For example, child marriage in Malawi is very common—half of girls are married before they turn 18. But “child marriage” can be a nebulous term, and using it without specificity may lead readers to believe you’re talking about marrying off pre-teens rather than, in this context, marriages of teenage children.
If you’re writing about health, Bansal recommends the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation based out of the University of Washington.
Take advantage, too, of local institutions, including universities, ministries of health, activist organizations, NGOs, colleges of medicine, research facilities, community groups, and healthcare establishments.
“These public health problems are in their country,” Dionne says. “They might be related to someone who has these problems. They live it. Their experience is just enriched in a way that yours and mine can’t be.”
Working with a local journalist can also be beneficial: They can help you find sources and understand the complexities of a topic at hand, and you can offer a shared byline in a publication that might otherwise ignore their pitch. They also have a professional incentive to make sure that their country is portrayed accurately in the media.
If you’re penning the piece after you return home, it’s worth running some of your thoughts and questions past a person who knows more than you do about a particular place. “Talk to any major university and college and say, ‘Who’s your expert on Africa?’” Dionne said. Not only can they help you understand the complexities of an unfamiliar culture, but they can also help you avoid making embarrassing mistakes.
Showing up clueless or with a story pre-written
Have a solid sense of the place you’re visiting before you show up, including its social and political history, recent news stories and economic realities. Not only will it get some story ideas brewing, but you also won’t waste time learning the basics once you get there, and you’ll have a better understanding of the information you come across. Email organizations working on topics you cover, and see if there are diaspora communities in your hometown where you can learn a little before you leave.
But also remember that you’re dealing with a limited universe, especially if your research is online and in English.
“Too often what happens is you go online you get info about an organization or an event taking place in a country, you email and you get a response from the person who happens to read English,” Plaut says. “It doesn’t mean they’re the person who has the most information, the most accurate information or the most well rounded information. It means that they have a good internet connection and can read English. So it’s important that you get that response and you ask questions and you ask them who else they can recommend and you start that snowballing. But it’s also important to be healthily skeptical.”
Your grasp of potential stories is by definition limited before you’re actually in a place. Go in with an open mind, and with humility.
(Homepage photo courtesy of the author.)