Are cheap, local hires saving or ruining foreign reporting?

March 20, 2012

By Helena Williams

Foreign reporting is changing. With news outlets’ budgets tightening, and competition, pressure and risks on the rise, foreign journalists working in conflict countries are abandoning traditional methods of reporting in favour of using cheap, local hires to get the story:

“It used to be that you were a local journalist, and treated kind of like the Red Cross. That has completely changed,” said Callum Macrae, producer and director of Channel 4’s ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields’.

“That is why we are using more and more local fixers and journalists. It’s not safe for us anymore. In the long run, maybe that’s a good thing.”
With a panel of prominent foreign journalists – including Aamer Ahmed Khan, head of the BBC Urdu service; Amie Ferris-Rotman, a Reuters correspondent based in Kabul; and Neil Arun, an international editor and journalist who has covered Iraq, the Balkans, Caucasus and Pakistan, alongside Channel 4’s Macrae, and chaired by Richard Pendry, of the University of Kent’s Centre for Journalism; last night’s debate at the Frontline Club explored the evolving relationship between local hires and foreign journalists:
“When I saw the title of the debate, my heart skipped a beat,” argued Arun, who has worked closely with local journalists in Iraq as editor of the Institute for War & Peace Reporting.
“I didn’t want to see ‘ruining’ next to ‘local hires’ – you can’t have enough local journalists in the field.”
He said that a thorough knowledge of the patch and links to the local population – something foreign correspondents may take time to build, in contrast to journalists from the area – are key to getting to the heart of a story.
Khan, who has experience of working in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan, agreed:
“I don’t think foreign correspondents can get as close to a story as a local journalist can.”
He described the tribal areas as “one of the most backwards areas in the world – a place locked in time,” where the lack of electricity and telephones means that the best reporting was done by native journalists who were able to build ties with and speak to the local population.
But with the advantages come its disadvantages – not only to foreign correspondents, who are being used less, but to local reporters who are prepared to take increased risks with little or no training and protection. For every story about a Western journalist being threatened, attacked or killed, countless stories of local journalists suffering the same remain unreported.
Reuters correspondent Ferris-Rotman described a stringer she managed in North Caucasus who refuses to reveal his identity to her for fear for his safety:
“In some cases we don’t know their [the stringer’s] real identity. He only [files] through a fake name he has provided. He’s a photographer, I’ve been told he’s legit,” she said.
“Local correspondents are paid a lot on local terms, so it’s worth the risk for them, but not a lot compared to the rest of the world. In terms of Hostile Environment courses and security, that is very new for stringers. Reuters in Afghanistan is making sure stringers are starting to get training,” she added.
Although it was agreed that local journalists are often able to get to the heart of a story faster than a foreign correspondent, the need to create a narrative that will sell to a Western audience emphasised the need to keep foreign reporting:
“We [foreign correspondents] are doing the same job – turning it in to a narrative, getting it to a wider audience. You have to make stories into a narrative that people understand,” said Marcae.
The inconclusive panel argued that the future of foreign journalism is uncertain, but the changing times can and should be embraced. The symbiotic relationship between local hires and foreign correspondents – where local journalists need the contacts to have influce in large media organisations, and foreign correspondents need the contacts to get to the heart of the story – is for now, keeping the profession alive.
“The slow death of the foreign correspondent is the rise of the local journalist,” said Arun.
“Just as insurgency has evolved very fast, reporting has evolved very fast. It is this new beast… It is this strange animal.”


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