There’s a romance to the notion of foreign correspondence–the war-weary, adventure-seeking ink slinger. For me it was the movie “The Killing Fields” that drew me to this work, the idea that I could traipse through villages and jungles, observing the world and telling people back home all the oddities and horrors I witnessed. But the more I have practiced and thought about this form of foreign reporting, the more critical I have become. That led my colleagues and me to create a new organization called the Global Reporting Centre, which is focused on innovating reporting about the world. We use the term “global reporting” since we are trying to foster a more inclusive, grassroots approach to journalism, without the necessity for a smart foreigner to come in and report on events for audiences back home.
In some ways, Robert Ripley paved the way for foreign correspondence a century ago. Long before his museums became tourist traps, Ripley traveled the world collecting stories of the freakish and bizarre, and wrote about the most exotic aspects of foreign places for tabloid audiences back home. He was the ultimate parachute journalist, popping in and observing the most outlandish things, and interpreting these stories for home-bound pre-airplane America, hungry to have a glimpse of the wider world.
We haven’t advanced much further than Ripley’s approach when we send a middle class American reporter to the far reaches of the world for a short period of time and ask him or her to write dispatches from the field. Even organizations that purport to be revolutionizing international reporting for new audiences have often made only incremental changes. For instance, I admire that Vice has interested a whole new generation in global affairs, but their approach is not much different than what I did at “60 Minutes” for decades, except they replaced the preppy middle class correspondent with a grungy, tattooed correspondent, and added a cool soundtrack.
My old boss at “60 Minutes,” Don Hewitt, had a motto: “Tell me a story.” Like most editors, he didn’t want to be pitched ideas or issues. Journalists love to find compelling stories, and then extrapolate from the stories broader themes. We are flipping that dynamic, working with experts to identify issues that are largely ignored or neglected, and then searching for stories that illustrate those issues. For instance, we have brought together leading scholars and journalists who have spent decades researching global supply chains, and we’re developing a documentary series that will span five years, investigating issues like forced labor, environmental pollution and global corruption associated with the products that we buy.
A central premise of what we’re trying to do is challenge the assumption that foreign correspondence is the only approach to reporting on the world. I’ve spent my career doing traditional foreign correspondence, so I value what it can provide–an outsider’s context for complex events around the world. And the GRC continues to use this method – but we treat it as one of many tools in our quiver. Another tool is what I call “empowerment journalism,” in which we help locals tell their stories in compelling and accurate ways, for a truly global audience. When attacks on Roma, Jews and Muslims in Europe began to increase a couple years ago, we launched a project called Strangers at Home, in which we put out a call for proposals from people living in Europe to share stories about the rise of xenophobia throughout their continent. This is not citizen journalism–some of the storytellers are regular citizens, but others are prominent journalists, a famous cartoonist, a legendary Roma musician. We worked with them to help them craft their stories, but the voice and authorship is completely theirs.
We are particularly sensitive about the use of “fixers,” the standard practice in foreign reporting of hiring local journalists and using them behind the scenes to carry out reporting, logistics and translation. While I used fixers for years, I have come to realize how potentially exploitative the practice is, and how it can lead to weak reporting. Instead, we partner journalists around the world to collaborate on ambitious projects together.
Like everyone else, we are experimenting with the new tools of journalism like virtual reality, but more importantly, we are trying to make use of technology to reach stories that would otherwise be unreachable. For instance, we wanted to report on the realities of life in Somalia, but security and access issues prevented us as “foreign correspondents” to do any deep reporting on this topic. So we partnered with a team of respected radio journalists in Mogadishu, and sent them wearable cameras to use as they go about their daily reporting (whenever they feel safe to do so). Over the course of several months, they will likely capture powerful images, which they can then contextualize through interviews. This takes the spirit of empowerment journalism, and provides these journalists with the tools to tell stories they would not otherwise be able to tell.
I believe the only way to truly delve into complex global stories is to take the commercial motive out the equation, so the GRC is non-profit and draws on academic, philanthropic and industry funds, which give us the flexibility to take risks, to fail, and to look at stories that don’t have immediate market potential. Editors are quick to turn down expensive foreign stories because they say audiences would not be interested. But what we’ve found is that, if we can find a way to cover the cost, and bring together thoughtful, creative journalists to address complex global topics, we have great responses from the public. And we are translating all of our projects into multiple languages, to reaches truly global audiences.
Another form of reporting we are experimenting with is event-driven storytelling. For our supply chain project, we plan to have an interactive exhibit staged in a shipping container, which will travel around the world to communities that are hubs for global supply chains, to reach audiences that may not read the major papers in which we will publish or watch the documentaries we will produce.
We’ve pulled together journalists and experts from around the globe to help us build this new organization together – to take advantage of the crisis in the business model of international reporting, and to address the changing needs of covering the world.