What I have learnt about being a foreign correspondent

If there’s anything I’ve learnt about being a journalist it’s that things are quite often not as simplistic as they seem. They might get even blurrier when reporting from societies other than yours. A different environment or culture and even a different language might all seem too much of a change to handle when trying to tell stories. Then add meeting unending demands of a 24 hour news cycle, quenching the ever-present thirst of social media and conquering every other facet of the technological age, whilst maintaining professional and ethical standards. It’s exhausting even just thinking about it. So how do you do it? How does one immerse oneself in a completely different environment successfully enough to find and deliver truths to the world?

Number one, you begin even before you get there.
To understand the dynamics of any society, one has to develop a keen sense of curiosity or desire to know. In a classroom lecture, I had the privilege of asking BBC Latin America/Middle East Correspondent Wyre Davies how he got to understand the deep rooted conflicts in the Middle East and become confident enough to report on them. “The simple answer is research” he said. He explained that consuming as much information as he could about a topic or place helped him understand the unfolding events. This includes reading previously published material and keeping abreast with daily reports. So even before you arrive at your location your mind is prepared and you are in touch and quite familiar with the issues.

But certainly, reading about something and being physically present in the situation are completely different experiences. And sometimes what you read only reinforces certain stereotypes about a place or its people. So foreign correspondents must try as best as possible to avoid stereotypes or try to add a fresh perspective through their journalism. Cardiff University lecturer Linda Mitchell says journalists should be careful when re-presenting reality for audiences. This makes sense particularly now when access to media content is infinite and media campaigns seem to be shaping public action and discourse more everyday. However this doesn’t mean you must hold your tongue when it is time to speak truth to power, you only have to be responsible about it.

One area that requires much responsibility from foreign correspondents is religion. Looking at modern-day journalism it is quite impossible to ignore religion given the rise of ethnic conflicts and religious insurgencies. The subject is very much relevant today but still remains one of confusion and controversy. BBC Wales’ Roy Jenkins believes this presents a new challenge for journalists everywhere as they must try not to oversimplify or generalise ideologies of religion.

Several research show an increasing trend in reporting religious conflict especially in Western media. Former BBC journalist Michael Munnik supposes this is because news itself is focused on negativity or conflict and so the media ends up reproducing negative assumptions about religions which are found in certain individuals or cultures. For better coverage of the subject Roy Jenkins proposes “an understanding of the world through the eye of religion”. But what do you do in a position where both the religion and the world are quite complex to comprehend?

In places like Mexico where religion is co-opted and employed by ultra-violent criminal groups, foreign journalists find themselves in a dilemma. On one hand these groups support the community but on the other hand they commit extremely vicious crimes. And when journalists insist on telling these stories they are often flooded with death threats and in worst cases are kidnapped, tortured and/or killed.

What makes such environments even less desirable to work in is when authorities resign to the status quo, allowing criminal groups to operate with relative impunity. Freelance reporter Ela Stapely reckons Mexico is one of the most dangerous places for journalists. During her time there her worries stretched from typical struggles like protecting sensitive information to unfathomable life-or-death experiences. The advice she gives to emerging journalists is to take digital security and safety very seriously.
In today’s technologically advanced world simply turning on the location of any mobile device could get you into trouble. Stapley advises foreign correspondents to undertake courses on digital security, emotional self-care or even the basic first aid training. Such training exist in organisations like Global Journalist Security (GJS) or the Rory Peck Trust.

The truth is the risks faced by journalists reporting conflict or crime anywhere is increasing. So some might prefer a relatively safer but equally interesting beat like business/economics. The key to becoming a master in this area (and in my opinion journalism itself) is to understand and use language in its simplest form. One key struggle for journalists – perhaps more so foreign correspondents, is to not only find the right words but also use them in the right way. In this field one wrong word can kill the impartiality of an entire story. Global media organisations like the BBC train journalists in the language of news reporting and impartiality.
Speaking of language, a second or third language is quite useful for foreign correspondents. It makes interaction easier and is therefore one less thing to worry about.

Frankly, when I examine in its entirety the role of foreign correspondents, I am amazed by how they put it together so seamlessly in the end. I have learned that the industry requires not just “good journalists” but diverse individuals who can think on their feet, multitask, embrace change and keep up with new technology relevant to contemporary foreign news reporting. But as fulfilling as the job may be, I’ve learned to know when to stop and breathe. Self-care is important.
Foreign news reporting is usually considered the peak of a journalism career. It might take time to get there and the job might be difficult but you also get to experience some “once in a lifetime” events and even more importantly tell the stories you believe are worth hearing and shed light on hidden truths. Think about that!

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