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!
You are on the ground. Finally. You have, of course, followed advice from the previous post on the preparation phase, so you have a lot of background information, a set of contacts collected and meetings agreed.
Here you can find a few steps on what to have in mind and how to proceed. They are partially 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. At the end of the post there is also a list of handy tips on how to prepare for the technical challenges of field reporting.
1. Leave enough time to be able to get some distance and gain perspective.
Try to avoid rushing your articles and producing parachute journalism, running from the field back to the office to make the evening deadline. If at all possible, and if you are able to stand up to your editor or other superior pushing at you from the newsroom, leave enough time to get better acquainted with what is happening on location. If that can’t be done or if the event you are reporting on doesn’t allow it (as in the case of one-day events or breaking news), be aware of the risks it entails: a tendency to produce superficial descriptions, miss connections and/or highlight only seemingly important details.
Stories covering intercultural festivals usually feature detailed accounts of what food was served or how Vietnamese women in traditional hats performed a lotus dance. On the other hand, they often completely miss the declared purpose of such festivals: to encourage people of different nationalities to meet and interact. It’s possible that this aspect is lacking because the author would simply need more time to absorb it, while taking photos of appealing exotic food is quick and easy. At the same time, the reason might lie in their inability to perceive context or hidden variables.
Parachute journalism is related also to another malady of journalism – episodic coverage. This approach to covering the story presents it in isolation, without context, inevitably placing the blame (or responsibility) for the situation on people directly involved. Its opposite is thematic coverage, which works with context: this goes beyond the immediate manifestations of particular issue to explore its history and causes.
Take time to simply observe. When we stop to just look and describe what we see, it allows us to take in many details and connections that might be easily missed in haste. Just try to sit down on a bench, look around and make notes. If nothing else, your observations will help you later to put finishing touches to the atmosphere of your story, explains Slovak journalist Anna Jacková. It might sound trivial, even banal, but in reality it is very effective approach. And not only in journalism.
Don’t be afraid to ask seemingly naïve questions. Ask local people about what you observe. You might be surprised that your own interpretations can be very different from their perceptions.
As part of a field study in a border region observing short-term migration issues, students were expected to report on the causes of local grievances. They were stricken by omnipresent brothels and saw prostitution as a big problem in the border regions. However, when they started talking to the locals, the students found out that the locals did not mention prostitution at all as it was beyond the scope of their everyday lives. Rather, they complained about the lack of cultural events.
However, a critical approach to what is not being said is crucial, too. Just because respondents do not speak about something does not automatically mean it is not a concern for them. It may be simply that the topic is taboo or that there are many locals involved in the business, so they may be unwilling to speak to an outsider about it. So it is important to be cautious when considering what people are not speaking about.
Less is more sometimes. Once you are finally in the field, you may want to try to do everything possible and cover an array of topics. This may mean you end up with material on a dozen different topics, all of them potentially interesting, but without enough to develop them into solid stories in their own right.
Therefore, you need to plan with a cool head. One way is to build in extra time for scheduled activities in your programme. This will give you valuable breathing room if one of your respondent arrives late or if in the course of your interview you uncover further areas you need to discuss with them.
At the same time, journalists should learn to sometimes say NO to their editors. It is not easy to stand up to authority, particularly when they are funding your research, but sometimes it is necessary to make the case for prolonged and painstaking research for the sake of quality rather than speed.
2. Don’t overestimate your memory or underestimate your pen and notepad.
Take notes regularly and don’t expect you’ll remember everything enough to write it down in the evening. After a day in the field, especially when it’s a place you’re not familiar with, your head will be such a mess that you won’t be able to separate individual pieces of information and impressions.
Take notes during interviews, even if you’re recording. It’s also helpful to make a note as you go of the rough time (in minutes and even seconds) of your interview so you can easily go back to that moment later rather than have to listen through the whole recording again. As a plus, writing notes as you talk usually makes interviewees feel like you’re truly interested in what they are saying. A notepad feels much more personal and authentic than a recorder, builds trust and strengthens the interaction between your interviewee and you. Writing notes by hand makes you listen more carefully and allows you to revisit points you’re particularly interested in. And, last but not least – pen and paper is good insurance in the case of technological failure.
