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.
Anyone who has the slightest experience from the field knows that it’s very different to working in the comfort of your office or even at a press conference. This otherwise trivial statement is especially true for situations when we’re working with individuals or groups who language, society and culture we may not understand. To us as journalists, this presents challenges and dilemmas we don’t usually face: for instance, those related to the portrayal of people.
This post will cover some of the few potential dilemmas you may encounter in the field. This list is drawn from the textbook People Between the Lines: A Handbook on Migration for (Future) Journalists, and amended by the experience of participants of Media, Minorities and Migration programme.
As already mentioned a number of times, we should be careful about the assumptions we unwittingly project onto the world, depending on who are, and how that affects the messages we produce. At the same time, we have to take into account that the people we meet in the field also have their own ideas about the world – and their own agendas.
Imagine you’re reporting on an indigenous community in the Kenyan countryside. Their members are subject to long-term discrimination from majority communities, including the dispossession of their land and the forests where they have lived since time immemorial and are the foundation of their traditional way of life. This may lead the members of the community to leave their homeland and move to a city or emigrate abroad. An important topic, but how can you approach it?
Before the trip you would of course conduct thorough research and contact the people you would like to meet. But who would you contact? Based on what logic? Which factors would you take into account to create a balanced report portraying reality as accurately as possible, stripped of your prejudices about the world as well as the agenda of the people you meet?
Many of us would contact NGOs working with the community. This gives us the convenience of easily contacting them without communication issues. And they will be happy to cooperate. We would also reach out to national or international institutions and local authorities. In the end, we would try to get into the community itself. We could use the help of a fixer, whom we could find thanks to social networks or specialized web portals.
These methods have both advantages and drawbacks, posing dilemmas we need to be aware of and respond to. Here we will mainly discuss the dilemmas and potential drawbacks.
- Working with NGOs is an easy way to get into a community, regardless of whether the focus is the indigenous community in Kenya mentioned above or migrants in a camp on a Greek island. NGOs can open doors for us. And since they work with the communities in the field, they usually have better information and stories than other involved parties.
There are several dilemmas stemming from working with these organizations that we must take into consideration, however. First of all, NGOs have their own agendas. There is nothing wrong with that: indeed, it’s quite natural since their mission is to advocate for the rights of the people they’re working with. They also often rely on media to help them fundraise to support their work. In some cases the people you are working with might even lose their jobs if individuals or governments aren’t persuaded to support them. This potentially leads to what we might, with a bit of simplification, call preferential treatment and ‘product placement’ of their own activities (perhaps with an emphasis more on success stories than failures or difficult experiences). That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work with them, but we need to be aware of their agenda, check their claims and make sure we don’t cut and paste this agenda into our story unless we scrutinize it and clearly identify it to the audience first.
Another bad habit that can be common among journalists is the tendency to only speak to organizations from their own country or other countries of the global north – rather than local NGOs – for the sake of convenience. This can mean that in coverage from countries like Kenya, it’s often Europeans who are shown as those who change and improve the lives of locals. The danger, by extension, is that locals are generally presented as voiceless objects, unable to take care of themselves. That way, media unknowingly frame the portrayed country and its people as incompetent, waiting for Western help: unfortunately, this is often the dominant discourse in many European countries. At the same time, they undermine the affected people’s own empowerment and agency, overlooking their efforts to improve their own situation.
- Another common source when working in the field are various international institutions and organizations. We can find their representatives in almost every major city in the global south and usually they are open to interviews, professional and speak ‘our’ language. As with NGOs, working with these organizations is not wholly inadvisable – it just depends on the extent of our collaboration. It’s important to realize their view may be often more ‘macro’ and circumscribed by their specific mandate. There is also the risk that, if we rely too heavily on international staff to speak about the country in question that we may reinforce negative assumptions around the dependency of the local population and their apparent inability to speak on these issues themselves.
