First-time international reporting: Tips from a former foreign correspondent

 
Photographers covering a rally in Istanbul. (David Trilling)
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This tip sheet is designed for journalists with no experience reporting abroad who want a primer on how to prepare. At the bottom of this page is a list of resources that could be useful to any journalist looking for international data.

The key takeaway: Don’t just show up in a new country. Read and do your homework before you go. If you can, go somewhere you speak the language. Knowing the scene will help you avoid clichés and stereotypes in your coverage. Keep in mind the problems that “parachute journalists” — those who jump into a situation and then jump out — can create for the journalists who are based in the country. Sweeping generalizations and mischaracterizations can anger local groups and make all journalists targets of annoyance or worse. The best stories bring nuance to a situation; ideas for these pieces tend to come about after a lot of reading and talking to people on the ground.

If you jump in with a preconceived story idea, it’s likely you will turn out only boilerplate that your colleagues will ridicule and will do little to advance understanding. Often, the best reporting abroad is on a beat the journalist already knows — such as education or migration. It includes a nod to the big picture, reflections on what is happening in your patch within a wider global story.

Developing story ideas:

Read. A lot. The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) and The CIA Factbook are good sources of information and ideas. Wikipedia is another place to start, especially the footnotes. Go to the primary sources and look for independent news outlets that focus on the country or region you will be visiting (in the Caucasus, for example, check out Caucasian Knot and EurasiaNet.org; in the Balkans try Balkan Insight). If you don’t speak the language, look for an English-language news website focusing on the country. Local news can be a great way to generate story ideas.

Sign up for Google Alerts, which send you news stories on the topics or geographical areas in which you’re interested. Start with one for the country. Then build others, using combinations of key words.

Many countries — even the smallest, poorest ones — have official websites written in English these days, often with contact information for press offices. Call and be persistent.

The U.S. State Department has a page for each country with background briefings on everything from census data to human rights reports. (Some of these are written in cautious diplomatese due to bilateral sensitivities. They should not be used as a sole source.)

Speak with NGOs, local journalists, barkeepers and expatriates. If you don’t speak the language, visit an English-language school. Students will be happy to practice with you and you can learn a lot from them.

Track relevant bills in the U.S. Congress by searching for your destination country.

Hire a fixer — someone to help you set up meetings, arrange transportation and sometimes translate — and be prepared to pay for that help.

Planning your trip — visas and accreditation:

On its website, the State Department hosts updated information about visa requirements and travel warnings. Find the U.S. embassy in your destination country for information on local security concerns, lists of doctors and lawyers and emergency contact information (this is usually filed under “American citizen services”).

Another source of visa information is Project Visa, but make sure the page for your country of interest has been updated recently.

Foreign ministries/ministries of external affairs often have a webpage in English with visa requirements.

Press credentials: Many countries require these and issue them through their foreign ministries. Applications can take time. Every country has different requirements. India, for example, requires a visiting journalist to apply for a press visa and recommends an accreditation card, which can be useful for attending government events and press conferences. In some countries, particularly those with more authoritarian styles of government, doing reporting work on a tourist visa is illegal and can get you deported or worse.

For more information on press requirements, try asking foreign correspondents based in the country you will visit. You can often find and contact them through Twitter or their own websites.

Health and safety:

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention outlines health concerns and vaccination recommendations by destination.

If you get food poisoning or a case of Delhi belly, and especially if you are dehydrated, drink fluids with sugars and salts to help you replenish and retain liquid. Pedialyte makes small packets of electrolyte boosters that can be mixed with water. Gatorade is great, but a coke will also help. Yogurt can also help with some stomach bugs. Consult a doctor — U.S. embassy websites often carry lists of doctors they recommend.

Wear your seatbelt — it’s probably the best thing you can do to protect yourself in a conflict zone.

Don’t travel alone into a war zone.

Before covering conflict or a natural disaster, consider signing up for a course like Centurion’s Hostile Environment and Emergency First Aid. AKE offers something similar. Poynter has more on this type of training.

Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, the James W. Foley Foundation and Reporters Without Borders have announced a curriculum guide to help educators teach students about the risks of reporting abroad.

Other logistics:

Currency: You will want to know whether you can get cash when you arrive. Most banks and individual people are happy to exchange dollars, but what is the rate? Find out before you go so you aren’t ripped off on arrival. XE.com offers official rates, though countries like Angola and Uzbekistan have black market traders that will offer a lot more for cash (beware, this can be illegal).

Computer security:

Don’t travel with sensitive data. Leave a backup of your computer at home.

Encrypt your devices. Julia Angwin offers some essential security tips on her website.

If you need to access blocked websites, try using the free Tor browser or a virtual private network, better known as a VPN. In some countries (such as the United Arab Emirates), this can be illegal, though.

Data sources and economic reports:

One of the hardest things to get when reporting in the developing world is good data. Multilateral organizations often get their numbers from local governments. (So be prepared to use qualifiers, especially if the data are from an opaque place like Turkmenistan, where the president, who calls himself “The Protector,” claims he presides over “The Era of Supreme Happiness of the Stable State.” Turkmenistan regularly wows the world by reporting some of the fastest GDP growth on the planet.)

Those caveats notwithstanding, this list includes some of the most useful sources of data and research available on international affairs:

Other resources:

The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma has a number of online resources for reporting in life-threatening and emotionally challenging environments, such as this one on covering refugees.

The Online News Association offers tips on international reporting, as does the International Center for Journalists.

For a meditation on the future of foreign correspondence, check out this 2016 piece in the British Journalism Review.

Grants:

There are a number of grants available for journalists seeking to fund their international reporting. Applications can be rigorous, and can force you to do useful research before embarking on a reporting trip. Here are lists from the Rory Peck Trust and NewsLab.

 

Keywords: foreign reporting, foreign correspondence, travel, parachute journalism, international reporting

    Writer: | Last updated: September 20, 2016

     

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