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.
- It is, of course, a challenge to ensure you get the right balance in a story which takes place far from your own context. You may not be familiar with the local power structures in place, and Western coverage of issues in the global south can all too easily be built on assumptions rather than knowledge – the sadly common tendency towards ethnocentric, paternalistic, simplified or ahistoric coverage. (Check What is a development journalism for more).
However, there are simple tools to face these challenges.
You should, for instance, make an effort to identify the hierarchies at play – these are always present, even if they are invisible at first glance. Who are the powerful and who are the powerless? How is that power communicated and experienced? And where do you yourself, as a Western journalist, sit within those structures? Be attuned to any inequalities at play, including those between yourself and your subjects – global north/south, majority/minority, rich/poor, men/women, old/young.
In terms of ensuring you have an inclusive and ‘bottom up’ narrative, put your emphasis on the most marginalized or ignored members of society, even if it goes against your predefined opinion on the issue. It is especially important when covering issues that affect minorities.
Look out for red flags – particularly if you think there aren’t any! If something in an unknown context fits too exactly into your existing understanding of the world or the explanation seems too obvious, take a moment to question it. Because there is a danger that you are only looking for confirmation of what you’ve already assumed the situation to be.
There are always hidden variables at play that as journalists you need to be aware of when covering local contexts, especially in relation to minorities. If you accept the most immediate narrative, then you may end up only capturing the views of the majority and their perceptions of a particular minority, for example, rather than the thoughts and feelings of members of the minority themselves. (See more in Ethics of covering migration).
- Strive to be as analytical as possible. If you are covering unfamiliar issues, whether from your desk or on the ground, it always helps to do so through the lens of an analytical framework to help structure how you collect and process information.
You could, for example, use sustainable development as a conceptual framework. Though this may sound too vague as a concept, given its overuse, it actually offers a simple and practical approach to view complex issues. It’s always instructive to examine a story holistically, looking at its social, economic and ecological dimensions together. See more in Covering a story from sustainable development perspective.
Another option is to take a little sociological turn, and look at the issues through the lens of nonuniform modernization. This might at first seem too ‘academic’ approach for journalism, but it in fact can be a very useful tool to understand the complexities of global development today.
You can divide migration and other global issues three distinct, but interlinked aspects – sociodemographic, economic and political – of modernization. If these parts are not in ‘alignment’, this can cause tensions: ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors in the case of migration, stressors in the case of development issues more generally. See more in Covering a story through the lens of nonuniform modernization.
- Keep the big picture in mind. Always. How does the story fit into a wider frame? What are the political, social and global forces behind it? Avoid depoliticization and the tendency to transfer responsibility from power structures to individuals or marginalized groups. This is especially the case for refugees and asylum seekers who are often blamed for their decision to move or ‘take advantage’ of European countries, rather than focusing on the conflict or persecution that forced them to leave their home countries.
Remembering the big picture, taking politics and social perspectives into account, ensures that you will look at root causes of migration, not just the consequences, and that you will never fall into the trap of viewing structural long-term poverty in episodic or situational terms. Poverty and insecurity do not exist in a vacuum.
- Be relative – try to liken the issue to something local, something your audience will be able to imagine more accurately. Like when you put a box of matches into a picture to show the size of another object.
At the same time, be cautious about simplification as well as imposing your own predefined understandings of your own society onto the issue. This is something minorities, for example, frequently experience in mainstream majority reporting.
- Look for the ‘macro’ story in ‘micro’ details. For instance, if you are covering the climate change summit, try to look at it from an alternative, underreported perspective. This will make your story fresh and distinctive. What will the summit mean in practical terms for those living in extreme poverty? Do they actually have some voice at the summit? And what about certain groups among the very poor who may face specific challenges, too, such as refugees or indigenous peoples?
Simply put, you need to find another angle. Look at its scheduled programme and see if you can find inspiration in any side-events, such as discussion panels and screenings. Is there, for example, a panel on migration in the age of climate change? And who are the speakers and how is the topic described in the invitation? Will they stream this discussion online?