So, you wanna be a Foreign Correspondent?


It is an old-school aphorism of the news media industry that (within the journalistic profession) not all jobs are born equal. That there’s a definite hierarchy, a pecking order of sorts.

A figure towers above the rest. A profession admired by most, coveted by many, and attained by very few. The position I’m alluding to is, of course, that of the Foreign Correspondent. The most prestigious job out there, seemingly made for those who do not fear the barrages of incoming enemy flak or the melancholic saudade of longing-for-home from a far away land

It’s easy, though a little facile, to romanticise the role of the Foreign Correspondent. The opportunity to explore exotic places and to lead an exciting, unconventional lifestyle has a distinct allure, especially when paired with the chance of making a moral difference by highlighting instances of global injustice. 

However, from the testimony of some of the guest speakers at Cardiff University’s MAIJ Foreign News Reporting lectures – and in some of my experience reporting for a news feature – it was clear that the reality of things is rather more unsettling than its idealised version.

Or, in other words, it has become apparent that not all that glitters in the foreign news reporting world is, as they say, gold.  So let’s have a quick look at a couple of those key issues and some of my own reflections on them as I consider my future career in the FNR world.

Unplanned obsolescence.
In his aptly titled publication “Are Foreign Correspondents Redundant?” (link here) Richard Sambrook maps out the ever-evolving modern media landscape, and the role of the Foreign Correspondent in a globally connected ecosystem, where old business models are failing and new paradigms seek to become financially viable propositions.

He suggests that Foreign Correspondents have, until the last decade or so, “enjoyed the position of being the principal source of information from far-flung lands,” putting themselves at the front and centre of the global stage. Now however, because of the increased speed of news cycles and the democratisation of the flow of information, the well-oiled news machine of old appears to have been losing its exclusive grip on the issues of the day.

In fact, I’d say that the celerity with which reports are captured for instant on-line delivery in the current landscape is truly astounding. I have witnessed that very phenomenon during my feature reporting too, much to my amazement.

This is what I experienced: as I was shooting a video-reportage from a protest in central London (to use as source material for a news feature) it became clear to me and my colleagues that timing had become the main consideration in news production.

The camera rolled and we began to interview activists on Lambeth bridge, where Police were arresting protesters by the dozen. At the same time we shared clips from the melee on social media.  Literally seconds after the footage was uploaded we were contacted by a swarm of media agencies asking for (free) access to the uploaded footage.

Even the mighty Guardian seemed to have a member of staff solely dedicated to trawling the twittersphere for UGC they could repackage and share in exchange for a shoutout; and although we were happy about our material ending up on the Guardian’s front page, it was also apparent that a business model which no longer puts a financial value to exclusive on-location breaking news material is unsustainable, particularly to those who aim to make living out of it.

That, paired with the current mainstream media outlets’ trend of defunding foreign bureaux in exchange for cheaper and more flexible freelance solutions, offers a rather bleak picture of the industry, and serves to somehow redefine (i.e. lower) the expectations of those who, like us, are entering the news media workplace for the first time.

The (biased) elephant in the room.
Another important notion to keep in mind when reporting foreign news from countries whose socio-cultural and political sensibilities differ from those at home is one of bias. No single ethical code or set of rules can assure true objectivity that goes beyond a reporter’s own intrinsic leanings. 

For instance, while reporting as Foreign Correspondent at the Extinction Rebellion protest I was rule-bound to offer an impartial view of the issues I was covering, although the subject matter was ‘direct action’ against the UK government’s inadequate response to the threat of climate change – an issue driven by a clear moral imperative.

As you can gather, it’s difficult to report objectively when witnessing first-hand instances of police brutality, particularly when you are delivering a piece for a home audience who shares the same ideological sensibilities as you. I guess there’s a constant battle between the urge to ‘speak truth to power’ and the boundaries of professional detachment. A fine line which I’ll have to be aware of and tread carefully in my future career, lest I’d be crossing over from journalism into the realm of activism (which isn’t in principle an objectionable prospect – I must add).

There is also sharp and narrow space between personal and institutional biases when having to deal with domesticated foreign news,  and while a FC may not be willing to trample over their own morals to deliver a story congruent with their employer’s editorial line, you may be unable to control the final version of your reporting as it’s delivered to home audiences. For example BBC reporter Wyre Davies – who delivered us a guest lecture – told us unequivocally that he has never had to, in his career,  compromise his ethical stance for the sake of being on message.

But, as a large number of academic articles and studies conducted during the last decade have highlighted (link here, here and here among many others) the BBC’s own reporting of foreign news -those from the Middle East for instance, where Davies himself was stationed – had been oft-described as “biased”, “incomplete” and “misleading”.

This raises painful questions related to editorial control, news framing, and ultimately, of cultural imperialism.  There, I said it. 

So, how prepared are we to swallow the bitter pill? 

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