign reporter has to be multilingual. People drawn from diverse backgrounds, often with a strong history of connection to the country they’re placed in. They’re working with hundreds of sources, thanks to social media.

I found this description interesting because it describes precisely the sort of work our editorial team at Citizenside does every day. We interact with our community of thousands of contributors worldwide, asking for more information, verifying packages, and making sure that the best information makes its way to our homepage. This sort of work doesn’t even have to be on location – Andy Carvin’s work on the revolutions in the middle eastis an excellent example of this. Really the task of a foreign reporter is becoming more editorial. Instead of seeking out and transmitting scarce bits of information, the task is managing an abundance of eyewitness information shared through social media. It’s collating, curating, and explaining context and implications in a way that readers back home can understand easily. There is still a role for pros sent out into the field, especially in conflict situations. Conflict reporting is dangerous. Mimosa Martini described a situation that occurred to her in Iran:

When I was in Iran, covering the election and subsequent riots, my Iranian cameraman turned his camera off. He was afraid he’d get trouble from the security services. I argued with him, but eventually realised he was right. What’s the worst they could do to me? Send me out of the country. To him? Far, far worse.

But parachuted correspondents like this aren’t specialists in the local situation: they’re crisis reporting specialists. There’s simply no way they can ever know a situation and gain access as well as the people who live there. That’s exactly why the members of the Citizenside community are so important. You know your own backyard like no one else. You are all foreign correspondents, to our readers in other countries. Your intimate access to the news happening right around you is your huge advantage.

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