On organized reporting trips, arranged sources often see you not just as a journalist asking questions, but as an extension of the organization funding valuable services and programs. There’s often a desire to give the “right” answer in order to show that the program is working, and that more funding is needed. Directing a question toward a particular answer—“Do you breastfeed your child exclusively?” versus “How do you feed your child?”—unintentionally guides your source into offering what they think you want to hear.
Think not only about the sources you speak to, but how those sources got to you, and who you’re not talking to, especially when you’re speaking with sources pre-selected by the foundations and nonprofits underwriting the trip. Though interviewing pre-selected sources can be helpful, because you know the person is legit, it also raises concerns, especially when there’s funding involved.
The person you’re talking to is a rational actor making decisions based on a set of incentives and realities. Kim Yi Dionne, an assistant professor of government focusing on African politics at Smith College, recommends asking yourself, “Have they been coached? Are they getting something out of it? Do they have something to gain? Do they have anything to lose?”
Your perspective is different than that of the people you cover. Recognizing that, starting from scratch, and asking open questions can help you figure out where they’re coming from, what their priorities are and why.
Missing nuance and power structures
When you’re trying to write about a new place, whether that’s a country you’re visiting for the first time or an unfamiliar ethnic enclave around the corner, the work of understanding the basics can take precedence. It’s easy to unintentionally simplify the landscape.
In Malawi, many of the development workers we interviewed were Malawian; it wasn’t a case of Westerners running the show. But many of them were from more prosperous regions working in poorer ones, or came from the relatively elite, educated classes and were trying to explain the cultural practices of people who shared a national flag but came from very different backgrounds.
“One of the biggest mistakes I see [journalists make] is the reification of culture and the essentialization of culture,” says Shayna Plaut, a PhD candidate who has taught courses on human rights to journalists and aspiring journalists in the US, Canada and Central/Eastern Europe since 2004. “When we are engaged and interacting with a culture we’re unfamiliar with, we are looking for patterns.”
Plaut uses the recent Chris Christie bridge traffic scandal as an example: When we report on that story just across the river, “We know to look for hidden agendas. We know that what’s said may not actually be what’s going on and we know how to dig and where to dig. We know peoples’ alliances. If that same incident took place in a country or a culture we’re not familiar with, there’s a good chance we would accept the story that fits into our pre-existing mindset.”
Expand your reporting out beyond the people made immediately available to you, helpful as they may be.
“When you’re actually going to another country and getting the little tour of the pre-selected interviewees, one of the things I do in a concrete way is see who’s cooking and I look to see who’s taking out the trash,” Plaut says. “I look to see who’s serving drinks. I look to see who’s driving the car. And I chat with them. I see who’s on the periphery of power. That’s who you have a conversation with.”
Illustrating with an exception
A paradox of journalism is that we want our reporting to be accurate and representative, but we need our stories to be new and surprising in order to sell papers or get pageviews. That reality can make reporters spending a short amount of time in a country they don’t know well latch onto the stories that strike them as the most bizarre or exotic. When reported back to a Western audience, subcultures or unusual practices can be seen as representative.
“You have to look at the patterns overall in society, and see if this is anomalous,” Dionne says. “Which isn’t to say this isn’t important; it’s just to provide some context, so that the reader isn’t fooled into thinking that because you provided this one story, this is how it is for everyone.”
One way to make sure that you’re providing appropriate context is to include hard numbers. What percentage of the population has a particular disease or engages in this particular ritual? How common is the phenomenon you’re reporting on? Is there an unanticipated story in the data?