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.
Planning is the essence of good coverage. Irrespective of whether you are working from behind a desk or in the field, solid research and planning is where good journalism begins. This is especially true if you don’t really know a lot about the topic: in that case, probably the most important thing is to be honest about your limitations and be guided by the Socratic paradox I know that I know nothing.
From this starting point, you can take the following steps, adapted from a textbook on migration reporting People Between the Lines: A Handbook on Migration for (Future) Journalists. At the end of the section, there is also a short list of handy tips on how to prepare for the technical challenges of field reporting.
- Clearly define what precisely are you interested in. It is very important to do this at the very beginning as it will help you later on once the topic starts to run away from your original idea. It is natural for the focus of your research to shift, and this is not bad in itself as it can open up new and unknown perspectives on the subject. But it is important to be able to control it.
Having this initial roadmap of your objectives will be especially helpful during the final stage of processing the information you have collected, enabling you to cut content that is irrelevant to your story, however interesting this information may be. Remember, you can still use this material later on, in another piece.
Besides being a real time saver, you can use this technique to pitch your idea outline. You can read more on this in the section on pitching the story to your editor.
- Find out what is known about the issue. Go through domestic and foreign coverage of the topic to collect source materials – if possible, explore local media stories to find new perspectives. Particularly before heading to the field, it is important to develop a strong sense of the local context and the different social relationships at play there.
Write down the angles and motives you uncover from the articles, useful statistical data and the relations between the key actors (we recommend mind mapping for that). Examine the selection of concrete respondents, why were they selected and who you could quote from foreign media sources or contact directly.
Go through press releases and/or reports of the European Commission, relevant UN bodies, NGOs (check Did you look into these websites?). Look at relevant checklists to find interesting media, institutions and organizations, and individuals who could help you.
When approach individuals or institutions, try to ask only for information that isn’t publicly available. There are many reasons to avoid asking about information that you can access easily in reports, media articles or other published sources: for one, it can appear unprofessional and even rude to ask someone for information that you could find out yourself. Time is precious, after all. What’s more, it may deprive you of the chance to discuss more interesting areas of the subject that aren’t featured in the available sources.
It is a bit different when you simply would like to have something explained. Even off the record. You can, for example, invite an expert for coffee and openly admit that you want to cover some area of her or his expertise but that you are new to the topic. Experts, especially those from NGOs and think tanks, are usually happy to help and your meeting may also help you to build other contacts and, most importantly, gain a good background in the subject.
- While researching what is already known, look out for additional information. This could be an unexpected data source or case study that puts your story into wider context.
For example, if you are covering the negotiation of a new EU migration policy, you are likely to be looking at it from the perspective of your government and the impact on your country’s labour market. But what about the position of other countries in the EU, such as France or Germany, and their perspectives on the proposed policy?
While the focus is often on receiving countries, it might also be illuminating to look at the situation in migrants’ countries of origin. How do the Ukrainian or Serbian governments view the issue? If you want to dig deeper, you could also look at diaspora networks and follow social media groups of foreign nationals in your country who might be affected by the new policy.
All this information might be on the periphery of the story you want to cover, but it will help set the context and give the story more depth and perspective. In the end it will make your coverage more credible and bring a more accurate picture to your audience.
- Don’t rely only on official sources for your research. Particularly in underreported countries, the majority of data and analysis may be from large governmental or international bodies such as the European Commission, UN bodies or national statistical offices. It can be tempting under the circumstances to use these are your only sources – but try to resist! In the same way, when you are in the field, do not build the story entirely around the version of events presented by the representative of the community.
Sure, they all seem like authorities, and they are – that is often part of the problem. These sources can be superficial and generalizing, and they are also in a position of power within the society or the community: this may be true not only in the case of a director of an international NGO or a central government minister belonging to a dominant group, but also in some instances among leaders of a minority or indigenous people who may not represent the views of many in their community. You should not ignore them, but you should make sure you consult much more widely. See post on balancing and analysing for more.
Make a list of the different people, institutions and organizations who may present different ‘sides’ to the story who may have important perspectives to share on the topic. Ideally they might combine from a variety of perspectives and social, political and economic positions, including most importantly the powerless and marginalized who might normally not be acknowledged in official accounts. While doing so, think about how you would like to use and connect the data you get. One common trick is to alternate statistics with the voices of people or experts. This can read well and give credibility to your output.
Take advantage of local knowledge by consulting with local editors, reporters, NGOs and other sources. Identify ‘guides’ in the local community before your departure – see the post on gaining entrance to communities.
Never rely on only one resource and don’t expect something like pure neutrality or objectivity. Bear in mind that every source, every institution, every NGO, looks at the issue from its own point of view and follows its own agenda.
In the case of statistics, even those we can trust as reliable, you should not assume they are necessarily relevant to your story. Statistics are often extrapolated from large datasets and work with indices such as means or medians that may not capture the nuances of smaller individual stories.
And if these small stories are too ‘far’ at the margins, these statistics could be misleading. The situation of minorities, who are often excluded from development, are one such example: their predicament may be concealed or even contradicted if the national average in their country as a whole is much better than their specific circumstances.
Statistics are all very well, but they only measure what they measure, nothing more or less. Your story may need to focus instead on what the official figures leave out.
- Categorize your sources, ranging from easily available to virtually inaccessible, essential to insignificant. Some information may be within easy reach, on the IOM website or common knowledge on the street. In other cases, what you are looking for may be much harder to obtain. Getting this information may require not only time, energy and financial resources, but also well developed social networks.
Put all the sources into the list, delete those which are difficult to get and at the same time not that significant, and focus on the rest. Start with those that are difficult to obtain, to give yourself enough time. Those that are more easily obtainable can usually be accessed without too much planning.
It is generally not advisable with fieldwork to leave things to chance on the presumption that it will all work out somehow. That, for example, when we arrive that there will be someone relevant who we can speak to. That person might, for instance, be on vacation and bang, your story is destroyed. Or you go to an area from where many migrants to your country originate from, in Senegal or Serbia or Ukraine, for example, and suddenly you find out that there is nobody there who can speak your language.
In any case, it is possible to avoid the pitfalls by engaging a fixer as a kind of middleman (more in the section on Fixers). The more effort you put into the preparations before the actual fieldwork begins, the easier it will be for you to collect and process the information once you are there.
Other handy tips:
- Know the geography. Get local travel advice and maps in advance. Make sure you will have coverage for your mobile phone. Don’t expect to depend solely on GPS, especially when going into remote locations.
- Take care of your equipment. Carry backup equipment, a range of adaptors and cables, and extra batteries and storage. Test all your gear beforehand. Take backup media to ensure your files will be safe. And use this backup!
- Plan how you will file your copy. Make sure you know where you will have internet access. Research internet facilities at your hotel; look for public access points. Make sure you know how to connect to your newsroom remotely. It might sound irrelevant in this age, but there are still areas where it really matters.