learning pages / Practice

4.1 : As opportunities to travel shrink, opportunities to communicate across the world have improved rapidly.

While the opportunities for media houses to send journalists abroad have been shrinking, the ability of journalists to cover issues taking place on the other side of the world has been greatly increased thanks to recent advances in communication technologies. In fact, most coverage on global issues is now done from behind a desk. Fortunately, it is possible to produce high quality coverage on global issues, including migration, from this setting. All it requires is a fresh approach and a shift in perspective.

Most journalists, especially in countries where the media has limited financial resources, have relatively few opportunities to go into the field, especially abroad. But in reality, these restrictions might not be as important as they sound.

This is the way things stand, at least for now, and by and large journalists have been able to adapt. In fact, the vast majority of all coverage on development and global issues, including migration, is done from behind a desk – if it happens at all.

And sometimes even a small shift in your approach can bring change, not to mention the continued development of technologies that enable us to communicate with the rest of the world in a way that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago.  

If whole communities of migrants can live in a transnational world, who else if not journalists should be able to adapt to this new arena of globalized information and learn how to use it effectively to enhance their own work? 

Of course, journalists might need to overcome certain instinctive perceptions of borders, international space and other conventional ways of fragmenting the world (evident in the traditional division between domestic versus foreign news). They might need to work on developing their global imagination. But it is possible. While opportunities to travel shrink, the opportunities for journalists to cover world issues from behind their desk are improving rapidly. 

Once you have overcome the established habits that prevent us from seeing past borders, you won’t see much difference between writing a story on migration patterns in a remote region in your country or on the very same processes within West Africa. And, with proper research and engagement with local voices through email, mobile phone, Skype or other technologies, you would not necessarily need to go to either of these places to present a picture to your audience of the situation on the ground.  

This sort of ‘remote coverage’ is not without its potential pitfalls, and it’s important to make sure that any gaps in our knowledge aren’t filled with simplified narratives. This can happen, for instance, when journalists rely too much on institutional resources and generic agency news coverage that focuses narrowly on either large politics or on sensationalist issues, offering simplified pictures built on security discourse and framing of issues such as corruption, terrorism or criminality without examining the nuances.

But if certain rules and advice are followed, this sort of coverage can still be balanced and accurate enough to widen the global imagination of your audience. And it is important to recognize too that journalism depends on attitude and perspective as well as physical proximity – there are plenty of examples of Western journalism produced ‘in the field’ that nevertheless falls victim to many biases and assumptions about developing country contexts.

With commitment and humility, however, quality coverage of issues and events related to migration can be produced from behind a desk – regardless of whether that desk is located in Sofia, London, Nairobi or Buenos Aires.

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4.2 : Is a desk-based approach to global journalism possible?

Media outlets must cover landmark events and issues. But at the same time they have the opportunity to do something more, to offer the audience a deeper and more diverse picture of the reality around us, even without being on the ground. And journalists, by following this approach, can enrich their portfolios with unique and groundbreaking stories.

4.3 : Changing your approach to desk-based research.

There are a few preliminary steps you can take to begin with if you would like to enrich your desk-based coverage: starting with some broad research to give you an overview, compiling further resources to follow up, changing your routine a little and considering the criteria you want to select news coverage from agencies and other sources.

4.4 : Collecting findings from behind a table: tips and suggestions.

In the old days, reporters had to rely on expensive and unreliable communication services to develop their stories. Nowadays, journalists have a universe of new technologies to communicate across the world – reliably, instantly and for free (or almost). This is the ‘new normal’ for news coverage and journalists have to adapt to make the most of these new opportunities.

4.5 : Balance and analysis.

Covering culturally and geographically distant contexts brings a variety of challenges. How do you achieve the right balance? How can you feed it into the bigger picture? How do you avoid the dangers of depoliticization and other common pitfalls of Western coverage of the global south? How can you analyse a subject you are not yourself an expert in? And can you make these unfamiliar contexts relevant and accessible for your audience? Fortunately, there are tools which can help.

4.6 : Before you start.

Planning is the essence of good coverage. Before you go anywhere or start your work, define precisely what you are interested in. Then do the research – find out what is already known about the topic. Do not forget additional, contextual information while doing so. Write down from where and from whom you could get information, and how could you use it. And finally, categorize your sources – from those simple to obtain to others more difficult to reach – and begin with the latter.

4.7 : Giving your story a hook.

A hook is a technique to make your story engaging, going beyond the ‘five Ws’ of journalism: who, what, when, where and why. Put simply, it answers the question ‘So what?’. Another perspective relates to narrative technique to open your story to hook attention in order to keep reading/watching/listening. Here we deal with the former one. These can be, for example, various events or reports.

4.8 : Making entry into a community.

It is important to get voices of people whom the issue you cover somehow relates to. Therefore, it is important to enter the community itself when covering migration and/or development issues. Find tips and suggestions how to do that.

4.9 : Pitching stories to editors.

When you are attempting to challenge the dominant discourse, persuading media outlets to commission your stories can be more difficult. A good pitch could help. Journalists use pitches to persuade editors that their suggested topics are worth covering.

4.10 : Live reporting.

Being in the field is a unique opportunity to bring something special – such as live reporting. Find inspiration about what you can do and how to do it.

4.11 : On the ground.

You are in the field – with all the challenges that brings. How can you proceed to find valuable content? Leave enough time to be able to distance yourself and gain perspective. Do not overestimate your memory and don’t forget about accompanying visual materials. And be flexible!

4.12 : Stories through the concept of nonuniform modernization(s).

As journalists, you will often encounter stories taking place in unknown environments, in culturally unfamiliar or geographically distant contexts. In these cases, it is often useful to use an analytical tool to grasp the topic in a structured way. One useful approach is the concept of nonuniform modernization.

4.13 : Dilemmas in the field.

Fieldwork brings a variety of challenges and even dilemmas for journalists. Some common examples of these are covered here. They include cooperation with NGOs, international organizations, local representatives, community members themselves and fixers.

4.14 : Working with your fixer.

One of the ways to overcome the challenges journalists face in unknown contexts is to cooperate with a fixer who will be able to fill you in on the background and help you access the stories you need. There are websites such as www.worldfixer.com or www.hostwriter.org where you can find more information. Another option is to engage with groups on social media and ask other journalists for advice.

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