Middle East-based South African journalist PAULA SLIER addresses the criticism of parachute journalism,
The plane touched down at 1.12pm – I had 48 minutes to get through passport control, collect my luggage, drive through the chaotic midday Cairo traffic and be in studio for my live hit at 2pm. Was this do-able? Definitely. It’d be tight but it wouldn’t be the first – or last – time. It is a familiar scenario experienced by the countless number of reporters who fly in and out of hotspots around the world at the beep of an SMS.
It’s a practice termed “parachute journalism” and which Wikipedia disparagingly defines as: “thrusting journalists into an area to report on a story in which the reporter has little knowledge or experience. The lack of knowledge and tight deadlines often result in inaccurate or distorted news reports, especially during breaking news.”
Critics go further and grumble that those of us who work like this, in cultures as foreign to us as the languages the locals speak, land up producing news reports that are watered-down, lacking in depth and context, and misrepresenting facts.
Now I am neither a parachutist in life nor nature. I have jumped a total of four times from a plane and after a friend landed in a tree and it took the fire brigade some three hours to get her down, I swore I’d never sign up for the experience again. But I now find myself ‘parachuting’ in and out of conflict zones with a glee and enthusiasm that would make my former jump instructor breathless with amazement. And believe me, he was a pretty tough guy. It’s the adrenalin, the buzz and a sense of duty that draws me to be in the thick of that day’s most important global news story.
So here I am, in Cairo, to cover the flood of protests again galvanising the Arab world – this time over a YouTube trailer of a film that mocks the Muslim Prophet Mohammed. I am in position for the 2pm live transmission – with about a minute to spare – and as the anchor introduces my name, my mind races back to the brief I’d received from the international desk down a crackled phone in the hurried taxi drive over. Number of dead? Who said what? Implications? Predictions?
In all fairness this is not my first time to Egypt – I’ve been here at least a dozen times in the last few months and I’ve done my homework. But I am among the first to concede that there are real problems with the way we foreign correspondents are working. Fundamentally we lack time and knowledge to get to the heart and nuances of each story. In the industry’s viciously competitive market and the plethora of 24-hour TV channels out there, there is an urgency to tell stories quickly and dramatically. But budgets are being cut, especially on foreign travel, and media houses around the world are closing shop, or closing their bureaus, which makes our trips to these far flung places rarer and shorter.
Two weeks ago, I was in Jordan covering the flight of Syrian refugees; next week I’m off to Kazakhstan to file a story about media corruption. With all the best intentions, it is still near impossible to be an expert on all these subjects. It reminds me of what a former news editor of mine was fond of saying: “Journalists make delightful dinner guests – we can talk on just about any subject – for about 10 minutes and not more.”
And so background research and independent investigation are fast becoming the casualties of this type of journalism. Sometimes they’re almost non-existent. Solid contacts are also extremely difficult to find and nurture for the three-day-in-town correspondent – and so most learn to rely on local stringers and the same tried-and-tested interviewees their channel has been using for so long that audiences have grown tired of listening to them.
A big concern is also that when time and sources are tight, often the only readily available information can be from officials or other news outlets. When bureaucrats and government spokespeople are being relied on for updates and statements, there is a real risk that the journalism getting out of a country will push a political line and be dangerously close to propaganda. And when news outlets are all feeding off each other and no-one’s checking the original source of information, viewers have no way of knowing if the information they’re receiving is accurate or not.
But on the other hand, one of our advantages is that we know our audiences better than any locally hired journalist does and we can approach a story with an innate understanding of exactly how much context and explanation is required. A new perspective on a news piece is also infinitely more refreshing than a journalist who has been tied to the story for years. What’s more, in a country like Egypt where the news media is often heavily censored or state run, even your most experienced local journalist is going to have constraints on him or her that us ‘parachuters’ (hopefully) don’t face.
The bottom line though, is that while there might be real problems with this way of working, to change it requires a restructuring of the industry – in the newsrooms far away from the streets, where the practice is being played out. n
Paula Slier is the founder and CEO of global media production company Newshound, which recently opened an Africa office in Johannesburg.