The important thing to remember is that we can easily contact local experts – in this we shouldn’t be limited by our preconceived ideas about the world. Virtually everywhere in the world there are universities or think tanks where we can find local specialists. However, often journalists fail to even consider that option as it doesn’t comply with their idea about the countries and societies in question. When we include these experts, it gives our journalism greater credibility and it also helps deepen the audience’s view of the subject. Of course, we always have to take into account that local experts (like political representatives, who are discussed below) are also members of a certain social group. For example, they may be members of a majority, with fixed opinions about the minority under discussion. It is, therefore, necessary to use caution, but no more so than for any other source. Local experts are invariably more valuable than generalists or experts far removed from the story at hand.
This is likely to be a much better approach than simply talking to experts at home in Europe or elsewhere, very often without any experience from the field, while overlooking local experts.
- Local political representatives and power holders are also welcome and important interviewees. In the earlier example of a discriminated indigenous community in Kenya, they can offer us a significant point of view. But again, caution is a must: in the context of their community, they are the ones who hold the power and are higher up in the hierarchy than other members, particularly potentially marginalized groups such as women or persons with disabilities.
The same is true where migration is concerned: national ministries and the European agency Frontex are in a position of power and dominance. We should be aware of this, reflect it and make sure that theirs is not the only or dominant perspective. Instead, make sure you give space to those who are excluded or less powerful in the story.
- Finally, make sure you speak to the community itself. But who among them should we interview to get a balanced and accurate picture of the situation? Is it enough to meet the community leaders, usually older men? Do they represent the opinions of everyone, even women and young people?
Just as power imbalances exist between countries and among different groups, they exist also within communities. We often don’t realize that communities, especially those culturally and geographically distant from us, are not homogenous. On the contrary, like the community we live in, they are heterogeneous, full of individuals with diverse interests and worldviews.
To circle back to the example from Kenya: community leaders are often elderly and their perspective may be completely different from that of younger members, who may have few opportunities to express themselves in the community due to their low position within the hierarchy. For young women and girls, if decision making is traditionally dominated by men, the barriers to participation may be even higher.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take the elders into account: it just means we should also make sure we listen to younger community members, too. After all, they are the ones who will shape the community in the future.
The same can happen in migration coverage if, for example, we omit women when selecting people to interview because they are more difficult to reach. Whether it’s the mothers or wives of men who left to earn money or female migrants themselves, to achieve balance and accuracy in our portrayal we must not pass them over, even if it means more work to be able to access their stories.
- Collaboration with fixers is also worth mentioning. Fixers often go unnoticed by audiences and unmentioned by the journalists that work with them despite being essential when gathering information and material in unfamiliar environments. However, they are also the source of several dilemmas related to power, as well as simple, personal ones. They are often former journalists themselves, meaning they are usually familiar with our professional needs, at least in theory.
As we learned in the section on ethics, journalists are often part of a dominant social group. This is usually true for fixers as well. If they help us when reporting on a discriminated minority, the situation can be naturally affected by their own position, ideas about the world and the minority in question.
The other, fundamentally human element is simple laziness. This refers to situations when a fixer doesn’t do any extra work and only repeats the usual approach. They contact people they know or who are easy to reach, and in the worst case, they can conceal some aspects of the story, so they don’t have to deal with them. Since we don’t know the local situation, it’s possible we will never find out.
Neither of these issues means that we shouldn’t work with fixers. Not at all. It just means we have to approach them as people, with certain backgrounds, qualities and potential flaws.
Find more in post on working with your fixer.
Two takeaway tips:
Try to give a voice directly to those people you’re writing about, so they can describe their situation themselves, especially if they’re in a marginalized position (such as migrants, minorities, young people, women and persons with disabilities). Not only will you bring more valuable content to your audience and a more balanced portrayal, but you will also show your subjects that their story is important and that they can themselves change the world around them.
Respect human rights, protect the excluded and vulnerable (especially children) and defend human dignity. You should never publish anything that could get your interviewees in trouble. Sometimes you can’t anticipate this, but if you are aware of or suspect a threat to your subjects, hold back. Similarly, refrain from showing people in undignified situations. This is especially true for children, particularly in the context of the global south, who Western media often have no compunction about showing in ways that would never happen in the case of European children (with the possible exception of Roma, who are also similarly stigmatized) – naked, desperate, starving. A good rule of thumb, as in other areas of journalism, is don’t do unto others what you don’t want done unto you. If an image strikes you as demeaning or dehumanizing, don’t use it.