Write down your own impressions and feelings. It’s important to understand you can’t achieve complete sterile objectivity. That is not the aim of journalism in the first place. We can, however, aim to be impartial in the journalism we produce.
One of the first steps toward a balanced report is being aware of your own position on the topic. By logging your impressions and feelings you can come to better appreciate the ways in which your personal mindset and life experience may be affecting your view and treatment of the subject.
Our judgement and point of view is greatly influenced by where we’re from, by our gender, social background and social capital, whether we belong to a majority or minority, our education, life experience and so on. Whether we like it or not, these things change how we see the world and, consequently, what information and stories we find important.
3. Don’t forget about the accompanying visual materials.
A good media report needs to be accompanied by authentic visual material. Whenever you are preparing an output, try to avoid situations when you don’t have your own pictures and are forced to use photos from an archive or, worst of all, stock images. The first thing to realize is that we usually visit these places just once – it means that if we later find that we missed something (especially if you are a television reporter), you won’t be able to fill the gap.
It really helps if you think about the structure of our output beforehand, if you imagine the ‘plot’ of your reportage and the shots you need, including those we use just to put finishing touches to the situation. We can then fill this broad outline with the unique content we gather in the field.
And try to think creatively when doing this. If you are, for example, interviewing the mayor of the town, we do not need to film him sitting by the table in his or her office, but we can ask her/him to show us the town hall or even the nearby surroundings. It will add authenticity to your output, and at the same time give precious visual interest to your story.
Try to avoid finding yourself in a situation where, because of a lack of visual material, you have to look for archive, agency or even stock pictures as these are often inappropriate (from a different time, place or situation: one of the best known examples of a picture widely used in an inappropriate way is this one). Ideally, have a photographer (or a cameraperson, in case of video reportage) with you in the field: if so, don’t forget to discuss with them what exactly you’re interested in and want to document. Otherwise, you risk the other person unknowingly imparting their own assumptions and stereotypes into their pictures.
Most of the time, however, you will have to take pictures or even shoot video yourself. In this situation, try to avoid rushing to take photographs of people until you have acquired their consent, and they have become relaxed in your presence.
One proponent of this approach is photojournalist Giles Duley, who didn’t even take his camera the first time he met a Syrian family with a disabled child in order to form a relationship and gain their trust before photographing them.
Make sure your photos don’t hurt or jeopardize the subjects who put their trust in you. Don’t forget that migration is a unique and sensitive topic and that not all interviewees will agree to have their picture taken. In that case, you can look for other ways to illustrate the topic: for example, take photos of people without making their face recognizable or of their workspace, belongings or some other aspect of their lives that they are comfortable to share with you. As with your writing, try to take authentic pictures that don’t reinforce stereotypes.
4. Don’t fixate on your original idea.
Working in the field requires an open mind and willingness to adapt to changing circumstances – let the story evolve. Just imagine that you have done deep research, agreed multiple meetings and at the end you, for some reason, are not able to get there. Or your interviewee cancels a key meeting just moments before it is meant to take place. Or, suddenly, a compelling topic appears out of the blue but you do not know a lot about it. How should you proceed?
“Everything could change in a heartbeat so always be prepared to reschedule your program,” explains Delyan Todorov, a journalist from Bulgaria. Take a moment to think it over first, of course, so you don’t make any hot-headed decisions.
After that, try to summarize the situation and depending on the circumstances connect with your editor to consult on your next steps. You can, for example, cover the story from another angle or decide to concentrate instead on a different, more promising topic.
Other handy tips:
- Be aware of your surroundings. Are there people watching or reacting? Can you see elements of a subject’s life that you could note or discuss? Is there anything you’re missing while your attention is focused on your story?
- Look for the facts. Ask people how they know the things they tell you. Ask yourself how you know the things you are writing about.
- Stay safe. Think in advance about any risk that might be involved, and do what you can to keep yourself safe. Reporters Without Borders and other organizations can provide detailed guidance for how to handle specific dangers.