Risks, challenges and rewards of international reporting

October 8, 2018 11:00

A panel of former and current foreign correspondents offered their advice on entering the field at EIJ18 in a session titled “So you want to be a foreign correspondent . . .”
 
Resources and attention given to foreign news is in decline in the U.S., was the general consensus amongst the panelists, but international reporting can be a rewarding field.
 
Robert Buckman, a retired professor of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, said those aspiring to be foreign correspondents do not have to travel abroad to begin developing an area of expertise and generating stories for their portfolio.
 
“There are always opportunities to do a localized international story,” Buckman said.
 
For example, a story can be done on soybeans or another important crop or product in the area and the impact changing tariffs have in their market.  
 
When pitching stories, Geoffrey Cain, writer and journalist who has focused on East Asia, said, “Don’t limit yourself to American outlets; look at British publications.”  He said there is a strong demand from foreign news outlets for profiles of victims, their perpetrators and the lawyers that represent them.
 
Putting a face to a story is going to help readers understand a larger issue and its impact at the individual level, said Jason Strother, a multimedia journalist who is based in Seoul and reports on the Korean peninsula.
 
Parachute Journalism
Jim Clancy, media trainer and former CNN correspondent, said in his career when he was parachuted into an assignment, he did as much preliminary research as possible. 
 
Parachute journalism, the practice of journalists arriving in an area usually to cover breaking news they may not have much understanding of, can lead to clichés and stereotypes in reporting, according to an article published on poynter.org.
 
Clancy recommends referring to the CIA Factbook for profile information on a country such as the type of government, list of the ethnic groups, religious breakdown and description of their economy. He also skims previous stories written about the area.  
 
“When I arrive (in the country) I learn what the day’s story is and what tomorrow’s is going to be,” Buckman said.
 
The cab driver who is driving a journalist to the hotel, the server, the bartender at a restaurant, are all potential sources for quotes and background information on the community a reporter will be reporting on, Buckman said. 
 
Cain said he makes local friends to help guide him in a new country.  “You have to find little gateways,” he said.
 
He hires an assistant who he pays a percentage of what he makes. An assistant, Cain said, is invaluable in helping to bridge the gap of his understanding of an unfamiliar culture.
 
If there is time to plan on reporting assignment abroad, Cain recommends taking a language course.
 
Risks
Foreign correspondents must put into consideration their security at all times, Cain said. 
 
He uses a burner phone when entering a country with minimal to no protections lent to journalists and limits the use of the phone to his time in one particular country. Cain has experienced authorities confiscating his phone temporarily to install spyware. Therefore, he does not cross over the information on his burner phone to other devices or accounts as a precaution to avoid spreading malware.
 
It’s possible to enter a country with a tourist visa but the risk, he said, could be arrest if you are discovered to be a reporter. 
 
He said it’s not uncommon for foreign journalist to be accused of espionage or other bogus charges. 
 
Clancy has taken training that prepares journalists for a variety of scenarios in which they may face danger, such as being held by gunpoint. 
 
“Most journalist are killed in conflict zones in the first 72 hours they are in the country,” Clancy said. “If the locals are not on the road they have a reason.  Is it worth going down that road?  But not everywhere is dangerous.  There are some nice stories out there,” he said.
 
Opportunities
Donald Kirk, the panel host and a veteran correspondent, said, that with the age of the internet, it has not increased the quality of international reporting. 
 
There is a rise of international business reporting with publications like Dow Jones and Forbes, Strother said. Al Jazeera Media Network is another source for international news.
 
Kirk said being a foreign journalist may not be the easiest path to pursue but can be rewarding and always full of adventure.

After all, that's where Murrow himself got his start in news.